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Sunday, January 03, 2010

The world of work

30 years ago I worked for an independent retailer that was gaining market share at an incredible rate. They did it by keeping costs under control, and boy do I mean under control.
For example, the manager had to use a payphone to call head office. He was given a small coin float to last a week. The Area Manager had the key.
When I joined they had about 80 stores and five years later they were listed on the Stock Exchange with over 200 stores. They did all this against a background of high inflation and a recession.
During that time they overtook Boots and Woolworths and became the country's number one toiletries retailer.
I once visited their head office and it was tiny. There were no spare desks. Even the Area Managers had to book office space in advance if they came into the head office. The reason was that the Company needed them out on the road, not behind a desk. There was no duplication of effort or admin. It was a tight ship.
I was a manager and very often the only male member of staff. This meant that I was also the warehouseman and security officer. Whatever needed doing, I did it.
We worked hard but were well paid. There was no pension plan or any perks. Not everyone liked it. In fact, I hated working there, but it was a job and I was grateful for it. The firm provided well paid work at a time when businesses were closing down all around.
I noticed today that the Times reports that public sector workers now earn up to 7% more than those in the private sector. And my experience is that they don’t have to work very hard for their money.
I’ve done hundreds of different jobs in my life. I’ve worked in almost every sphere of business. I’ve been in management and I’ve been a wage donkey. I’ve stood in line as the supervisor chose his workforce for the day and then been sent home without pay.
I’ve worked as a temp in a government department and seen first hand how inefficient they are.
I recognise that the problem is generational. It goes back to the very dawn of the Civil Service. The Civil Service has a hierarchy and a pecking order. Your position in the order depends on two things:
One: the size of the budget that you control. The bigger the budget, the more prestige you have.
Two: the number of staff under your control. The more staff you have, the more prestige.
Given these two facts, it’s not hard to see that no Civil Service chief will willingly allow his budget or workforce to be cut. The unions see to it that roles are clearly demarked, so any change in work practice is resisted. Add in generous sick pay and other perks like maternity leave and anyone can see that it’s a great job to have.
When I left school I worked in a bank. It was in the sixties, and one of the revolutionary ideas that they introduced while I worked there was paid sick leave if you had a day off with a cold for instance. I hated the job. I’ve hated a lot of jobs but this was awful. So I’d phone in sick if I couldn’t face going into work, and still get paid. I expect there are a lot like me in the public sector.
Public sector bosses factor in the number of man hours lost to sickness when setting staff levels, so most sectors are overstaffed to begin with.

What makes me most angry is that these people produce nothing. Robert Heinlein said the world is made up of three types of people- makers, takers and fakers. Ayn Rand said much the same thing. The Public Sector doesn’t create wealth, it only spends other people’s.
It’s becoming a luxury we can’t afford.

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