Many people are attracted to work in the private sector, with expectations of greater opportunities for promotion, more variation in work and higher salaries. However, according to the Office for National Statistics, it may be that the oft-talked-of pay differential is actually in the opposite direction. Data from the ONS suggests that public sector workers are paid 14.5% more on average than those working in the private sector.
As is the case with the price of a good, the price of labour (that is, the wage rate) is determined by the forces of demand and supply. Many factors influence the wages that individuals are paid and traditional theory leads us to expect higher wages in sectors where there are many firms competing for labour. With the government acting as a monopsony employer, it has the power to force down wages below what we would expect to see in a perfectly competitive labour market. However, the ONS data suggests the opposite. What factors can explain this wage differential?
Jobs in the public sector, on average, require a higher degree of skills. There tend to be entry qualifications, such as possessing a university degree. While this is the case for many private-sector jobs as well, on average it is a greater requirement in the public sector. The skills required therefore help to push up the wages that public-sector workers can demand. Another explanation could be the size of public-sector employers, which allows them to offer higher wages. When the skills, location, job specifications etc. were taken into account, the 14.5% average hourly earnings differential declined to between just 2.2% and 3.1%, still in favour of public-sector workers. It then reversed to give private-sector workers the pay edge, once the size of the employer was taken out.
Further analysis of the data also showed that, while it may pay to be in the public sector when you’re starting out on your career, it pays to be in the private sector as you move up the career ladder. Workers in the bottom 5% of earners will do better in the public sector, while those in the top 5% of earners benefit from private-sector employment. The ONS said:
Looking at the top 5%, in the public sector earnings are greater than £31.49 per hour, while in the private sector, the top 5% earn more than £33.63 per hour… The top 1% of earners in the private sector, at more than £60.21 per hour, earns considerably more than the top 1% of earners in the public sector, at more than £49.65 per hour.
The data from the ONS thus suggest a reversal in the trend of average public-sector pay being higher than private sector pay, once all the relevant factors are taken into account.
This will naturally add to debates about living standards, which are likely to take on a stronger political slant as the next election approaches. It is obviously partly down to the public-sector pay freeze that we saw in 2010 and also to a reversal, at least in part, of the previous trend from 2008, where public-sector pay had been growing faster than private-sector pay. However, depending on the paper you read or the person you listen to, they will offer very different views as to who gets paid more. All you need to do in this case is look at the titles of the newspaper articles written by the Independent and The Telegraph! Whatever the explanation, these new data provide a wealth of information about relative prospects for pay for everyone.
Public and Private Sector Earnings Office for National Statistics (March 2014)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results Office for National Statistics (December 2013)
Austerity bites as private sector pay rises above the public sector for the first time since 2010 Independent, Ben Chu (10/3/14)
Public sector workers still better paid despite the cuts The Telegraph, John Bingham (10/3/14)
Public sector hourly pay outstrips private sector pay BBC News (10/3/14)
Public sector workers are biggest losers in UK’s post-recession earnings squeeze The Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/3/14)
New figures go against right-wing claims that public sector workers are grossly overpaid Independent, Ben Chu (10/3/14)
Public sector pay sees biggest shrink on 2010, figures suggest LocalGov, Thomas Bridge (11/3/14)
Public sector staff £2.12 an hour better off The Scotsman, David Maddox (11/3/14)
- Illustrate the way in which wages are determined in a perfectly competitive labour market.
- Why does monopsony power tend to push wages down?
- Why does working for a large company suggest that you will earn a higher wage on average?
- Using the concept of marginal revenue product of labour, explain the way in which higher skills help to push up wages.
- How significant are public-sector pay freezes in explaining the differential between public- and private-sector pay?
- Why is there a difference between the bottom and top 5% of earners? How does this impact on whether it is more profitable to work in the public or private sector?
Trade union action has been a feature of the British labour market over the past few years, as discussed in this first and second blog. With the government’s austerity measures still in place and ongoing issues over pension provision, there are many explosive issues that will undoubtedly be discussed at this year’s TUC Conference in Brighton.
We have already heard from numerous unions that strike action over the coming year is ‘inevitable’. With rising prices, static or even falling wages, reduced pension provision and increased contributions, the cost of living has become increasingly unaffordable for many members of the trade unions. Dave Prentis, the General Secretary of Unison said:
‘I think people have been pushed into a corner. They are moving into poverty … The threat is that if we can’t move forward in negotiations to find a way through it then we will move to industrial action. There is no doubt whatsoever that we can create disputes throughout next year.’
Although few would argue against the notion that the government’s finances are in a dire state and spending cuts together with tax rises are needed, the controversy seems to lie in exactly when these cuts should take place and how severe they should be. For many, cutting government spending and raising taxes whilst the economy is still in recession is asking for trouble. For others, it’s the right thing to do and everyone should play a part in helping to return government finances to a semblance of balance. The Labour government has traditionally supported trade unions, but even their leadership backed the government’s plan for pay restraint for public sector workers. This, together with the continuing debates over public sector pensions has clearly angered many public sector workers, thus creating this ‘inevitable’ industrial action over the coming year.
Unison and GMB have said that they will be working together in order to try to better pay and conditions for its members, by co-ordinating public-sector strikes around Spring next year. Co-ordinated strikes across a variety of sectors could create havoc for the economy. Not just disruption for the everyday person, but losses for businesses and the economy. A general strike has not taken place since 1926, but it is thought that TUC delegates will be voting on whether or not one should be planned. So, when faced with these inevitable strikes, should the government back down and cut back on austerity or stand up to them and suffer the disruption of a strike, whilst continuing on with bringing its budget back on track? The following articles look at the TUC Congress and the proposed strike action.
Public sector unions plan Spring strikes Guardian, Dan Milmo (9/9/12)
Trade union warns of further strikes Financial Times, Brian Groom (7/9/12)
Trade union officials gather for TUC Congress in Brighton BBC News, John Moylan (9/9/12)
Unite union leader warns of wave of public sector strikes Guardian, Dan Milmo (7/9/12)
Unison and GMB unions planning co-ordinated strikes over pay BBC News, Justin Parkinson (9/9/12)
TUC Conference 2012: a mixture of new and old Channel 4 News (9/9/12)
Government must stand up to these TUC bully tactics Express, Leo McKinstry (9/9/12)
- What is the purpose of a trade union?
- What is the difference between individual and collective bargaining? Why is collective bargaining likely to be more successful in achieving certain aims?
- If there is co-ordinated strike action, what are the likely costs for (a) the workers on strike (b) the non-striking workers (c) businesses and (d) the economy?
- What are the main issues being debated between unions and the government?
- Explain the economic reasoning behind Dave Prentis’ statement that people are being moved into poverty.
- Do you agree with strike action? Do you think it has any effect?
- When do you think is the right time to implement austerity measures? Has the government got it right? As always, make sure you explain your answer!!
Pay rises have been few and far between since the onset of recession – at least that’s the case for most workers. Pay for private-sector workers rose by 2.7% on average over the past year and for many in the public sector there were pay freezes. But, one group did considerably better: directors. According to the Incomes Data Services (IDS), over the past year, the average pay of the directors of the FTSE 100 companies has increased by almost 50%. Not bad for the aftermath of a recession! Much of the increase in overall pay for directors came from higher bonuses; they rose on average by 23% from £737,000 in 2010 to £906,000 this year.
Unsurprisingly, politicians from all sides have commented on the data – David Cameron said the report was ‘concerning’ and has called for the larger companies to become more transparent about how they set executive pay. How much difference transparency will make is debatable. However, Martin Sorrell, Chief Executive of WPP defended these pay rises, by comparing the pay of directors of UK companies with their counterparts in other parts of the world.
However, this defence is unlikely to make the average person feel any better, as for most people, their overall standard of living has fallen. With CPI inflation at 3.3% in 2010 (and RPI inflation at 4.6%) a person receiving the average private-sector pay rise of 2.7% was worse off; with a pay freeze they would be considerably worse off. Essentially, buying power has fallen, as people’s incomes can purchase them fewer and fewer goods.
However, the data have given David Cameron an opportunity to draw attention to the issue of more women executives. He believes that more women at the top of the big companies and hence in the boardroom would have a positive effect on pay restraint. However, this was met with some skepticism. The following podcasts and articles consider this issue.
Podcasts and webcasts
Directors’ pay rose 50% in past year BBC News, Emma Simpson (28/10/11)
‘Spectacular’ share payouts for executives BBC Today Programme, Steve Tatton of Income Data Services (29/10/11)
Sir Martin Sorrell defends top pay BBC Today Programme, Sir Martin Sorrell, Chief executive of WPP (28/10/11)
‘A closed little club’ sets executive pay BBC Today Programme, John Purcell and Deborah Hargreaves (28/10/11)
Cameron says Executive pay in U.K. is ‘Issue of concern’ after 49% advance Bloomberg, Thomas Penny (28/10/11)
Directors’ pay rose 50% in last year, says IDS report BBC News (28/10/11)
Cameron ties top pay to women executives issue Financial Times, Jim Pickard and Brian Groom (28/10/11)
£4m advertising boss Sir Martin Sorrell defends rising executive pay Guardian, Jill Treanor and Mark Sweney (28/10/11)
Executive pay soars while the young poor face freefall: where is Labour? Guardian, Polly Toynbee (28/10/11)
My pay is very low, moans advertising tycoon with a basic salary of £1 MILLION a year Mail Online, Jason Groves and Rupert Steiner (29/10/11)
More women directors will rein in excessive pay, says David Cameron Guardian, Nicholas Watt (28/10/11)
David Cameron and Nick Clegg criticise directors’ ‘50% pay rise’ BBC News (28/10/11)
The FTSE fat cats are purring over their pay but that’s good for the UK The Telegraph, Damian Reece (28/10/11)
IDS press release
FTSE 100 directors get 49% increase in total earnings Incomes Data Services (26/10/11)
- What are the arguments supporting such high pay for the Directors of large UK companies?
- How are wages set in a) perfectly and b) Imperfectly competitive markets?
- Why is the average person worse off, despite pay rises of 2.5%?
- Why does David Cameron believe that more women in the boardroom would act to restrict pay rises?
- To what extent do you think that more transparency in setting pay would improve the system of determining executive pay?
- Do senior executives need to be paid millions of pounds per year to do a good job? How would you set about finding the evidence to answer this question?
- Is the high pay of senior executives a ‘market’ rate of pay or is it the result of oligopolistic collusion between the remuneration committees of large companies (a form of ‘closed shop’)?
- What would be the effect over time on executive pay of remuneration committees basing their recommendations on the top 50% of pay rates in comparable companies?
Private Finance Initiatives were first introduced by the Conservatives in the early 1990s and they became a popular method of funding a variety of new public projects under New Labour. These included the building of prisons, new roads, hospitals, schools etc. The idea is that a private firm funds the cost and maintenance of the public sector project, whilst the public sector makes use of it and begins repaying the cost – something like a mortgage, with contracts lasting for about 30 years. As with a mortgage, you are saddled with the payments and interest for many years to come. This is the problem now facing many NHS trusts, who are finding it too expensive to repay the annual charges to the PFI contractors for building and servicing the hospitals.
Undoubtedly, there are short term benefits – the public sector gets a brand new hospital without having to raise the capital, but in the long term, it is the public who end up repaying more than the hospital (or the PFI project) is actually worth. Data suggests that a hospital in Bromley will cost the NHS £1.2 billion, which is some 10 times more than it is worth. Analysis by the Conservatives last year suggested that the 544 projects agreed under Labour will cost every working family in the UK about £15,000. This, compared with the original building cost of £3,000, is leading to claims that the PFI projects do not represent ‘value for money.’
More and more NHS trusts are contacting Andrew Lansley to say that the cost of financing the PFI project is undermining their ‘clinical and financial stability’. More than 60 hospitals and 12 million patients could be affected if these hospitals are forced to close. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley commented that:
‘Like the economy, Labour has brought some parts of the NHS to the brink of financial collapse.’
Labour, on the other hand, argue that the PFI contracts they created were essential at the time ‘to replace the crumbling and unsafe building left behind after years of Tory neglect.’ Although the public have benefited from the development of new hospitals, schools, roads etc, the long term costs may still be to come. Once the schemes are paid off, in 2049, over £70billion will have been paid to private contractors – significantly more than the cost and value of the projects and it will be the taxpayer who foots the bill. The following articles consider this controversial issue.
Labour’s PFI debt will cost five times as much, Conservatives claim The Telegraph, Rosa Prince (27/12/10)
Rising PFI costs ‘putting hospitals at risk’ BBC News (22/9/11)
Hospitals face collapse over PFIs The Press Association (22/9/11)
NHS hospitals crippled by PFI scheme The Telegraph, Robert Winnett (21/9/11)
60 hospitals face crisis over Labour’s PFI deals Mail Online, Jason Groves (22/9/11)
Private Finance Initiative: where did all go wrong? The Telegraph (22/9/11)
PFI schemes ‘taking NHS trusts to brink of financial collapse’ Guardian, Lizzy Davies (22/9/11)
Hospitals ‘struggling with NHS mortgage repayments’ BBC News, Nick Triggle (22/9/11)
- What is a PFI?
- Briefly outline the trade-off between the short term and the long term when it comes to Private Finance Initiatives.
- What are the arguments for a PFI? What are the arguments against PFIs?
- If PFIs had not been used to finance building projects, how do you think that would have impacted the current budget deficit?
- Is the cost of financing PFIs likely to have an adverse effect on the future prosperity of the UK economy?
There’s been a lot of bad news about the economy, but perhaps things are looking up. Inflation is now at 4% and the latest data suggests that unemployment has fallen, with more jobs being created in the private sector. An estimated 143,000 jobs were created, many of which were full-time and the ILO measure if unemployment is down by some 17,000. There is still some doom and gloom, as growth in annual average earnings has fallen slightly and this will undoubtedly affect retail sales. Numbers claiming JSA have also increased marginally to 1.5 million and youth unemployment has seen a small increase to 20.4%. A big area of concern is that unemployment might rise in the coming months due to the time lag. Growth in the last quarter of 2010 was negative and this could increase unemployment when the full effects are felt in the labour market later in the year. Howard Archer, the Chief Economist at HIS Global Insight had this to say about the latest data.
‘Despite the overall firmer tone of the latest labour market data, we retain the view that unemployment is headed up over the coming months. We suspect that likely below-trend growth will mean that the private sector will be unable to fully compensate for the increasing job losses in the public sector that will result from the fiscal squeeze that is now really kicking in. Indeed, we believe that private sector companies will become increasingly careful in their employment plans in the face of a struggling economy and elevated input costs.’
The wage price spiral hasn’t begun as many though, and this may encourage the Bank of England to keep interest rates down, especially as inflation has come down to 4% and concerns about growth still remain. So despite good news about unemployment overall falling, young workers, women and public sector workers have not benefited. Youth unemployment is up, more women are claiming JSA and more jobs in the public sector are expected to be cut this year. The following articles consider the implications.
UK Unemployment: What the experts say Guardian (13/4/11)
Good news on jobs BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (13/4/11)
Unemployment falls, but young are left on the shelf Independent, Sean O’Grady (14/4/11)
Unemployment falls but jobs market remains fragile Telegraph, Louisa Peacock (14/4/11)
UK unemployment data reveals downturn victims as jobless total drops Guardian, Heather Stewart (13/4/11)
FTSE boosted by dip in unemployment The Press Association (14/4/11)
Unemployment falls: reaction (including video) Telegraph (14/4/11)
- What is the ILO method of measuring unemployment?
- To what extent does the change in unemployment and inflation conform with the Phillips curve?
- What can explain the fall in the unemployment rate, despite the decline in the economy in the last quarter of 2010?
- Explain how the FTSE was affected by the lower unemployment rate.
- Why is unemployment expected to rise later this year?
- Why has there been a rise in the numbers claiming JSA, despite unemployment falling?
- What is meant by the wage-price spiral and why has it not occured?