Is there really a public sector pay premium?
With a government determined to depress public sector wages through pay freezes or localising pay determination, the statistical evidence on public/private sector pay comparisons has never been more used and abused. UNISON’s view is that these attacks are willfully divisive and designed to distract attention from the government’s growth-strangling economic policy. We argue for a wages led recovery, which boosts demand in the economy and alleviates hardship particularly for the lowest paid, should be the way forward.
I want to take a look at some of the tricks, over-sights and omissions so often made by those seeking to misrepresent the context of public sector pay for their own narrow political purposes.
Average Earnings comparisons between the public and private sectors
The most commonly cited source of claims for a “Public Sector Pay Premium” is average earnings figures. These are produced each month by the Office of National Statistics and provide a snapshot of average pay across different sectors of the economy in a particular month.
These figures are regularly used without any context or analysis to give the impression of a “pay premium” in the public sector. But is this justified? Below are 5 issues that are often brushed under the carpet by commentators and those with an interest in presenting an inflated picture of public sector pay:
- Does it make logical sense? Nobody tries to compare manufacturing earnings with the public sector to claim a “manufacturing sector pay premium”. So why focus on the public sector? People who perform different jobs in different sectors are going to be paid differently. Why would we expect them to be paid the same?
- Outsourcing: A high proportion of the lowest paid public sector jobs have been outsourced. So the cleaner and catering assistant in an NHS hospital is often categorised as a private sector worker. As independent labour market analysts Income Data Services conclude: “Outsourcing exaggerates the trend for the public sector workforce to be concentrated around the median, and the private sector to have a large proportion of low-paid employees.
- Qualifications: The public sector requires far more workers than the private sector to be professionally trained in roles relating to healthcare, education and the emergency services. Given there are a higher proportion of workers with degrees and diplomas in the public sector it is unsurprising that this is reflected in average pay.
- Reclassifications: In recent months, pay growth rates have been significantly affected by the reclassification of English Further Education and Sixth Form College Corporations as private sector in June 2012. The Office of National Statistics estimates that the single month growth rate for the public sector would be between 0.6 and 0.8% lower and the private rate would be between 0.1 and 0.2% higher. In the past there have been other reclassifications which have skewed the figures, such as the nationalisation of much of the banking sector in 2008. It’s always worth looking at the ONS small-print to get an accurate picture of earnings across the sectors.
“Like for Like” Pay comparisons between Public and private sector
There have been several reports in recent years which have claimed to control for the differences between the public and private sector workforces. These “like for like” analyses claim to control for issues such as age, gender and qualifications. But there are significant questions about the methodology used in these reports which are rarely highlighted in the mainstream media. The Treasury, the Institute of Fiscal Studies and various right-wing think tanks have all used similar data in their attempts to prove the existence of “public sector pay premium”. Below are five reasons to treat such comparisons with caution:
- The ONS does not confirm a “public sector pay premium”: The Office of National Statistics rejects the concept of a “public sector pay premium”. Indeed, neither of the recent ONS papers on the 2010 and 2011 “pay gaps” even mention the word “premium”. The far less catchy summary is that the gap appears: “… after accounting for gender, age, occupation, the region that the job is located in, and factoring in qualifications”. What those with a political axe to grind failed to report was the sentence which immediately followed: “However, the pay gap may also be explained by other characteristics that were not included in the regression model because they are not collected. . .”
- Labour Force Survey a poor source of pay data? The research which the government relies on to make claims for a public sector pay premium comes from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS). The IFS analysis is mostly based on the Labour Force Survey (LFS), produced by the Office of National Statistics. This is widely seen as a poor source for pay data. Almost a third of responses are from a proxy, who often lack information about individual circumstances. According to Income Data services, an indication of the scale of problems with LFS data is that it over-estimates the size of the public sector by about one million.
- ASHE categories don’t guarantee “like for like” comparison. The other data source sometimes used for these “like for like” comparisons is the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE), also produced by the Office of National statistics. Making comparisons between the occupational categories used in ASHE is a fraught business. In a 2011 report right-wing think tank Policy Exchange used ASHE figures to highlight differences in pay in the ‘primary and nursery teaching professional’ category. Median annual pay for this employee group is £33,140 in the public sector and only £21,159 in the private sector. But in the public sector these workers are largely primary school teachers whilst in the private sector they are nursery teachers, usually employed in private nurseries. To claim a “public sector pay premium” on the basis of these figures is misleading.
- Bonuses. Both the LFS and ASHE use data from a period in the year which misses out on the main bonus period in the private sector (January to March). Useful for anyone seeking to exaggerate a “public sector pay premium”. Though, to be fair, the most recent ONS paper seeks to take greater account of this problem.
- Length of service. The public sector also has a much higher proportion of older employees. Why does this matter? Earnings tend to increase with age and experience and so this skews the figures. People who go into public service jobs tend to stay in those jobs much longer than people in the private sector. Many public sector workers see their jobs as a vocation to which they will dedicate their lives. It is not uncommon for teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers to stay in the same job for their whole working lives. Do they receive a small premium for this long-term dedication? Almost certainly yes. But is that unfair, unexpected or undeserved?
Finally, just to demonstrate how complicated this issue can be it’s worth remembering that, because of the time-lag, much of the evidence for a public sector pay premium presented so far does not take into account the full extent of the public sector pay freeze and cap. It may not be long before the unreliable and often arbitrary data used to show a “public sector pay premium” starts to show a “public sector pay deficit.” Indeed, according to some studies, there are groups within the public sector where this is already the case.
If this continues, I look forward to Policy Exchange, The Taxpayers’ Alliance and Tory Ministers arguing for an urgent pay rise for public sector workers. We couldn’t tolerate any difference between private and public sector pay, could we?