The first day of talks on a national wage agreement has ended.

Under the terms of partnership, talks will continue until Friday evening.

Unions are hopeful that low income workers can be protected, but employers this afternoon said everyone must be treated equally.

Today and tomorrow are about identifying the issues and finding common ground before the hard talking begins.

Whether the partnership process can deliver another national wage agreement is yet to be determined.

Employers' body IBEC joined the talks this afternoon. Unions and the Government were in negotiation since this morning.

IBEC has said a separate pay agreement for the low paid is not credible. The group said the state of the economy makes a pay pause very necessary.

Tough decisions ahead: IBEC

Brendan McGinty of IBEC said the issue of low pay is a difficult one. He said employers under major financial stress at the moment could not meet an agreement on increased pay for low income earners.

Mr McGinty said difficult discussions lie ahead, but he said most ordinary people understand that hard decisions need to be taken.

He said everyone must take the pain in reaching an agreement, which he said is the right thing to do for the country.

Going into the talks this morning, some unions rejected out of hand the notion of a pay freeze.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen has said all sides in the talks must take account of the changed economic circumstances.

Speaking in Tullamore, Mr Cowen said he would be available to assist the parties on an ongoing basis 'as I was indeed in the last phase - which unfortunately didn't mean that the fact that I was available brought about a successful conclusion'.

Asked if he was more optimistic about a successful outcome this time around, Mr Cowen said there was a growing realisation that there are a lot of pressures in the economy. He said the many job losses this year are a reflection of the downturn in economic activity.

He said there is a need for an affordable solution for the medium term 'so we can find space to bring about changes for the better' in what he called a very challenging international environment.

Unions press case at talks

Betty Tyrrell-Collard of the CPSU - which represents lower paid public service workers - said that a pay pause for her union members would be an absolute non-runner.

She said a pay pause for people who earn over €50,000 per year would be acceptable. But Ms Tyrrell-Collard said that clerical staff that are low paid and work hard to secure bonuses for higher paid staff could not suffer.

SIPTU's general president said he wanted to make sure a deal could be done. He said unions would not agree on an exercise to insulate businesses profits.

Jack O'Connor said he would not reveal details of what SIPTU would be demanding, but he said all unions needed to decide on a way forward.

He said there is a broad consensus on a deal that will take the economic condition into consideration and that will protect lower paid workers.

Mandate's John Douglas said there will be no deal unless the low paid are protected during the talks.

He said the ball was in the court of the employers and something will have to be found to deal with the difficult issues for low paid workers.

Mr Douglas said low paid workers have not been dealt with fairly in previous agreements and now more than ever efforts are needed to deal with the low paid.

IBOA 'not optimistic'

Larry Broderick of the Irish Bank Officials Association said he was not optimistic heading into the talks. He said Government needs to put something constructive on the table if the talks are to be successful.

Mr Broderick said his staff would not react well to a pay freeze.

He said a new structure is needed and new legislation on constructive bargaining is needed. A flexible arrangement on pay at local level is needed so that different approaches could be taken in different companies.

Peter McLoone, General Secretary of IMPACT, said he hopes that at the end of the week a clear package for public sector workers will be on the table. He said what the Government has in mind with regard to a public sector pay freeze must be clear.

He said the purchasing power of low paid people within the public sector must be protected. Mr McLoone said it makes no difference what sector you work in when it comes to buying products and trying to live.