Pay Policy - Why Suffer Just Because I Come From Belfast

IF the wage claim now being pressed by two hundred teleecomunications engineers in the Belfast area is successful the British government's policy of holding pay increases in the coming year to 5% will, as far as the North's 500,000 workers are concerned, be in tatters.

The engineers are members of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (E.E.T.P.U.) and they work for the multiinational giants G.E.C., S.T.C., and Plesseys. Their demands are based on their contention that the cost of living in Norrthern Ireland is higher than that of any other region in the U.K. They are seeking a special regional allowance, on top of their normal rise, of £5 per week, similar to that given to workers in London, as compensation.

They are attempting to prove their point with a report done by Reward Regional Surveys, an English consultancy firm, which conducts regular rounddthe-country checks on prices. Reward's latest figures for May 1978 show that apart from rents and rates, Northern Ireland scores highest on the cost of living index. For the typical family the food bill is 6% more than the national average, transport 9%, fuel 25%, and car insurance 60%. Buying a new house is also more expensive. A standard semi in Birmingham is about £300 cheaper than in Bellfast. Overall prices are 8% above British levels.

Other unions will be watchhing the E.E.T.P.U. negotiation With interest. Recognition of a regional differential by the elecctronics industry will open the floodgates to other claims, especially from the public sector. The Ulster Teachers Union is looking for a flat £500 bonus for its members and civil servants, health workers, and Post Office engineers will ask for parity with the London counterparts who presently receive allowances between £300 and £500 per year. And other groups of workers are bound to follow suit.

It is not only because a regional allowance will wreck its pay policy and set a precedent for other impoverrished regions that the British government will fiercely resist the concept. In the battle to attract foreign investment a major selling point to the Americans and Germans has allways been the relative cheappness of the Northern worker. With several big factories in the pipeline, it is unlikely that the Northern Ireland Office will look any more favourably on a cost of living allowance than it did in 1975 when the major health union, C.O.H.S.E., was rebuffed by Secretary of State Merlyn Rees.

But with the average wage 10% adrift of that in Britain and with prices 8% ahead, the Norrthern worker is feeling the pinch. A winter of industrial discontent is already predicted over the government's pay guidelines. One E.E.T.P.U. shop steward summed up the prevailing mood: "If I lived in Burnley or Birmingham I'd be much better off. Why should I have to suffer just because I come from Belfast?"