A major theme at the SIPTU divisional conferences this Autumn has been the out- sourcing of public services. Union members working in the health services were deeply critical at their conference in Cork in October at the manner in which some of their employers are wilfully ignoring the commitment made in the Public Service Stability Agreement (PSSA) to avoid the out-sourcing of public service provision wherever and whenever possible.
At the Public Administration and Community (PAC) Division conference, also held in Cork, SIPTU members working in the local authorities warned of potential industrial action if Irish Water proceeds with proposals to terminate the Service Level Agreement it has with the workforce. This could result in the out-sourcing of the entire public water service to private contractors.
Delegates agreed that any utility or entity delivering the supply of crucial water services “should be staffed and operated by Local Authority direct labour staff who would continue to enjoy the protections and benefits of all future public service agreements.” The conference delegates also called on the Government “to proceed with a referendum to ensure the retention of water services and assets within public ownership.”
The concern over the outsourcing of public services is not unique to those who provide them nor is it one exclusive to workers and their trade unions in Ireland. Similarly, the privatisation of public services, including in public health, housing, water and transport provision has long been favoured by right wing governments across the world. The ideas that produced policies of privatising and out-sourcing public services, so effectively espoused by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher from the early 1980’s, are rooted in the relentless drive by employers and shareholders to minimise the cost of labour in order to maximise their profits.
It could be argued that this neo- liberal economic model has worked for the rich and powerful as the global wealth of the few has multiplied over recent decades. But at what cost to workers, their families and to society? The simple answer is that the cost to workers and societies of the ideological drive to privatise and outsource public services to often badly run and greedy providers has been enormous. The result across the developed world has been poorer and more expensive health services, inefficient and more costly bus and train services and the complete collapse in the construction of decent and affordable housing.
Forty years on from the Reagan and Thatcher era, it is absolutely unquestionable that their ‘revolution’ has achieved nothing but the enrichment of a tiny number of already wealthy people and companies, the so-called 1%. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which once so warmly embraced the neo-liberal agenda has now concluded that it has destroyed many economies and societies where it has been applied.
In a report published earlier this month, the IMF measured the public debt against the assets of 31 countries. It found that the UK, the birthplace of privatisation, had the weakest public finances of any country surveyed, holding less than £3 trillion of assets against £5 trillion in pensions and other liabilities. This is, in large part, the consequence of selling off public assets from the postal service to airlines, telecoms and trains, often at knockdown prices. Such policies, the IMF concluded, “increase revenues and lower deficits but also reduce the government’s asset holdings.”
Privatisation and its associated austerity policies imposed by successive right wing led governments here and elsewhere have not just reduced the wealth and financial status of individual economies but have handed enormous, unearned wealth to a select few, the IMF states. Shareholder dividends get priority over the payment of a utilities’ debt thus pushing them into further debt and forcing customers to pay bigger bills, for water, electricity, gas, broadband etc.
Workers’ wages get pushed down while the cost of services continue to rise, and when the inevitable crash comes, as it did in this country a short decade ago, the liabilities of the banks and their friends in the construction sector are dumped on the public.
Given the crisis in the supply of water, health, waste collection and other vital services it is unsurprising that many local councils in Britain and across Europe are re-municipalising i.e. they are taking back control of service provision from high cost “for profit” private companies.
In Ireland, the trend towards outsourcing and privatisation is similar to those examined by the IMF in its report. The local authorities, for example, hand out contracts worth millions of euro each year to many providers who provide low quality services at high cost while forcing their mainly non-union, employees to endure precarious working conditions with low pay and uncertain hours.
However, as the President of SIPTU’s local authority sector, Frank Lee told delegates at the PAC conference, it is not all bad. In South Dublin County Council, where he works, the union has successfully argued to retain important services which are provided by the direct labour of council staff.
The District Councils of SIPTU, in co-operation with members across the union who provide vital public services are to campaign to ensure that public monies are used to promote decent employment.