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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Sep 2020

Vol. 997 No. 7

Sick Leave and Parental Leave (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage [Private Members]

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I will be sharing time with Deputy Nash. I am very proud to propose this Bill to the House as a member of the Labour Party. This party and the labour movement were founded to protect workers and what is more important in a pandemic and health crisis? 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. As has been outlined by my colleague, Deputy Nash, on a number of occasions, 23% of Irish workers are in a bracket of statistical low pay, according to the OECD. 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 and that of Deputy Nash, the statistics are terrifying. As the numbers of people infected with Covid-19 increase, the supports for individuals are lessening, as we have heard on national radio.

The Government's response to our move today, meanwhile, was not to reject this Bill out of hand. 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, LPC, 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. The Government does not have to accept the commission's recommendation in this regard.

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 are hopeful of Opposition support for the Bill. We are also hopeful of Government support for it. 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.

The Minister will remember the years between 2011 and 2016 very well and the oft-quoted mantra of the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Was it a bit of virtue signalling and not a mantra, as the current Tánaiste might say? Enda Kenny wanted to make Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business. I always countered that assertion by saying that we should also make this country the best small country in the world in which to work, but, manifestly, it is not and nowhere is this more evident than in the State's failure to make provision for a legal right to statutory sick pay. Sick pay is not an extravagance or a luxury and neither is it something that workers should have to beg for or to go, cap in hand, to their employer to receive.

We pride ourselves on being a progressive, liberal, open and tolerant country and society, an outward-looking place. We have shed our inward-looking past, our introversion. There is nobody better for wrapping the progressive flag around himself than the Tánaiste and leader of Fine Gael. Progressive countries do not deny hard-working people a decent cushion when they fall ill but Ireland has always done so. This needs to change and quickly. We have had reams of emergency legislation pass through these Houses in recent months in response to an unprecedented pandemic and to the economic fallout from this public health crisis. Eye-watering sums of money have been paid out in business supports without any conditions attached whatsoever. Enormous sums of money have been allocated to make sure that people receive reasonable pay packets at a very difficult time and to ensure that they remain linked with their employers. We have seen the parking of the right of a worker who has been temporarily laid off to access redundancy. However, not a single attempt has been made by this Government to address a massive gap in our worker protection system by legislating for the legal right to sick pay.

It is an objective fact that this Government's commitment to review the position would simply not have arisen were it not for the fact that the Labour Party decided to propose this urgent legislation. By virtue of that commitment, in fairness to the Government, it has conceded that this is a gap which needs to be addressed. However, the matter is so urgent that we cannot wait a further six months to hear the outcome of a review and then another few months until legislation is in place to protect the workers that I, Deputy Ó Ríordáin and our Labour Party colleagues want to protect today.

In health and financial terms, the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the poorest in our society hardest. This is true when it comes to the risks that have to be taken by those who decide that they have to go to work even though they may have symptoms of or may have Covid-19. It is also true that those most impacted are those who are among the lowest paid in Ireland, as my colleague outlined. Shopworkers, food service workers and others who are paid the lowest permissible rate of pay in this country woke up this morning to a kick in the stomach, frankly. They will have been dismayed to learn that the most many of them can expect to earn next year is an extra 10 cent per hour on top of what is already a meagre salary. These workers cannot eat applause. A candle in the window will not warm them and it will not help them to pay their rent. The Minister will tell the House that the LPC is an independent body. She is right - it is independent in its deliberations and in terms of its recommendations and that is appropriate. It was set up to advise the Government and not to make a decision for the Minister and her colleagues. In terms of the minimum wage, the buck stops with the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Varadkar. If so minded, he and his Cabinet colleagues do not have to accept the recommendation of the commission. This year, the Government has more skin in the game than ever because the State is providing massive subsidies to support wages through the wage subsidy scheme, to the tune of over €2 billion before the scheme ends in March 2021. The Government has a role in terms of directing how that money is spent and in terms of subsidising and supporting the lowest paid workers in this country through an unprecedentedly difficult challenge.

Will the Government put its money where its applause is and provide for a meaningful and reasonable increase to the national minimum wage? The Government must put a lot of thought into the position of the LPC. It is such an important institutional framework and bulwark against the scourge of low pay in this country and it needs to work. The Government needs to reflect on how it can make the LPC work in the context of the difficult situation this country faces. We have heard the case made by ICTU and those representing working people on the LPC for the kinds of increases that should be proposed and considered this year. They are reasonable, rational, fair and objective. How can the Government possibly argue on the one hand that public sector workers, Deputies included, will receive a 2% pay increase in October while, on the other, state that the lowest paid workers in this country are not deserving of a miserable increase of 20 cent per hour, which is what a 2% increase would represent? The Government must reflect on its attitude to those who are on low pay. Applause is all well and good. Tea and sympathy is all well and good but it will not pay the rent or the bills and will not heat a house during a difficult winter.

I look forward to the Minister's response. I apologise that I will not be in the House to hear it as I have a long-standing commitment to speak at a Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, event for the remainder of the morning. I mean no disrespect to her.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following:

“Dáil Éireann:

— acknowledges the exceptional challenges faced by employees during the Covid-19 pandemic and the lack of a statutory sick pay regime in Ireland;

— welcomes the introduction of the Covid-19 enhanced illness benefit which provides income support to any employee with Covid-19 symptoms or required to self- isolate and also the recent introduction of a new social insurance-based paid parental benefit scheme and extended parental leave rights; and

— and resolves that the Sick Leave and Parental Leave (Covid-19) Bill 2020 be deemed to be read a second time this day six months, to allow for consultation between now and then by the Minister for Social Protection and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, with unions and employers, which will allow for:

— consideration of reforms and improvements to Ireland’s statutory sick pay laws and any related change to illness benefit which is funded through Pay Related Social Insurance (PRSI) contributions as referred to in the Programme for Government;

— research into the extent and exact nature of the problems identified by this Bill, including a full evaluation of the costs the Bill as drafted would place on employers, particularly small and medium sized enterprises that have been severely hit by Covid-19; and

— full discussion and exploration of other practical issues and that may arise, such as increased business costs and business viability, as a result of the proposals and to consider other options for change which might be available, and which would not make it more difficult for employers to remain viable.”

I acknowledge the work of the Labour Party in bringing forward this Bill and I welcome the opportunity to speak on it. The Government has put in place a broad range of measures, which are specifically designed to support people in this time of crisis whether because they have lost their jobs or they are sick.

On sickness, we have put in place a special arrangement for an enhanced Covid-19 rate of illness benefit of €350. Payment is made where an employee or self-employed person is diagnosed with Covid or is a probable source of infection. Significantly, payment is made from the first day of illness so there are no waiting days. Payment is for two weeks for a person who is a probable risk of infection and up to ten weeks for those diagnosed with Covid-19. The Government has extended the enhanced Covid illness benefit payment of €350 per week until the end of March 2021. It is important that employees and the self-employed comply with public health advice to self-isolate where appropriate while having their income protected to the greatest extent possible. This is essential to limit and slow down the spread of the virus. My Department will spend an estimated €599 million on illness benefit payments alone in 2020.

The background to a scheme of statutory sick pay revolves around two key issues, namely cost to employers and improvements to the working conditions of employees. In Ireland, sick leave forms part of the terms and conditions of employment contracts, offered voluntarily by employers to their employees, taking into account the financial and other resources of the business. The proposal in the Bill is to move away from the voluntary nature of sick pay and to instead make it a compulsory part of the terms and conditions of all employment contracts. In discussing statutory sick pay, I am conscious of the need to balance the positive aspects of statutory sick pay against the pressures being faced by employers, particularly small businesses, as a result of Covid-19. While I acknowledge the Bill is well intentioned, we need to be conscious of the impact of the proposals for employers at a time many of them are struggling. It is important to point out that proposals for statutory sick pay were discussed extensively in the past. In 2012, the then Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Joan Burton of the Labour Party, examined this issue in some detail but did not proceed. I understand there was substantial consultation with employer representative bodies, sectoral bodies and trade unions at the time by the Minister on how a statutory sick pay scheme might work. In fairness, 2012 was in the midst of a recession and was also a very difficult time for businesses. Ultimately, because of the concerns expressed in terms of the potential impact on businesses at a time they were struggling, it was decided not to proceed with the proposal for statutory sick pay. It is ironic that we are now talking about statutory sick pay again today at a time businesses are again facing huge challenges.

This is not a simple matter and the fact that it crosses over a number of Departments demonstrates that. There is no doubt that the idea of statutory sick pay is worthy of examination, but it is also one that raises very significant economic and administrative challenges. Under the Bill, the rate of sick pay is proposed to be the same as the employee’s earnings for a full six weeks. In the past when this was discussed, a period of two weeks had been mentioned and the cost of that would be more manageable from a small business perspective.

There are issues that would need to be addressed before the Government could make a decision on whether to introduce a scheme of statutory sick pay such as the duration of payment, the rate of payment, how those who would not qualify for statutory sick pay would be dealt with, and how such a scheme would be enforced and monitored.

As eight years have passed since statutory sick pay was last analysed, the idea certainly merits detailed reconsideration. This would involve consultation across several Departments, as well as the social partners, and it requires informed financial estimates to measure its viability. For that reason, the Government proposes that the Bill be deferred for six months to allow the necessary time for full discussion and examination of all of these issues.

If anyone reads the Tánaiste's contribution in The Irish Times today, it is very clear that the Government does want to act on this but, in doing so, we need to be cognisant of the impact on small businesses. Given the significant challenges facing SMEs, it would be wrong to impose this on them overnight without meaningful consultation. We will now commence engagement with employers and unions and come back to this House when all of the issues have been considered in full. I look forward to working with Deputies on this. In the meantime, the Government will continue to provide support through the enhanced Covid illness benefit of €350 per week.

The past seven months have been challenging for everyone. We have all been asked to play our part, to stay apart, to wear masks, to wash our hands and to isolate when we display symptoms. Covid-19 continues to have significant impacts on all of us, and on children, as 1 million of them go back to school this month, and working parents. Many families are experiencing significant stress due to the unavailability of family support, and in situations where a child's school or childcare provider is closed because a child or children have tested positive for the virus. I have dealt with people this week on that exact issue. I am extremely sympathetic to these families, and acknowledge the challenges that working parents and employees face, and, unfortunately, will likely face in the months ahead as we learn to live with Covid-19 restrictions.

The previous Government acted quickly when Covid-19 first emerged and since March, we have implemented measures to support people, households, workers and businesses impacted by Covid. These include unprecedented levels of emergency income support measures for households and workers. We have also ensured that all workers who are certified by a doctor as diagnosed with, or suspected as having Covid, awaiting a test result, or isolating because of a close contact with Covid are entitled to the Covid-19 enhanced illness benefit, which is €350 a week for up to ten weeks.

However, as the Tánaiste acknowledged in an article in The Irish Times this morning, Ireland is one of a small number of wealthy countries in which there is no statutory obligation on all employers to provide sick pay, that is, a scheme whereby all employers must, by law, pay employees who are unable to work because of an illness. This needs to change and we fully acknowledge and accept that. The Tánaiste confirmed that discussions with unions and employers will get under way immediately.

I welcome the Labour Party Bill as an important contribution to the debate in this area. My colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, has dealt with the areas of the Bill relating to her Department. I will deal with the areas of the Bill that are currently the responsibility of the Department of Justice and Equality, but which will shortly move to the Department of Children. The Bill calls for an extension of force majeure parental leave where a child's school or childcare provider is closed due to an outbreak of Covid-19. The House will be aware that force majeure leave is a form of paid leave provided for under the Parental Leave Act 1988 and the Parental Leave (Amendment) Act 2006. It is intended to provide for short periods of leave for urgent family situations where a close family member is ill or has been injured. The maximum amount of leave allowable is three days in any 12-month period or five days in a 36-month period.

It is important to acknowledge from the outset that it is probable that if an employee suspects their child has Covid-19, the employer may not want that employee to attend the workplace until clarity has been brought. I fully accept this, especially having spoken to families during the week. However, acknowledging that and the intention of the Bill, there are several issues with it that need further consideration.

Force majeure leave applies in emergencies when an employee must deal with an urgent family crisis. The proposed legislation, however, would place it on a more long-term footing similar to other family leave but without considering the necessity for some short notice period. That would need to be looked at. The Bill does not take account of possible working from home arrangements that may be in place and this would need to be looked at further.

The Government's position that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation will commence a consultation with unions, employees and employers is the correct approach. It will ensure we can give proper consideration to reforming Ireland's statutory sick pay laws and any related change to illness benefit.

It will allow research into the extent of the problems identified by the Bill and will allow for full evaluation of the costs. Whether intentional or not, it appears that the Bill would place on employers, and especially our SMEs that have been severely hit by Covid-19, most, if not all, of the costs of these proposals at a time when they are struggling to keep their doors open and their employees in jobs.

If we can get this right, it will reform the State's sick pay laws and any related illness benefit funded by PRSI. The Government is committed to doing so, to supporting working parents and to developing solutions that suit their needs. I look forward to discussions with unions, employers and employees getting under way as soon as possible.

I am very proud to support the Labour Party's Bill. I believe that sick pay is a moral imperative. It was a moral imperative before Covid-19 but it is absolutely one now. While we can look back to say, "Why was this not done earlier?", we can do it now. We are not reinventing the wheel. Despite the Tánaiste's comments in The Irish Times today, as long as these provisions are not enacted, the lack of statutory sick pay will remain a fundamental weakness in our all-out fight to defeat this awful virus. As colleagues said, Ireland is the outlier on this issue. This issue is being addressed in 22 nations of the European Union and is being legislated for. It is not rocket science. There are no fundamental issues that cannot be addressed during the debate on Committee Stage and as the measures pass through the Houses, if they need to be corrected.

Ireland is among the small minority of five EU nations yet to provide for statutory sick pay. Work is a bargain between employer and employee. In my judgment, the bargain goes well beyond a transactional arrangement to simply provide an agreed amount of cash for hours worked. There is a bond. In return for a person's work and labour, if that person becomes ill, surely the responsible employer will wish to support that employee and loyal worker to ensure he or she is provided for and can come speedily back to work.

The Government amendment I read last night is a device we have seen previously. When a Government has no moral argument to make against a proposal, it seeks to kick it down the road. The last time I remember this device being used was when I introduced the Labour Party's Civil Unions Bill 2006. Members might recall that this Bill was to recognise same-sex civil partnerships. It was as far as we could go at that time, pending constitutional change. We made the argument that there was no counterargument with any substance at the time. Because the Government of the day was bereft of any argument to oppose the Bill and was politically afraid to defeat the Bill, it tabled a delaying amendment, crafted exactly like the amendment presented yesterday. The need for these measures is now.

There is a requirement for the protection of workers in this regard. I listened to the sympathy expressed by the Minister for Justice and Equality but sympathy is of little value to the people who have contacted her and who have contacted my office. These are families, for example, who have a sick child and whose employer wants them to stay away from work. They need a statutory buffer to ensure basic household needs are met as they do the right thing and so there is not incredible pressure on them to go into work when they might extend the life of the virus and infect their work colleagues. That is not what we need now. The requirement for this legal and new right, enjoyed by most citizens in the European Union, is now.

I ask the Government to reconsider what I regard as a cynical amendment, and to allow the Bill to pass Second Stage this week in order that we can tease out any concerns and have any bilateral discussions that are required on Committee Stage, before the Bill becomes law having passed through this House and the Seanad. Let us please support this important and vital measure.

I support the my party's Bill. Unlike their counterparts in most other European countries, Irish workers have no legal right to be paid by their employers if they are absent from work because of illness. Whether to pay sick pay is entirely the decision of an employer. There is no legal obligation to do so. Dr. Ronan Glynn has spoken on this issue and said that NPHET had recommended to the Government that "whatever measures need to be put in place" should be put into place to ensure that workers who are sick can afford to not attend work. Dr. Glynn effectively said that the introduction of sick pay was important to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and recommended the Government to take action several weeks ago. So far, this Government has done nothing except to say that it will have a consultation process, which the Minister spoke to earlier.

While many unions have delivered sick pay arrangements for their members through collective bargaining agreements, workers in non-unionised jobs in the private sector can be forced to continue to work while sick or else they must rely upon social welfare. The enhanced Covid-19 illness benefit only provides €350 per week, so if a person is earning more than this but is struggling financially, he or she may be tempted to continue to work while sick with Covid-19. The issues experienced in meat factories, which played a big part in the lockdowns in counties Kildare, Offaly and Laois, are examples of this problem. All workers are being asked not to go to work if they are showing symptoms of Covid-19. An employer, however, is not obliged to pay a worker who cannot come to work because he or she is sick with Covid-19, unless it is part of the contract of employment. This situation means that some workers who might have symptoms of coronavirus are forced to go to work as they cannot afford not to, thus spreading the virus further.

Ireland has an illness benefit scheme of €203 per week before tax for full-time PAYE workers, but in my experience as a Deputy, this can be very hard for people to access. Illness benefit is only paid from the seventh day of illness. A person must have at least two years of PRSI contributions and must have a certificate of incapacity to work signed by a doctor. We are all aware of the cost of a GP visit if one does not have a medical card. A GP visit can cost from between €30 and €70. Self-employed workers and workers over the age of 66 do not qualify.

The Labour Party Bill proposes that workers are entitled to six weeks' sick pay at the same rate as annual leave. According to the WHO, six weeks is the recovery time for a moderate to severe case of Covid-19. We propose that after six weeks the person would move onto illness benefit. Employers would pay the first six days of sick pay in its entirety for all workers, but after six days, the employer can claim any illness benefit that would be due to the worker. To encourage collective bargaining, the draft Bill provides that a collective agreement in the workplace can improve on this. In the public service, unions have delivered collective bargaining agreements providing sick pay of three months on full pay, followed by three months on half pay, with limits over a four-year rolling period. This draft Bill is an important protection for workers but is also very important in combating Covid-19, as the lack of paid sick leave encourages workers who are struggling financially to continue to work even if they are ill, thus spreading the virus further. The Labour Party considers sick pay to be a basic right that workers in Ireland should have. We are launching the Bill to give workers the right to sick pay.

I now turn to the issue of parental leave.

As schools have reopened, parents have been in a position to return to work, but the threat of Covid-19 remains. Many parents will be forced to take unpaid leave for the duration of the school closure, evidence of which we have seen already. Those who may be struggling financially will find it incredibly difficult to cope if they are forced to take unpaid leave to look after their children.

As an extraordinary measure, the Labour Party is proposing paid parental leave when a school or preschool must close or reduce the number of pupils who can attend in order to comply with Government policy to stop the spread of Covid-19. In such a case, an employee who is the parent or adoptive parent of a child will be entitled to Covid-19 parental leave at full pay for so long as the child is unable to attend the school or preschool and the presence of the employee is required at home to care for the child.

There are five Sinn Féin speakers in the next slot. Deputy O'Reilly will be first. The Deputies are managing their own time.

I thank the Deputies for introducing this legislation, but I cannot let this go without remarking on how the former Minister, Deputy Howlin, stated that sick pay was a moral imperative even before Covid. He was bang on. It was a moral imperative when he cut the entitlement of public servants, including our nurses, to sick pay in half. I campaigned against that cut.

We are adding statutory sick pay.

For my entire working life, I have campaigned for workers' rights. I will continue to do so. There is no need for Deputy Howlin to interrupt me. He has made his point. He made his point while-----

-----he was a Minister, when he cut in half the sick leave entitlements of public servants. I was a trade union official at the time and I well recall it. In fact, we managed to stave off the worst of what the Deputy was trying to do, but what public servants were left with was a sick pay scheme that was effectively half of what it was before he entered government. However, his road to Damascus-type enlightenment is welcome and I thank the Labour Party for introducing the Bill and giving us this opportunity. It is a timely debate for the House.

I will take a few seconds of my time to wish Mr. Sam Nolan a special happy birthday today. He is a stalwart of the Irish trade union movement and the Irish left and a long-time campaigner. Were he present, he would support a statutory entitlement to sick leave just as he would have opposed the cutting of sick leave for public servants when that was done.

A number of elements of this legislation merit further consideration and discussion. The fact that Ireland is an outlier in Europe should cause us to act with the urgency that the Bill calls for, but no Deputy is naive enough to believe that a statutory sick leave scheme can be introduced overnight. That notwithstanding, there is a real and urgent need for people to be able to take time off without having to fear losing money or being unable to pay their rent, heat their houses or feed their kids. These are very tangible concerns for people and now is the time for a detailed dialogue as this legislation progresses. I do not see a need to defer the Bill - we can have a process that involves a detailed dialogue taking place in parallel.

There are measures that can be introduced in the short term. For example, force majeure leave can be extended separately. This would also cover a group that is noticeably absent from this legislation, although I am sure that absence was not the intention when drafting it. Carers have been left out of the Bill but should be included. If day services close, then the carer of a person who attends those services will also have to isolate. It is important that we make this Bill inclusive legislation. It is also important that we ensure the involvement of the trade union movement, which is central to this issue.

I express my thanks for the position taken by Ms Patricia King and Mr. Gerry Light this morning in standing up to what some of us in the trade union movement used to call the "Pay Restraint Commission". The Low Pay Commission was not delivering for workers and Ms King and Mr. Light were right to walk away from it. I hope the Government will heed their message and legislate for a decent increase in the minimum wage.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of this Bill. Its timely passing by the House would take immense stress and strain off many working families, in particular working parents who are raising children on their own. For workers and families, the past six months have been difficult. The difficulties did not suddenly arise when schools returned. When the first State-wide restrictions were introduced, I was contacted by a number of parents, mothers in particular, who had children with lifelong illnesses. They were put in a position of being forced to choose between staying at home with their children and limiting their contacts. Many used their annual leave at that stage. They had to choose between staying at home and looking after their children or going to work.

In many ways, all parents across the State are now on call. If a parent gets a phone call from a school because his or her child becomes ill or shows symptoms of Covid at school, that parent has to drop everything, walk out the door of his or her job and go to collect his or her child. I am unsure as to how many jobs there are where parents would be in a position to do that.

We know of the prevalence of low-paid employment in the State. According to figures from Social Justice Ireland, there are more than 100,000 people at work but living in poverty. Last year, nearly €400 million was spent by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection on the working family payment. That payment essentially tops up poor wages for workers with children. While the payment is necessary, it signals that none of these parents can afford to take unpaid leave if his or her child becomes sick. Deprivation levels have increased in the past year, which we know from a Central Statistics Office, CSO, report published this month. Nearly half of lone-parent families are living in deprivation and more than one in five children experiences deprivation. If someone is living in deprivation and is in work, he or she will not be able to afford to take time off unpaid.

There have been issues with illness benefit for some time: it is dependent on PRSI contributions; the self-employed have no access to illness benefit or, indeed, any short-term sick pay; previous cost-cutting measures increased the waiting days from three to six, which made the situation even more difficult; and it is costly for anyone to take illness benefit, given that every time someone attends a doctor for the form, he or she must pay upwards of €30 or €35.

In the short time the Government has been in office, it has failed parents in failing to extend maternity leave. I note how in the Tánaiste's letter in today's The Irish Times, he mentioned that enhanced maternity benefit was coming down the road. We would all like to know what that is. Instead of extending maternity leave, the Government extended unpaid parental leave. That eliminates many parents who cannot afford to take such leave.

While Covid has created difficulties for many workers and families in 2020, it has also taught this Government two immediate lessons: the waiting days for illness benefit are inappropriate and inadequate; and the payment of €203 is inadequate. The enhanced illness benefit was introduced for this reason and no other. The Bill presents an opportunity to do the right thing by workers and families. No worker can wait six months for that.

I recently launched a Sinn Féin policy proposal, entitled "Keeping Our Schools Open", in which we identified the key elements for ensuring that we keep our children in school safely and sustainably. This will be just as challenging as getting schools open in the first place was. We have identified clearly that protecting the incomes and jobs of workers and parents is a crucial component. The reasons for this are obvious. Parents want to do the right thing by their children, themselves and their children's schools. In the context of the pandemic, this often means that parents will have to keep their children at home if they are symptomatic or if either a child or parent tests positive or is connected to a positive case by way of a close contact. This has obvious implications for workers who might have to take time off. Crèches and childminders will be off the table as options. The option of grandparents minding children will often be off the table as well. As such, many workers will have no protection. They will have to take unpaid leave, particularly if this happens more than once. Many employers will be reasonable and flexible and some workers may have the option of using leave, but others will not have that protection.

In most developed countries, sick pay has been extended during the pandemic to cover such circumstances.

In most developed countries, they have a statutory sick pay scheme. Imagine that. It is a disgrace that Ireland has such desperately poor protections for workers in terms of sick pay. Should parents be obliged to stay at home with children, the Government must act to protect their incomes and jobs. Keeping the virus out of schools necessarily means supporting parents to do the right thing and keeping symptomatic children home. That is why Sinn Féin has proposed a significant extension of emergency leave and why Sinn Féin is supporting this legislation and I commend the Labour Party on bringing it forward. The Government's approach to this, proposing a delay of six months, is lamentable. It would be laughable if it were not so serious. We do not have six months to play around with. I know there are details in this regard that must be worked out but that is why we have Committee Stage hearings. That is the forum in which to navigate the complexities of the detail of this legislation. It can be done and this is just a delaying tactic in order that the Government does not have to vote this down, which was probably its first impulse.

It is not only Sinn Féin that has identified protecting the income of workers as a key element to protecting workers and ensuring schools can remain open. None other than the acting Chief Medical Officer, CMO, Dr. Ronan Glynn, has affirmed this position. He noted that people who need to self-isolate should have no fear about their employment and stated: "Economic circumstances simply should not be a barrier to people coming forward and getting tested." Schools are open, which is good, but to keep them open safely and sustainably, the Government needs to do a number of things. It needs to reduce class sizes, introduce rapid testing and remove the fears of parents as to how they will cope if their children fall sick. It is unconscionable that parents should fear being unable to pay the bills because they have to keep children at home and take unpaid time off. The same principle applies to workers across the board and many workers can scarcely afford to call in sick, which we have seen in the meat factories and so on. The Government should give parents and workers security and confidence and should protect their incomes and jobs. It is a crucial and strategic part of the fight against the pandemic.

I welcome this Bill and commend Teachta Kelly on its timely introduction. I am pleased to be able to speak on this Bill and offer my support to it.

As has been previously mentioned and will be well known to many who have the experience, Ireland is an outlier in terms of sick pay within the European Union. There is little to no legal right to sick pay here. It is instead left to the discretion of the employer, which means many workers, particularly those in poorly paid and non-unionised roles, do not have access to sick pay. I heard this on the doorsteps in Shannon in County Clare during the general election campaign. People were furious as they were at home sick with no pay. They were asking me who had their backs.

No lower- or middle-income household can survive a week with no income. Unfortunately, it took a major issue like a global pandemic to highlight these issues and force us to make a move on it. Covid-19 clearly showed us the need to have sick pay as a basic right of workers the length and breadth of this State. Imagine the contradiction of a Government Minister telling people who are barely earning enough to get by that if they feel a bit unwell, they should not attend work. I can tell Members that such a decision is not taken easily when one is already struggling to raise a family or keep food in the fridge. Let us say this person does not go to work and loses a day's pay. This could mean he or she goes without fuel in the winter, for example, or without several meals throughout the week. It could also affect his or her children in terms of extra tuition or any hobby or outlet they may have. It has a direct effect on people's well-being.

Section 3 of this Bill deals with the issues around force majeure and the right of a parent to take leave if a child is out sick from school. This is a no-brainer, especially in a time like now with Covid-19. I have received emails from workers, including front-line workers in University Hospital Limerick, for example, who are being told they may have to restrict their children's movements due to suspected close contacts. These parents are being obliged to stay at home, as we are all in this together, yet still they are doing so without any pay. We need to get a grip on reality, come back down to earth and deal with the real issues facing workers and parents. We need to show we can stand with the workers and make sick pay a basic right, while supporting small businesses that may need such support. We need to ensure that a working group is established that will look at all the factors in ensuring that a proper workable solution is found to the benefit of workers and their employers. This steering group must include representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the wider trade union movement to ensure the voice of workers is heard. I call on all Deputies in this House to support this Bill.

I welcome the introduction of this Bill and hope that the Government and those who support it will get behind it. I ask all voters to pay particular attention to those who vote against this Bill. Those Deputies who claim to be champions of workers' rights will be exposed as frauds in the way they vote on this Bill, in the same way that they were exposed by their response to the recent motions relating to the Debenhams workers. These are workers I supported in Newbridge yesterday evening after the liquidator sent in a crew to pack up stock for export to England.

We are long overdue a statutory sick pay scheme in Ireland. The European picture varies greatly, from €38 a week in England, all the way up to €875 in Switzerland. In fact, the average worker across Europe receives 65% of his or her salary as pay during a week of sick leave. In Ireland, he or she receives nothing. Norway, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Malta, Croatia and Belgium pay out 100% of workers' wages.

Ensuring that workers are well at work is a basic issue of safety and simply the right thing to do. When workers are unwell, they need to rest to recover. When sick workers stay at home, they reduce the spread of infection and the risk of workplace accidents and they keep others safe. We only have to look at the meat factories to see the effect that the absence of sick pay had on Covid-19 cases. We have heard of workers swigging Calpol before going to work in an effort to keep their temperatures down, in order that they could continue to earn money to provide for their families.

This Bill also calls for the extension of force majeure leave for parents and workers who will have to take time off work to look after children who must isolate due to Covid-19. This is something for which Sinn Féin has been calling in recent months. We cannot have a situation where cases of Covid-19 arise in schools and parents are left taking unpaid leave to look after their self-isolating children. We need this matter clarified for parents and this Bill does exactly that.

Together with the Social Democrats, I am strongly in favour of this Bill. We hope the Government will both support it and ensure its speedy progression and we thank the Labour Party for bringing the Bill forward. It addresses deficiencies in existing workers' rights and provides additional, much-needed protection during a pandemic. Bills like this must be a point of unity during the Covid-19 crisis.

Workers in this country have no entitlement to sick pay. It is essentially a voluntary measure, which thankfully many employers provide. However, there are also whole sectors that can afford it and choose not to give people the dignity of it, including the State. Sick pay should be a basic entitlement and it should not be a matter for debate. Ireland is an outlier in a European context. In economically comparable countries, sick leave is a given and an entitlement. We need to address this deficiency here.

Sick pay is less likely in precarious work environments, in more physically demanding industries and in the ever-increasing gig economy. This leaves people in extremely vulnerable positions. The absence of proper support for older people, including sick leave, can push them out of the workforce early. The European Commission’s Social Protection Committee’s review on sickness benefits highlighted the gendered aspects of sick pay. On average, women take more short-term sick leave, due to factors such as part-time work, sick leave related to pregnancy and birth and the demands of work in the home and care for children. As a result, the lack of sick pay in Ireland disproportionately affects women.

This Bill is not only a social and economic consideration during a pandemic but it is also a public health consideration. What happens when a low-paid worker gets sick? What happens when a mother struggling to pay for her children’s education falls ill or when a father, unsure if he can pay next month’s rent, feels unwell? We all know what happens. They still go to work because they do not have a choice. Without sick pay, we are directly incentivising people to go to work sick. This is ridiculous at the best of times but during a pandemic, it is scandalous. Presenteeism, that is, going to work while being in poor health, is recognised as being an increasing challenge in European workplaces that is costing businesses and social welfare systems due to the spread of illness. Sick pay is a necessary security blanket for people.

For businesses, it is an assurance that ill employees will stay at home. During a pandemic, it is an essential safety net for everyone, especially front-line workers. Sick pay is a basic public health policy. It not only helps protect and improve individual and communal health, which leads to a better and more productive society, it also means considerable savings for our overstretched hospitals. This point cannot be emphasised enough during a global pandemic.

An OECD paper on policy responses to coronavirus shows that expansions to paid sick leave play "a key role in protecting incomes, health and jobs during a health-driven labour market crisis" and that paid sick leave can be a particularly effective tool to tackle the disease "as part of a rigorous testing, tracking, tracing and isolating strategy". Research from the US shows that the introduction of sick pay in a region is associated with a decreased rate of contagious flu-like disease.

Meat plants, to which several of my colleagues have referred, are a clear example of the need for sick pay. There have been over 1,500 cases and more than 30 clusters within meat plants to date, with some clusters currently active. Some workers have a choice between going to work with symptoms of Covid and not getting paid. The sector is refusing to engage in an industry-wide agreement on sick pay. It is essential that this Bill passes in order to address this disgraceful treatment of workers in a sector that continues to be one of the largest threats to public health.

The granting of paid leave to care for a child who has, or potentially has, Covid-19 is not only a humane response but a good public health measure. This will allow people to take the time necessary to take care of their families and isolate if needed.

Concerns will rightly be raised about the costs of these measures for small businesses and self-employed people. However, many small and family-run businesses that I know in west Cork already provide sick pay and parental leave to employees. These enterprises, which are the backbone of the rural economy, are excellent employers and this Bill helps create a level playing field by requiring larger employers to do the right thing too. The State also needs to step in to provide comparable measures for the self-employed, especially for the farming and the fishing communities, which should have sick pay and parental leave as well as injury and bereavement support. If the Government is serious about helping rural Ireland, these forms of paid leave should be introduced.

This Bill is about public health and the fair treatment of workers. Similarly to the Social Democrats workers' rights motion and the Sinn Féin motion to extend maternity leave in July, both of which were hollowed out through Government amendments, this Bill responds to the needs of ordinary people during a pandemic. The Government needs to stop routinely ignoring Opposition motions if we are all to work together during this pandemic. This Bill is about people in precarious employment, many of them on the front line, who do vital work but who are denied sick pay. If media reports are correct, the Government intends to send this legislation to consultation with unions and employers' groups to report back in six months. This stalling tactic puts public health at risk and allows very profitable sectors and the State to continue to deny people basic entitlements. This is about tackling the spread of Covid-19. The Government has been criticised for ambiguities and inaction before. Please do not let this be another issue left unaddressed. Sick pay is essential and is necessary now.

I am sharing time with Deputies Paul Murphy and Mick Barry, though the latter is not here yet.

We in People Before Profit welcome this Bill. We will vote for it and we want to see it progress beyond Second Stage. However, we will seek to amend and strengthen its provisions and ensure there is a legal, mandatory statutory sick pay scheme for all workers in this country. The Government amendment spins it that the Government will legislate for a sick pay scheme but that it will take time. I do not believe a word of that. I have absolutely no faith that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Green Party can be trusted to return to this issue in six months. The Covid crisis has shown us the effects of allowing employers to evade the responsibility of providing a sick pay scheme, especially in the meat plants. It is literally a matter of life and death for these workers, who cannot wait.

When it comes to the rights of workers and entitlements, Ireland is the sick man of Europe and we have been for decades. Compared to other countries like France, Germany, Finland and Sweden, we are at the bottom of the table for basic rights and the provision of entitlements and public services, with less annual leave, fewer public holidays and less full-paid maternity and paternity leave. Workers have no legal right to join a trade union and have it recognised or negotiated with by their employer. We have constitutional rights which protect property, privilege and wealth over the provision of public goods. We pretend that employers and workers are equal in position and power. It is incredible that the State, through its unwillingness to tackle bogus self-employment, ensures the social fund used to pay for workers' benefits is deliberately defrauded on a grand scale day in, day out, while our former Taoiseach wages war on welfare. He and his Government were happy to allow corporate cheats to cheat us all. This is largely a result of political choices made in this House and the weakness of the party that claims to represent workers and to be the party of Connolly and the trade union movement.

It is an outstanding irony that this Bill was brought here in a flurry of PR releases and media grandstanding by the Labour Party. It must hope or believe that the working class and the trade union movement will have a bout of collective amnesia. Its memory may be short-term but the hurt and misery it has inflicted on workers and the most vulnerable will not be forgiven or forgotten anytime soon. It was the Labour Party and a Labour Minister that decided in its last turn in government that workers should be forced to wait six days before they received any sick pay from the State. The Labour Party extended those waiting days. The period without State benefit was extended from three to six days with no compulsion on employers to fill the gap. One would wonder what the party of Connolly thought workers were supposed to do for six days with no income. The Labour Party adopted this policy, as in so many areas, in the belief that workers must wait. It only took a global pandemic to reverse that particular cut brought in by the Labour Party, though I am sure the current Administration will try to revert back to that position as soon as it gets the chance.

Many a public sector worker will have an ironic laugh at the fact that the Labour Party is now championing a mandatory sick pay scheme. The Labour Party attacked and radically overhauled the sick pay scheme available to public servants, teachers, nurses, many of our front-line workers and those in the Civil Service. It closed the door on new recruits having the same rights and entitlements to sick pay in the public service that had existed previously. It shamefully joined the attacks on pension entitlements of public sector workers and the campaign to divide the public and private sectors. It rode in with plans to extend the age at which workers could get the State pension and changed the bands on the amount workers could expect to live on when they retired. For this, it supported the FEMPI legislation that represented the greatest assault on trade union collective bargaining in the history of the State. Now the Labour Party has moved a Bill to make sick pay mandatory. That is very good indeed, but it is going to have to move much more to convince workers and the most vulnerable in this country that it is anything other than a mudguard for the parties of the bosses and employers in this State.

Deputy Bríd Smith said it as well as one can when she said she does not believe a word of the Government's amendment. It is attempting to kick this issue down the road and is hoping that Covid, and the struggle for workers' rights which is connected to the struggle against Covid, disappears in some way. We simply cannot tolerate an ongoing situation where meat plant workers, nursing home workers and care workers of all sorts with Covid symptoms have to show up to work despite being sick because they cannot afford to lose a day's pay. It is simply not acceptable that workers in Ireland have no guaranteed right to sick pay whatsoever while almost all other European countries ensure this is a right. In Germany, workers get six weeks' sick pay but in many other countries they have even better rights. In Norway they get a full year. In the Netherlands, bosses are required to cover sick leave for up to two years with supports for small businesses that cannot afford to do so. We can and should do the same here. The meat plant workers epitomise the problem. Despite the pandemic, the beef barons are still denying sick pay to 6,000 meat factory workers and the Government is letting them away with it. We need to end that situation now.

I will speak briefly about the proposals for parental leave. Working parents have been made shoulder the burden of the fight against Covid with very little support from the Government. When the schools were closed, parents, and women in particular, were the ones who had to pick up the slack, working full-time and double-jobbing with no entitlement to paid parental leave. With Covid outbreaks now in some schools and some children having to stay home again, we need to support parents by extending paid parental leave. If a child cannot go to school because he or she has symptoms or the class or school is closed, parents should be entitled to leave from work to stay home if needed. That is the very least they should be able to expect.

I wish to talk about nursing homes and meat plants. Workers in HSE nursing homes are entitled to sick pay. If they present with Covid symptoms, they can quarantine with a guarantee of full pay.

They are under no economic pressure to go to work. Only 20% of nursing homes in the State, however, are HSE nursing homes; the other 80% are privately owned. There is no legal obligation on those employers to provide sick pay schemes. When the chief executive of Nursing Homes Ireland, Tadhg Daly, came before the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response some months ago, he was unable to tell me how many private nursing homes operated sick pay schemes or what percentage did so. There are clearly many workers in private nursing homes - I suspect a majority, and possibly a large one - who cannot quarantine with a guaranteed decent income if they come down with Covid symptoms. They are under real economic pressure to go to work.

That is pure madness, as it is for the Government to try to postpone the prospect of any action on this for six months. According to SIPTU, 90% of meat plant workers are not in sick pay schemes. One of the Ministers of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Senator Hackett, stated this was unacceptable and told the Sunday Independent last month that these workers deserve dignity, respect and the full protection of the State. Today her Green Party colleagues are lining up alongside Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, trying to prevent any action on this issue for six months. What hypocrisy this is. Is it not a really dangerous path to go down as the second wave begins to build in this country?

I thank the Deputy for keeping to time, which I appreciate. I call Deputy Canney, who is sharing time with Deputy Tóibín.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted and shone a light on the issue of sick pay and the continuation of income for families throughout the country. The Bill seeks to amend the existing sick pay legislation on the basis that we need to give entitlement to people who cannot attend work on grounds of force majeure or whose children are unable to attend school or preschool services for Covid-19 reasons. Its principle is very commendable, in that it will maintain income streams for families who otherwise would fear being absent from work or would find themselves in circumstances such as those ably described by other Deputies. We all accept that.

We need to protect families in these uncertain times but, at the same time, the question arises as to who will pay for this. Is it expected that employers, which are currently hanging on by a thread, will have to pay for it? Small businesses such as those that have been in contact with me over the past six months and that are making decisions daily as to how to keep their doors open and their employees at work cannot now be faced with another cost to business. They cannot be expected to foot the cost of this. We all agree the current supports do not bridge the gap; we need to put in more supports. The small business sector, examples of which we all know throughout the country, employs people, who create the economy. If we are to frighten such businesses by putting more and more obstructions in their way, we will find that more and more businesses will close. We need to respect the circumstances of business people, especially those in the small sector. We can always talk about the beef barons but not every employer is a beef baron or a person full of wealth. Many people working in business at the moment and employing people are not making any money and are probably not even drawing a wage for themselves. We need to respect their circumstances too. If this legislation is to be successful, we need to know that the gap in sick pay benefit will be met by the State.

I listened with interest earlier to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, stating her intention to talk to employers and trade unions. That is the proper way to deal with this. We do not need a knee-jerk reaction whereby we bury more business people. In the interim, however, we need to ensure that people who are affected by Covid and cannot go to work will be taken care of. I plead with the Government to ensure that interim measures will be put in place in order that nobody is left without money to put food on the table during these times.

I reiterate that the main idea of the Bill is commendable but what we need to do is to ensure that people who are suffering are taken into account by the State right now and that any gaps in payment are met by it. We can look at sick pay benefit into the future after that.

A significant theme is crystallising around how the Government is tackling the Covid-19 crisis. It is a tale of two countries. The Covid-19 restrictions are hitting low- and middle-income workers far more than any other sector of society. Instead of reducing that impact, the Government is rubbing the noses of people on those incomes in it. There are pay rises for Deputies at the same time as income support cuts for hundreds of thousands of workers who have just lost their jobs. The Government is spending millions of euro on up to 70 special advisers while, at the same time, cutting income for 200,000 families in various parts of the country. It is reminiscent of the days of Charlie Haughey, when he was telling people to tighten their belts while, at the same time, he was purchasing Charvet shirts in Paris. This is a two-tier approach by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, and it can also be seen in how they are treating workers.

The Government has sought to lock down the economy, shut down schools and childcare facilities, and has called on people to suspend their livelihoods and incomes in the battle to stop Covid-19. It has made these demands but does not want to provide these workers with the necessary supports. It is absolutely willing to exhibit a demand from citizens but unwilling to support those workers in their time of need. We have seen it happen with the childcare sector, the entertainment industry, the aviation sector, the events industry, the pub trade and the taxi trade, to name but a few. Now we are seeing it with workers who are sick or with parents who are unable to go to work because they are unable to care for their children. At a time of an international pandemic, no one should be punished for falling ill and no parent should be punished for caring for their sick child.

I welcome the intentions of the Bill and commend the Labour Party on bringing it forward. If it is the case that a vaccine will not be found for at least a number of years, we need to put a regime in place to allow for sectors of society to function properly while we tackle the virus. There will be cases of Covid-19 in schools. Some schools will be closed, as a number have already had to do temporarily. As such, children will need to be kept at home. We need to be able to say to parents that they will not suffer a collapse in income if they are minding their children. They should not have to go in and negotiate with their employer in order that they can go home and have some level of income. It is incredible what is coming from the Government because the Taoiseach has stated as much, as has the HSE. They have told people not to go into work if they are experiencing the symptoms of Covid-19. The Government cannot, however, say that in all honesty to people if it is not going to provide some level of support for them. Guaranteeing sick pay is the very least that can be done to ensure that people will not go to work and risk spreading Covid-19 around the workplace.

Nevertheless, a key element of the context of the Bill, and one on which I agree with my colleague, Deputy Canney, is that many businesses throughout the country are hanging on by a thread. Many of them, especially small businesses, would be wiped out if they had by themselves to take on the burden of sick pay. We call on the Government to step in and ensure there is a floor of necessary supports underneath both workers and those struggling businesses to ensure they can function through this pandemic.

I too compliment the Labour Party on trying to introduce this Bill. I know the Government is opposing it. As an employer myself, which I want to declare, I have mixed feelings about it. It sends all the wrong messages. What is happening in the country is sickening, with the pandemic and special advisers, including advisers for Ministers of State. Many are simply not up to the job. I am not talking about the Minister but many are not up to the job and they do not know what to do, so they need advice on whether to turn right or left or to go forwards or backwards. It is a pathetic state of affairs to have in the Government in the middle of this pandemic. One can say that we are all in this together but we are not because Ministers and Ministers of State think they can do what they like. They are oblivious to what is going on in the real world. This is the wrong message to send at a time when Dublin is locked down again and the Tánaiste has gone into isolation. There are many mixed messages. There is a rush to see how people can make headlines. People are sick and tired of this.

Small business people cannot afford the scheme in this Bill, so this is why I will more than likely vote against it. They are good employers and there are tens of thousands of them across the country. They do their best. They are at the pin of their collar and beyond it, and we need to recognise that and have Government supports, because we must root out what is going on in the meat industry and other industries, where they are blackguarding and exploiting workers. We must certainly tackle that. A small businessman looks after staff, in the main, including with sick pay, and the staff look after the business. There is a great bond. We must get Government support like in other European countries that we are told have this. The Government has to provide Exchequer support to business people for the sick pay scheme. If we are going to do this and keep piling more bureaucracy and more onerous levies on small employers, we will not have those employers and we will have a worse off country. The Minister needs to wake up and stop the mixed messages all the time. This pay increase is disgusting.

This is a grand, popular, populist idea by the Labour Party and I do not begrudge employees anything that we can give them because they deserve as much as we can provide. Where will the money come from, however? I register the fact that I am a small employer myself. Small employers are under fierce pressure. In my county, we depend on small employers to a great degree. We do not have oil, gold or diamonds and if we did we would not be allowed to drill for them anyway. Small employers are struggling with rules and regulations, insurance costs, the cost of Covid rules and the reduced income and trade that most employers have at present, and many struggle to have the cash to pay employees on Friday, with payday coming around quickly. Trade and business is slow at present. As well as employees, we must stop to talk about employers too, especially small employers, and we must do as much as possible to help them because they are the people who pay the employees. We have to work hand in hand with them. People are missing such things as home help and carers. I remind Deputy Kelly that the Labour Party cut women's pensions by a third in 2012. The Labour Party should be looking to restore that and repair the harm it has already done.

I would like to say to the Labour Party leader and to that party that I do not welcome what they are doing today. It is a complete farce. They are trying to cod people. I remind the people of what the Labour Party stood for and did. When it was in power and had an opportunity, it was disgraceful and did nothing for workers. It was the party that did away with the death grant for bereaved families. It hurt ladies in particular who were trying to get a pension when they retired and to this day they are paying a price. There are people across the country who are paying a price for what the Labour Party did when it went into power and completely forgot who its voting base was.

It forgot the people in what I would call honourable Labour. There were great people in the Labour Party. In the county that I am from, we had good, respectable people, such as the late Michael Moynihan, and Dan Spring, who served on Kerry County Council with our late father, Jackie Healy-Rae. There were good people in the Labour Party but, my goodness, they are not related to the Labour Party that is in here trying to cod the people with this Bill.

The Labour Party is saying nothing about the people who create work. I again want to register that I am a small employer. The Labour Party knows nothing about work and is here talking about workers' rights. There is not one person in the Labour Party who paid a person on a Friday evening and they do not give a damn. They are just trying to be populist and popular, attacking the Government. We are all genuinely interested in workers and workers' rights, and we want them to be taken care of, but I will not fall for this nonsense from Labour. When it had a chance, it did nothing for workers. Do not cod the people.

I agree with my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group. It is a bit rich of the Labour Party to put this forward today, when it absolutely destroyed women's pensions. It comes before me in my constituency every week because of the Labour Party's errors and what it did to persecute the women of this country. It has forgotten that quickly but we have not forgotten it because we have to face it daily and the women who worked hard have to face it, because of disgraceful decisions made by the Labour Party.

Every employer I know in west Cork wants to do the best by their employees. Only a foolish Deputy would come in and say that employers in the constituency that he or she represents are not stretched to the limit. They are stretched to a complete limit at this time and are unable to do any more. They are doing their best, with Covid-19, to keep the people they have employed. I am worried that this Bill will add an extra burden to people at this time. I was at the annual general meeting of the south-west fishermen's co-operative over the weekend. People there said to me that the obstacles they encounter when trying to employ somebody such as a foreign national on their boat cost them thousands of euro and it takes months to get somebody on the boat to work. We should look to see how we can simplify that. It is simplified for meat factories. It is an issue for larger trawlers in west Cork. I was with them for most of the day on Saturday and talked with them about the difficulties they are experiencing. This is a significant difficulty and perhaps an amendment in this regard should be put in this Bill. For now, we should be careful where we go with this Bill. We are adding extra stress and difficulties for employers who are doing their best to stay afloat and this pushes them to their limit.

I am sharing time with Deputy Harkin. I support this Bill introduced by the Labour Party. First, I wish to make an observation. We seem to have two Labour parties in Ireland, the one that we saw in government and the one that we see in opposition. In 2012, the Labour Party's Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, began a consultation process on her stated intention to introduce a mandatory sick pay scheme whereby employers would be responsible for the first four weeks of sick pay. The usual suspects raised objections. Deputy Coveney, on behalf of Fine Gael, said it would be a burden on business, and of course IBEC and the Small Firms Association objected. In 2014, the statutory sick pay waiting times were increased from three days to six days. This made Ireland unique in the EU, with statutory sick pay for the first week of illness being absolutely zilch, with nothing in people's pockets. That was introduced by Deputy Howlin. Instead of much-needed reform, we got yet another austerity measure.

The European Trade Union Confederation has shown in research that sickness benefits were cut by an average of 65% across the EU after the 2008 crash. Along with the cuts in public services, especially health services, and the outsourcing of community care and nursing homes, these cutbacks have significantly complicated the measures necessary to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

The fact that 80% of workers in meat plants do not have sick pay entitlement was a key factor in the outbreak of Covid in some of those plants. The lack of sick pay, as well as the danger of losing one's job, is a factor in one in four people not turning up for tests.

The widespread use of agency workers in community nursing home care, including workers employed as agency staff in the HSE itself, is also a significant problem. Again, young workers are most likely to be in precarious employment and in low-paid jobs with virtually no entitlements. We should look to the example of countries such as Norway, Luxembourg, Austria, Germany and Belgium where a 100% sick pay rate is paid by employers, provided there is a doctor's note, followed by lower payments paid by the State subsequently.

Employers in Ireland already benefit from the lowest level of employer PRSI, less than half the EU average. How can businesses in Europe maintain workers' rights and sick pay but it cannot be done in Ireland? Passing this Bill would be one of the steps necessary for a comprehensive response to the Covid crisis. Others would be a restoration of the pandemic unemployment payment and introducing a ban on evictions. I certainly will support the Bill.

I thank the Labour Party for bringing forward this Bill on sick leave and parental leave for two main reasons. First, it addresses in a real, meaningful and sustainable way issues that workers, parents and guardians are facing around sick and parental leave because of Covid-19, which many of them will continue to face over the next six to 12 months. Regarding Covid, we have to accept that it may not be one's problem today but it could be tomorrow or next week. Many people who thought it would never be their problem are facing that issue of paid parental leave today as their children cannot attend school. This proposal needs to be an integral part of our Covid strategy, which is reasonable and feasible.

Second, I am aware from my time as a member of the employment and social affairs committee of the European Parliament that Ireland is one of the few countries that does not have legislation in place that guarantees all workers the right to decent levels of sick pay. Many Members have spoken about different EU countries that have mandatory sick pay levels in place.

The one I know best is Belgium where workers are entitled to 30 days at 100% of their wages. Belgium could hardly be described as a socialist country or dominated by the far left. In fact, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, was the former Prime Minister of Belgium and he is a member of the liberals in the European Parliament. Yet his and previous Belgian Governments ensured that Belgian workers are entitled to 100% of their wages for 30 days if they are sick. Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, a bastion of the European People's Party, could never be described as fiscally irresponsible. Yet in Germany, workers are entitled to six weeks at 100% of their wages. Let us take some of the fiscal hawks, such as the Nordic countries, which keep a tight rein on the public purse. In Finland, the benefits range from nine days at 100% while in the Netherlands they range from two years at 70%.

The proposals put forward by the Labour Party are reasonable. Not by any stretch of the imagination are they in the highest bracket compared to what is in place across the EU. The Bill recognises, as it is recognised in many other European countries, that workers are social partners. That means they should be fully entitled to a guarantee of protection if they fall ill or if they need to take time when their children cannot attend school or crèches. As we speak, many parents are facing that decision this morning while many others do not know if they will face it tomorrow morning. Workers have lives to lead and families to feed. Crucially, illness or adverse circumstances surrounding their ability to work, particularly during Covid, can strike any time. There is no vaccine or antidote to that.

The Government call to delay this change is not the solution. We all know it can propose any amendments it considers necessary to this Bill, as can any other party or group in the House. The Bill is not the finished product but is a start. We should not wait any longer. We also need to look at options to protect SMEs, as well as our workers. That balance needs to be struck. The Bill is a good start, which should be voted through. People will then see that we are serious about looking after them during this Covid period.

I heard some of the earlier contributions and will discuss them with my colleagues. I agree with Deputy Harkin that the Bill deals with an important issue. We might have different views on the speed at which we can change but most Members are in favour of bringing in measures in this space, which is a positive move. I thank the Labour Party for leading this debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss it in the House. The Government welcomes the introduction of this important issue for future deliberation in the House.

The past seven months have been a challenging time for everyone. We all have been adjusting to the new realities that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought in its wake. Extraordinary steps have been taken in our efforts to suppress the virus. We have been asked to socially distance and to wear face masks in circumstances where it is not possible to stay 2 m apart. The importance of washing our hands has been stressed and, most important, we have been told to socially isolate if we display the symptoms of the virus. Employers have been asked to support remote working where possible, as well as to adjust the physical environment of workplaces and associated work practices in order that essential work can continue in a safe manner. No one should go to work if they are feeling sick or displaying Covid symptoms. To do so would be harmful to themselves, the people with whom they come in contact and detrimental to our economy and wider society.

Ireland does not have a statutory sick pay scheme in place, that is, a scheme whereby all employers must by law pay employees who are unable to work because of an illness. An illness benefit scheme is administered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. This scheme was temporarily enhanced in the circumstances presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. The goal is to encourage people not to go to work when they should be in isolation simply because they cannot afford to lose out on wages. The scheme ensures payment from the first day of illness, allowing employees to comply with medical advice to self-isolate to mitigate the spread of the virus. While I appreciate that the illness benefit scheme does not necessarily cover entire salaries of workers affected by the Covid-19 public health measures, I am thankful many employees enjoy contractual entitlements affording them sick pay entitlements.

However, as my colleagues have signposted, the proposal to introduce a statutory sick pay entitlement is not quite as straightforward as the Bill suggests. While most businesses have reopened and are trading, many are faced with the prospect of a slow recovery in domestic consumer demand and decreased international demand, together with the overhang of costs and losses that arose during the past seven months. The Department is engaging with these businesses daily, as are many Members. They face many pressures. The majority of those businesses would accept positive change at the right time in this space. It is about managing, however, what we have in front of us.

Government measures have been introduced to support people, households, workers and businesses impacted by Covid-19. This has included unprecedented levels of emergency income support, measures for households and liquidity support measures for enterprises.

These measures have played a significant role in supporting the economy and society.

However, businesses continue to require help to stabilise, reboot and deal with the ongoing challenges they will have to face coming into the winter. Business owners face a variety of fixed costs which they may struggle to meet due to ongoing public health restrictions. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we do not hastily introduce new costs on business that would compromise the continued viability and solvency of the thousands of microenterprises and small businesses across the country that are trying to get back on their feet. This includes coffee shops, small retailers, travel and tourism operators, those involved in the leisure and play sectors, including kids' leisure and play centres, the entertainment sectors and the pubs that have suffered dramatic and catastrophic reductions in revenues. We are all very familiar with their stories. They are not just businesses, small, micro or large, but also employers. They give people the opportunity to go to work, and everybody benefits from businesses doing well. This also helps to give us the tax revenues we need to provide and upgrade services. It is a full circle. It is a matter of trying to make sure we support the employees, the businesses and those who are at home. That is the balance we have tried to achieve with the supports that have been announced during the Covid-19 pandemic.

From the start of the pandemic, many employers have taken the initiative, in line with subsequent requests from the Government, to be as flexible as possible in allowing staff to manage their family responsibilities and to protect themselves. Employers have a general duty of care towards their workers, and that care is often expressed in the form of negotiation, compromise and flexibility. Quite a good rapport has been developed in that respect, and I think most feedback will show that this is happening in a positive way and that those conversations have been had individually in many cases and directly with workforces as well. In the majority of cases, in fairness, everybody has acted responsibly, and that is a compliment to all involved.

The Government has been encouraging any employees coming into contact with the virus, even indirectly, to follow the guidelines, self-isolate and engage with their employers in the first instance with a view to exploring all options available to enable them to self-isolate and then return to work when it is safe for them to do so. We continue to encourage all employers to be as flexible and supportive as possible with a view to maintaining good employment relations over the long term.

While employees are obliged to work as needed and in line with the terms and conditions of their employment contract, employers also have a duty of care to their workers in ensuring a safe and healthy workplace. Employers do not want staff arriving into the workplace when they are sick, which would put at risk not only themselves and other employees but the wider business. However, the introduction of a statutory requirement on all employers to pay up to six weeks of sick leave per annum would be a very large burden on microenterprises and small enterprises. For this reason, the Government believes a period of consultation is essential before considering any policies and legal obligations in this area.

In principle, the Government sees many benefits associated with the introduction of statutory sick pay. However, we need to identify the specific problem or challenge that the absence of such an entitlement is creating and the most efficient and fair manner of addressing that challenge. This will require cross-departmental co-operation.

We will need to carry out research into the extent and the exact nature of the problems identified in the Bill. We will need to understand the cost and the impact the proposal would impose on smaller and medium-sized employers who have already been severely hit by Covid-19-related public health measures while still dealing with the fallout from the financial crash a number of years ago.

While some form of statutory sick pay would appear to be clearly a good thing and in the public interest, we must ensure that the way in which such a scheme is introduced is proportional. If we could devise a workable proposal, it would likely improve healthcare outcomes and make Ireland a more attractive place in which to live and work, and that is something we would all support.

We must engage with the employers and their representative associations as well as worker representatives. In doing so we will consider reforms to the country's horizontal sick pay laws and any related change to illness benefit, which is funded by PRSI. We will also explore a range of measures to address the implicit incentive for a sick person to attend work in a way that would fairly apportion costs among the relevant parties.

We will return to this issue in six months' time, as proposed in our countermotion. I did not get to hear all the contributions but I did hear some of them. I thank all the Deputies for their input and the leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Kelly, who will formally close this debate. I understand what the party is trying to achieve, and the Government accepts that, but for us the issue is timing and how we move this forward by bringing everybody with us to make sure it has no negative effects.

I will refer to the comments my colleague, Deputy Howlin, made earlier. I agree that many companies have been supportive of their employees throughout this crisis, and I have referred to that already, but I do not agree with the suggestion made by the Deputy and other speakers that we can iron out all the issues and consider all the implications in just a matter of days. This is quite a significant proposal. The Bill proposes a rather large change. It needs and merits proper consultation across all the Departments and across this House and its committees. If the Labour Party genuinely wants to achieve progress in this area, it would be best to give the party's proposal enough time such that we could have that proper consultation. We have to be proportionate and consider the microbusinesses and small businesses and the effects this will have on them. There is a duty on us all here to protect jobs and not to put more at risk. We cannot merely push this Bill through this week as its implications are significant. We have to be very careful not only to protect and sustain jobs but also to put our companies and enterprises on a growth path in order that we can achieve new employment in the years to come across the many sectors.

In response to Deputy Bríd Smith's comments about the Government returning to this issue in six months, I will reiterate the points my colleague, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, made in The Irish Times today. The Ministers, Deputies Humphreys and McEntee, have also said the Government is happy to get working now through the many issues that arise, so three lead Ministers are very clearly committed to this and to putting our shoulder to the wheel and doing the work on this in the months ahead. These were not just throwaway comments to put the matter away for six months. We will commence the work and it will involve an appropriate level of consideration and consultation with all the relevant stakeholders - unions, employers and employees. We will carefully evaluate the costs and benefits associated with the initiative. That is the proper way to bring forward a proposal such as this.

I thank Deputies Canney and Mattie McGrath for their comments about protecting microbusinesses and small businesses and not frightening them with new requirements and a knee-jerk response. Most employers are responsible and would be happy to engage in this conversation in an appropriate way and to make the changes we can all afford.

We continue to work to respond to the needs of workers and households and examine gaps in payments. This is why I accept the reasons the Labour Party has brought forward the Bill. I know without a doubt that it is a genuine proposal; the question is how we can make progress in this area. I thank all the Deputies. I have not had a chance to refer to everybody who spoke because I did not hear all the speeches, but I will take note of them in the days ahead.

I thank the Minister of State. It is a pity he did not get to hear all the contributions. I wish the Tánaiste well. The Minister of State said this is about timing. It really is because we are in the middle of a pandemic. If we in the Labour Party had not brought this proposal forward, the House would not be talking about it. The Minister of State certainly would not be talking about it. Our party has always fought for workers' rights. We will continue to do so and it will be to the fore of everything we do. We have had many successes and have changed workers' rights in this country. My party has done so more than any other party and we aspire to do so again. In all that time, however, the issue of sick pay has never been dealt with, and this pandemic has changed that. It needs to be dealt with. The Government often puts forward commentary to the effect that the Opposition never brings forward anything, is playing politics or is doing this, that or the other. This is positive legislation. It is a proposal that we feel will help in the global pandemic we are in and will make workers' lives better.

I thank all those who said they will support the Bill. I regret some of the political commentary from a few Independents who have no intention of ever serving in government or taking responsibility for anything, although we are used to that, and from some other Independents of the rural variety who effectively said they do not believe workers should have statutory sick pay. Imagine not believing workers should have statutory sick pay or believing that a parent with a child in a school with a case of Covid should not get time off to look after that child. Imagine going back to one's constituents and saying that is what one believes. That is exactly what a number of rural Independent Deputies said today, and I will remind them of that forever. I acknowledge the support of Sinn Féin. Again, I regret its commentary, given the fact that sick pay is £89.35 in the North. Whatever we say about what we are doing down here in the Republic, sick pay is €350 here, so there is a huge differential. It is therefore hypocrisy to say one thing here and to have another thing in a different jurisdiction.

We have made many changes. My colleague, Deputy Nash, brought in many changes in labour legislation during his time as Minister of State, including the establishment of the Low Pay Commission, which we will speak about again. Statutory sick pay is an issue that will have to be dealt with. It took a global pandemic to expose a huge hole in workers' rights.

I was taken by Deputy Harkin's contribution. She did an analysis of a range of jurisdictions across Europe which are hardly socialist bastions, for want of a better phrase. This included 22 countries which have statutory sick pay and pay proper wages to workers when they are sick. Some of these countries are getting on better than us in the pandemic. That has not been correlated here so I ask Deputies to listen to that.

Sick pay is currently at the discretion of the employer and I acknowledge there are very good employers out there. A large number of employers pay sick pay, including the public service and other very good employers. However, some employers are not good. Some of the employers represented and spoken about in this House today do not want to pay sick pay. They want that power over their employees and they do not want to pay sick pay. That is not acceptable in 2020 during a pandemic.

We acknowledge that small and medium enterprises will need financial support in tandem with this Bill, particularly during the pandemic. The reason we are introducing this legislation before the budget is to align it with the budget in order that these enterprises can get such support. It is our intention to make sure employers who can afford to pay sick pay but are refusing to do so pay it, and that small and medium enterprises are supported by the Government to ensure they can meet the requirements which will be set out during the process by which we bring this through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The suggestion of a six-month delay is complete and utter rubbish. When there is an outbreak in a place of low-paid employment and a county goes into lockdown as a result, I will point out to the Minister of State that we had an opportunity and he should tell that to people in the county that is in lockdown because a low-pay employer did not pay sick pay. I know all about low-paid employment, such as in the meat industry. There is a factory in Cahir in my county of Tipperary where workers have to be in full employment for two years to receive sick pay. I know all about meat factories because I worked in them in order to be able to go to college. They are tough places to work. If employers do not respect workers and provide adequate sick pay, what will the workers do? They will take paracetamol, Calpol or whatever they can. Temperature checks are a complete waste of time. Workers are left in an unenviable position of facing the stark choice between going to work or not getting paid. If they go to work, they will spread the disease.

I have a real issue with where we are going with this pandemic and the lack of sick pay because there will be outbreaks and this is the trajectory. We will be faced with what NPHET recommends and what the Government takes on board. We will not have used our full armoury or all our tools and some people will go to work and spread symptoms because of the Government's decision not to allow this Bill to go through. This Bill needs analysis on Committee Stage and outside input but all of that can be done. Rushed legislation is not good legislation, I heard today, but there has been a huge amount of rushed legislation over the past six months. This is necessary legislation. Tusla has reported 63 incidents in early years services already. What about all of those workers and workers in all low-pay environments?

The mantra from Government that we must follow public health advice is one I support but it is hypocritical. The chief executive and chief clinical officer of the HSE have both said this measure is necessary. On 27 August, the acting Chief Medical Officer made a clear recommendation and the journalist asked him if that recommendation had been made to Government a few weeks previously by NPHET, to which the acting Chief Medical Officer replied that it had been. Sometime in August, the acting Chief Medical Officer recommended that the issue of sick pay be dealt with. The Government has not dealt with it, which means the Government is not following public health advice. When the Government tells the public to follow public health advice, is it not hypocrisy that one of the issues that NPHET and the HSE have stated the Government needs to deal with has not been dealt with? When the Government asks young and old people and everyone else to follow health advice, can people not throw back at the Government the argument that it is not following health advice? The Government is allowing situations where people will go into work because they will not get paid otherwise. Is that not hypocrisy?

I ask the Minister of State to go back to the Government and deal with this issue. It must also deal with the provision in the Bill on parental leave which would allow guardians, mothers and fathers to look after their children, just for the period of Covid if there is an outbreak in a school. This is a comprehensive, positive and necessary Bill. It ticks the box in meeting the Government's challenge to the Opposition in this Chamber to come up with solutions and be proactive, positive and non-political. This is not about politics; it is necessary. I urge the Minister of State not to kick this legislation down the road for six months. If he does so, he and every other Deputy who votes against it are saying that parents cannot look after their children if there is an outbreak in schools and that people who work in low-paid employment which does not have sick pay are not entitled to it. What they are all saying is that when they want to they can follow public health advice and when it does not suit their political needs, they do not have to. That is bloody well hypocrisy.

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Wednesday, 30 September 2020.