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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 17 Sep 2020

Vol. 997 No. 5

Sick Leave and Parental Leave (Covid-19) Bill 2020: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide for an entitlement for employees to paid leave during periods of illness or injury; to amend the entitlement to leave on grounds of force majeure for parents whose children are unable to attend school or a pre-school service by reason of Covid-19 measures; and to provide for connected matters.

It is a cliché at this stage to say we are living in unprecedented times. Many developments that even nine months ago were regarded as politically impossible have since come to pass. Some time ago, before Covid, when I said the State should nationalise some of the private hospital system, I was told in this very Chamber that it was not realistic and that it was never going to happen. Then the pandemic happened. Overnight, the private hospital system was temporarily nationalised. Is it not interesting how, in the midst of a crisis, ideologies change and the Government realises different things? The Government realised it needed a nationalised health system. Before that, it never considered the option. I believe we will end up considering it again in some way.

Sick pay is a similar issue. The time has come to deal with it. Doing so is long overdue. It has actually taken this pandemic to demonstrate en masse the major gaps in legal protections for workers in this country. Ireland is one of only five European countries where workers do not have a legal right to sick pay. Many people in this country are not aware of that. It is an enormous hole. I would appreciate it if the Tánaiste listened to me because this is a rather important issue. There is an enormous hole in the protections workers need to prevent them from being forced to go to work while sick. This pandemic has shown beyond doubt that what is happening is simply not good enough.

Workers throughout our country are looking for help in this area and for the Government to do the right thing. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions is calling for sick pay to be an employment right for all workers, bringing Ireland into line with European norms. The Labour Party is introducing this Bill to make sick pay a legal right for workers in Ireland for the very first time. We are proposing six weeks of pay for a worker who is sick, to be paid at the same rate as annual leave, with the employer entitled to any illness benefit due to the worker during this time. The Chief Medical Officer, the chief clinical officer and, indeed, the CEO of the HSE have all come out in support of our legislation. The Government often says it is following public health advice. Will it follow public health advice here? It is going to be an important weapon in our fight against Covid.

The situation regarding meat factory workers over the summer, which played a big part in the lockdowns in Kildare, Laois and Offaly, was a clear example of how the lack of sick pay in workplaces can hammer everyone in the community. Incredibly, meat factories have still explicitly ruled out even discussing sick pay with workers and their trade union representatives. This is not acceptable.

In ABP in Cahir in my county, an employee has to be in full-time employment for two years before being entitled to sick pay. Imagine being a worker from Brazil or some other country and not having sick pay for two years while being expected to go without pay if he or she has any Covid symptom? I acknowledge that Dawn Meats has said very recently it will pay the wages of anyone who has to isolate. This is welcome but it does not go far enough.

As part of this Bill, we have included an emergency measure for paid parental leave in circumstances where a school is shut down due to Covid-19 and where a parent or guardian must take leave to care for a child at home. This is a very simple measure that will greatly ease the stress and anxiety that many parents are feeling right now as they worry about what they will do if their child's school is closed. This will give them reassurance until their son or daughter can go back to school.

This is pertinent legislation that the Labour Party is putting it forward. We are disappointed it was not part of the Tánaiste's legislative programme despite my request for same. I ask him genuinely to look at it in some way. If he if wants to alter our Bill, I have no issue or problem with that but will he please consider it? I have written to every Member of the House to ask them to do the same.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.