How much should you earn?

PARIS - OCTOBER 28:  French university students and striking workers attend a demonstration over pension reforms with a flag reading ' The Force without Justice' on October 28, 2010 in Paris, France. This is the seventh day of protest for French workers angry at the Government's proposed pension reforms. Nicolas Sarkozy, however, has not wavered in his plans to increase the state pension age from 60 to 62 and last night the National Assembly passed the bill. (Photo by Franck Prevel/Getty Images)

The VO is going a bit mad these days. And before you say ‘Nothing new there, then’, this is mad with a financial twist. Fresh from giving out stink about the cost of B and B for big-shots in the public service, today the Organ is focusing on the pay of top managers in the health service. It seems sixteen of them are paid over £100,000 – “almost three times as many as in the PSNI, where officers operate under death threat from dissident republicans”.

Apart from the confused syntax ( are they saying that the manager’s job is tougher in the PSNI because the cops on the beat may be under threat?), the VO takes as a given what is in fact totally not-given: that some jobs deserve higher pay than others. That’s not to say that some jobs aren’t paid more than others; they obviously are. What we’re talking about is, do they deserve it?

To answer that you’d need to know what you’re measuring when you say, for example, that a newspaper editor is worth more than a sanitary worker. The usual answer to that is ‘The editor is more intelligent than the sanitary worker’, or sometimes ‘It takes longer to become an editor than it does to become a sanitary worker’.

The first of these is a non-starter. There are things called intelligence tests, but since they measure only a small area of mental ability and even then they’re unreliable as predictors of future performance, they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. So since we can’t measure the difference in intelligence between the editor and the toilet cleaner, intelligence can’t be offered as a reason why the editor should get paid more.

The second – that it takes longer to become an editor – is generally true, although that might say more about the slow-learner quality of editors rather than the level of talent called for by the job. But even we say that editors are as quick on the uptake as toilet cleaners, does length of training mean you should be paid more? It takes approximately the same time to become a teacher as it does to become a doctor, but the doctor can look forward to a salary that’s over twice that of the teacher. So length of training can’t be the yardstick either.

What about saying we pay according to the value of a person’s work to society? (Let’s move away from editors, shall we? We’re talking about value to society.) A brain surgeon, you might say, is of more value to society than a toilet cleaner, and therefore deserving of his/her bigger pay packet. But answer me this: how many people have a brain operation every day? And how many use a toilet every day? If we’re going for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, the toilet cleaner wins hands down.

The truth is, it’s impossible to arrive at clear, unequivocal, agreed criteria for judging the worth of a job, and what someone should be paid for doing it. And since that’s impossible, the only just course of action is to pay everyone the same. ‘Nobody’s going to agree to that!’ comes the chorus. Not from the people generally. Just from the people who take home a fatter pay-packet, who know they can’t defend getting it and are terrified that someday, somehow, they’ll be found out.

2 Responses to How much should you earn?

  1. Jay November 30, 2010 at 10:54 am #

    I believe the answer is supply & demand. There are a fewer people qualified to be brain surgeons than those qualified to clean toilets. The problem I see with salaries becoming out of line results from continual pay raises (due to cost of living & merit raises) over a period of years. People (and the public sector is one of the worse offenders) end up receiving obscene salaries.

  2. hoboroad December 7, 2010 at 1:16 pm #

    The Catholic workforce in Northern Ireland has continued to increase according to the latest Equality Commission report.

    However the annual monitoring report found a decline in the total workforce of 12,585 since 2008.

    The report tracks employment in Roman Catholics, Protestants, women and men.

    There have been steeper falls in employment levels for Protestants than Roman Catholic’s and steeper falls for men than for women.

    The commission’s Bob Collins said the decline in employment levels highlighted a “changing environment” in Northern Ireland.

    “This period (2009) reflects the initial impact of the recession and also some significant demographic shifts,” he said.

    “We must balance and judge all of the available evidence to ensure that we can properly measure any questions of unfairness in employment.”

    The report looked at 517,272 employees and covered the 12 months of 2009.

    The report also found that the proportion of applicants for jobs across Northern Ireland from the Roman Catholic community had continued to rise.


    In 2007 the number of Roman Catholic applicants exceeded the number of Protestant for the first time.

    This trend has continued and in 2009 the Catholic share (51%) exceeded that of their Protestant counterparts by (49%) by 10,465.

    Mr Collins said information from the 20012 indicated that all age groups in the under-25 categories Roman Catholic’s represented over 50%.

    “That pattern will have worked its way up the age scale in the years since and it is a reasonable estimate that those currently in the 16-34 age range, Roman Catholic now represent some 52% .”

    Mr Collins also said the three-yearly reviews employers undertake were an important source of information.

    “They shed light not only on the composition of workforces and those joining or leaving them, but also on the extent to which employment in those workforces actually represents fair participation.

    “The commission is actively considering how this material can be made more widely available to help obtain a greater understanding of these changing patterns.”

    The monitoring data also show the changing nature of our economy, and these changes will also have impacts on the community composition of the workforce.

    In 1990 almost half of the monitored workforce (47.6%) in the private sector was employed in manufacturing.

    Industries based on heavy engineering and textiles were among the largest employers in Northern Ireland.

    In 2009 manufacturing accounted for just 22.7% of the private sector.

    In 1990, the percentage of Roman Catholics in the then monitored workforce (firms of more than 25 employees) was 34.9%.

    At the time it was estimated that 40% of those available for work were Catholics.

    The 2009 report shows Roman Catholics made up 45.4% of the monitored workforce (firms of more than 10 employees), which matches the estimated percentage of Catholics available for work.

    Mr Collins said the “steady and consistent convergence of the workforce” with the composition of those available for work can be tracked through the annual monitoring reports.

    “Monitoring and the three yearly reviews have provided a focus for business and the public sector which has helped drive change in the Northern Ireland workforce over the past two decades,” he said.

    “It has helped us understand what is happening and why, and contributed to what is now a well-established awareness of the importance of equality of opportunity and fair participation.

    “While economic developments and demographic changes clearly affect the realities of our economy and our society, they also affect our perceptions. It is important that they should also inform our expectations.

    “The Equality Commission believes that workforce monitoring should be extended to the grounds of nationality and ethnic origin, so as to capture more accurately the facts about the changing workforce in Northern Ireland.”