July 31, 2017
Have you ever how your colleague can afford to take yet another foreign holiday, while you’re scrimping for a weekend down the country?
Has your neighbour surprised you by driving a brand new car that should be way out of their price range? If you lived in Norway, you could just look up how much money they make.
Having lived and worked there for several years, I can tell you that culturally and historically, Ireland and Norway have a great deal in common, but in terms of openness, trust and transparency they leave us in the ha’penny place.
The gender pay gap is a real economic phenomenon whereby women are paid less than their male colleagues for the same work. The most recent high profile case of newscasters in RTÉ has brought this debate back into the public domain, followed by IBEC’s comments that publishing salary scales would be “inappropriate”.
There are many, complicated, reasons for pay discrimination. One of them is that we are so secretive about money in Ireland. This is counterproductive and leads to distrust and poor morale in the workplace. We would do well to take a lead from Norway, where everyone’s tax returns are published online every year.
The system there is simple enough. Through the online system which you use to pay your own taxes, you can look up the income of others. You enter a name, an approximate date of birth and an approximate address. Then you can see that person’s total net income, value of assets and the tax they paid last year. More or less the same rules apply to businesses, charities and other corporate bodies.
If you happen to have a Norwegian national ID number, you can see my tax returns from when I lived and worked in Oslo between 2013 and 2016. These records have been publicly accessible since the nineteenth century. In general, people are more honest about their salaries as a result, and acknowledge that transparency by default is for the best.
The Norwegian system
Norwegians are just as squeamish as we are about discussing how much they earn, but there are two big differences between there and here.
Firstly, Norway’s wage structure is much flatter than ours – the number of people earning significantly more or less than the average salary in their profession is dramatically smaller than it is here. Employees in the same office working together to improve their collective pay packets and benefits in dialogue with their employer is the rule in offices in Oslo and Bergen, rather than the exception it would be here.
Secondly, Norway’s gender pay gap is much smaller than ours. Each October, when the tax lists are published every media outlet in the country publishes the highlights, including anomalies such as the pay gap in various professions. If Bryan Dobson’s tax return was public knowledge by default, Sharon Ní Bheoláin’s would also, and the outcry over pay discrimination in RTÉ would have arisen and been addressed long ago.
People are always going to be a bit nosy about big earners, and there are some checks in place in Norway to make sure the system isn’t abused. If you do look up my tax returns, for example, I’ll get an e-mail telling me that you did. Similarly you are limited to 500 searches per month. Journalists are exempted from these rules, ensuring that the principle of maximum transparency is protected.
We need to talk about money
We urgently need to change how we talk about money in Ireland. We need to move to a system where secrecy is abnormal, all salaries are public, and public bodies publish everything by default, only withholding when there is a very good reason to.
You wouldn’t tolerate a colleague taking home twice your salary if you knew about it. In Norway they do.
Aengus Ó Maoláin is Chairperson of the Dublin West Social Democrats and the party’s representative in Castleknock and Blanchardstown.
This article was originally published in thejournal.ie