Sick pay is required in a health crisis.

23 September 2020

Speaking on the Labour Party’s Sick Leave and Parental Leave (Covid-19) Bill 2020 in the Dáil, Labour Business spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said:

“What greater action can the State take to protect workers during this pandemic only to ensure there is statutory sick pay for all?  Sick pay is required in a health crisis. It may surprise many people in this country that we are one of only five European Union countries without statutory sick pay. We live in a low-tax and low-pay economy. 23% of Irish workers are low paid and approximately 40% of workers under the age of 30 are in insecure work and who is most at risk of illness and needs sick pay more than those who are in low pay or insecure work?

“These people include workers in meat factories, childcare workers, contract cleaners and front-line staff in retail and hospitality, as well as agency staff in our health service. All these workers are holding our country together on the front line and all of them, at different stages, have gotten rounds of applause and plaudits from this House. Not all of them get sick pay.

“We can think of the worry and anxiety experienced by a person waking up with symptoms of illness and who is genuinely concerned about infecting others and about his or her own health but who must balance this with the fact that he or she might not get paid if he or she does not go to work. That is if the person is honest about his or her health. The person might struggle into work, thus contributing to the problem. Such a person’s biggest problem, however, is low pay, poverty and insecure work. What are we doing to protect such people?

“All the schools are back, with 1 million children returning this September, which is good. What if a child is sent home from school because of an outbreak, however, or even a suspected outbreak or because the school has made the decision that a child must go home? A parent, grandparent or guardian of the child could have to care for the child without any statutory provision for sick pay.

“This Bill is a reasonable suggestion, if not a necessary emergency measure notwithstanding the fact we should have had this provision before now, in the teeth of a health crisis that is deepening and worsening. In my part of the country the statistics are terrifying. As the numbers of people infected with Covid-19 increase, the supports for individuals are lessening.

“The Government’s response was not to reject this Bill out of hand and we welcome that. However, the Government is suggesting we should spend six months thinking or talking about the legislation. In the midst of a pandemic, we do not have six months to talk or think about something as fundamental as sick pay. We do not have six months. We could have a vaccine by the time the Government gets around to enacting legislation that would provide statutory sick pay for all workers.

“The Government is at risk of losing public support for its measures. We are on the brink of losing that support if rationale is not provided and supports are not maintained and if the Government is not seen to be on the side of the people. It is very difficult for us in public life to see the Low Pay Commission advocating a ten cent increase in the minimum wage and to see the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, which is relentless in supporting and advocating for those who are the lowest paid in our economy, having to walk away because that was the best the LPC could come up with.

“Let us turn our attention to those who are having that conversation in their own heads, that wrangle in their own minds, that horrible discussion with themselves.  Do they go to work knowing that they are not well or do they do the right thing, in line with the restrictions relating to the pandemic, knowing that they are going to be out of pocket and that it will be harder for them to pay their rent and their bills and feed their children? There are also situations where parents, grandparents or guardians who have to look after sick children will be out of pocket. My very clear message to the Government is that, in a pandemic and a health crisis, the most basic provision that politics, Parliament and Government can provide is statutory sick pay. 

“This pandemic has ripped open all of the problems in Irish society. It has identified major problems with our society, but a crisis is an opportunity to fix issues. If Ireland is an outlier and has a low-pay economy, we should do something about that. If we do not have statutory sick pay, unlike 22 other EU countries, we should also do something about that. I believe the Cabinet agrees that we should do something about it. The argument is not whether we should do something about it but whether we should do it today, this week, next week – when the vote is taken – or in six months’ time. We do not have six months in the middle of a pandemic.

“We hope that the Government will move from a position of talking, assessing and negotiating, to one of this Parliament collectively saying to the people of Ireland that in a pandemic sick pay is a basic provision that any decent democracy and Government should provide.”

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