PUBLIC sector workers are on the cusp of losing their increments, premium pay and overtime arrangements as crucial talks on a new Croke Park Deal kicked off today.
And for the first time ever, they could also face the threat of compulsory redundancies. Thousands of State employees may be forced to work an extra four hours per fortnight for the same pay -- as the Government desperately attempts to generate some €300m worth of savings this year.
Government sources say that one-time 'untouchables', such as increments and weekend premium payments, are no longer being viewed as "sacred cows".
It's also understood the Coalition intends to introduce compulsory redundancies where redeployment won't work.
Any such move would mark a radical shift in the public sector and end the notion that civil servants have a 'job for life'.
Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin said today that nobody is underestimating how difficult it will be to reach an agreement with unions.
"Although it is often taken for granted, industrial peace has been maintained, contributing to the sense of stability allowing Ireland to reclaim its international standing politically and economically."
He added: "The task the Government has set its representatives can be expressed very simply. They are to seek an agreement that secures an additional reduction of some €1bn in the cost of the pay and pensions bill by 2015, alongside an agenda for substantial productivity and workforce reform measures."
Thousands of civil servants who work a 34-hour week could see this increase to 36 hours.
Senior Government officials were today braced for robust talks with union figures who are expected to strongly resist measures that will impact workers' take-home pay.
Among the measures likely to be on the table include the scrapping of premium payments for working on Saturdays and beyond 5pm on weekdays.
It's also understood that those earning in excess of €70,000 will be specifically targeted and will not be in line for receiving further increments.
A ceiling for what is paid out in overtime looks likely to be introduced. This would particularly impact on doctors whose overtime is based on their salaries. Intense negotiations will look at working hours -- with an 8am-8pm shift set to become introduced as a norm in some areas.
While today's talks will focus on pay and conditions across the board, Government sources are braced for strong resistance when the discussions are broken down by sector tomorrow.
Education unions are expected to be told that teachers must accept changes to substitution and supervision pay, while gardai and prison officers could have their overtime arrangements changed.
The Government intends to generate €300m in 2013 and €1bn over the next three years.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny bluntly warned union figures yesterday: "Pay and allowances are on the table".
The issue of increments has proven contentious among Fine Gael backbenchers -- who have been lobbying ministers to target these areas.
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney said that it is essential that significant savings are achieved. "We need to reduce the public sector pay bill using Croke Park in a better way. Things like overtime, length of the working week, and increments will feature in the talks," he said.
Union figures, such as Impact's Shay Cady, have already warned that "unpalatable measures" are set to be proposed. Representatives from some 26 unions, the Labour Relations Commission and a number of government departments kicked off the talks today.
Any agreement to changes must go to a ballot among unions -- with the Government hopeful that some form of new deal could be shaped by March.