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Enda thinks his €185k salary is 'cut to the bone'? Don't tell him about zero hour contracts...

… or what it’s like living on the minimum wage.

Donal O'Keeffe

“Dearbhaím NACH RAIBH MÉ AG OBAIR ar gach lá thuas atá marcáilte le X agus GO RAIBH MÉ AG OBAIR ar gach lá atá marcáilte le O.”

SO READS THE Department of Social Protection’s Dearbhú Dífhostíochta/Declaration of Unemployment.

Like many who spent their childhood learning our first language, I don’t actually have much Irish. At times such as this, I give thanks that I had fluent English before I entered our education system and I turn to the translation. “I declare that I was NOT WORKING on each of the days marked above with an X and I WAS WORKING on each of the days marked with an O.”

It’s a safe bet the Taoiseach is unlikely to be overly familiar with the yellow slip returned every week by people who work in what are theoretically part-time jobs, signing what are known colloquially as “Noughts and Crosses”.

Our Taoiseach’s salary 

At the launch of the Government’s Low Pay Commission last week, he was asked by the Irish Examiner’s Shaun Connolly whether he, Enda, is worth his weekly wage of €3,500.

Caught on the hop, Enda responded peevishly that, yes, he is worth it and “very much so”. To be fair to him (not that you’d be inclined to when he’s on three-and-a-half grand a week) he could hardly have answered that it’s an outrageous sum of money and ‘tis no wonder many people think the Taoiseach is hopelessly out of touch.

Enda waffled that “salaries are down 40% in the case of the Taoisigh – we’ve cut everything to the bone”. Even allowing that Bertie thought he was “very much so” worth €310,000 a year, calling a salary of €185,000 cut to the bone is a bit rich. Also a bit rich is any Taoiseach who thinks he’s very much so worth more than the President of France. But then if I were on €185,000 a year, I’d be more than a bit rich myself.

The night the country was driven off a cliff

I’ve never earned anything like €185,000 a year. Not even – reaching for a calculator – a fifth of that. In a previous life, I worked in sales. I was never any good as a foot-in-the-door merchant but I was conscientious and tenacious and I survived. I remember one day a young colleague asking me if I knew anything about something she’d heard on the radio, something about a “procession” the country was going to have. This was before that night in September – my birthday – when the country proceeded to be driven off a cliff.

The “procession” hit me hard. I found sales tougher and tougher to get and work became scarce. By the time I realised my sales career had reached the end of the road, I was selling – or rather re-selling – a TV package door-to-door and earning €200 a week basic (and I never made enough sales to earn bonus). Once my rent was paid I had €100 a week to live on. When I told my boss that I would receive €188 on the dole and get my rent paid too, he blamed our “crazy” social welfare system. I lasted three months.

The world of zero hour contracts

After that, I worked a procession of zero-hour contracts paying about the minimum wage. My experience involved employers who said they could not afford to pay me for hours I didn’t work. This meant that if there was no work for me of a morning, I’d stay home.

Glad though I was of the work, it’s not a great way to live, not knowing from day to day when you’ll be working and not knowing from week to week whether you’ll be able to pay your rent. You sign the Noughts and Crosses at the exchange and claim the dole for the days you don’t work. Because on a good week you might earn €350 or €400 before tax, you don’t qualify for rent allowance, something which would come in very handy on the weeks you earn nothing and have to rely on the dole.

I’m fortunate to have found myself in better circumstances of late, with better employers, but even accepting that times are hard for many businesses, I really would love to know just how many employers are making a mockery of the social welfare system to avoid paying their employees a halfway decent wage.

Some workers live in actual, consistent poverty

We live in a country with an average industrial wage of €32,000 per annum. Thirty percent of workers are earning less than €20,000 and, according to the Taoiseach, 9% of workers are living in actual, consistent poverty – something he has called “morally unacceptable”. All of that said, Michael Noonan has suggested, unbelievably, that his priority in the next budget is tax cuts for ‘The Squeezed Middle’ – those earning up to seventy grand a year.

One thing this Government does deserve credit for is its decision to reverse Fianna Fáil and the Green Party’s cut to the minimum wage and restore it to €8.65 per hour. That said, ISME’s Mark Fielding told Prime Time the other night that he thinks, if right were right, the minimum wage should actually be €7.42 per hour. Which would give you €289.60 for a 40 hour week.

You really would wonder what planet some people are on.

Time for Labour’s way again?

At the Labour Party conference last weekend, Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton promised that if the Low Pay Commission recommends an increase in the minimum wage, then the Government will increase it. There’s an election a-coming, obviously. I guess it must be time for Labour’s way again.

I really hope the Tánaiste is telling the truth. I hope that the Low Pay Commission will get serious, not just about the minimum wage, but also about zero-hour contracts. I hope too, for Joan and Enda’s sake, that they never themselves have to face a yellow slip saying “Dearbhaím NACH RAIBH MÉ AG OBAIR ar gach lá thuas atá marcáilte le X agus GO RAIBH MÉ AG OBAIR ar gach lá atá marcáilte le O.”

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

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