Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Amendment) Bill 2020: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 and provide for related matters.

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this Bill. The purpose of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Amendment) Bill 2020 is to protect workers in their workplaces. The Bill makes a straightforward amendment to the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act to make workplace outbreaks of Covid-19 notifiable to the Health and Safety Authority, HSA. The proactive notification and surveillance of Covid-19 is key to ensuring that we do not end up with clusters of the virus in workplaces, as has been happening throughout this pandemic. Some might be shocked to learn that workplace outbreaks of Covid-19 are currently not notifiable to the HSA as occupational illness, due to a lacuna in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act. We are outliers in Europe in this regard and when we look at other countries like Spain, where Covid is classified as a workplace injury. In June, I published this Bill to make workplace outbreaks of Covid-19 notifiable to the Health and Safety Authority. I was compelled to publish the legislation due to the failure of the then Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to use her powers under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act to amend regulations to provide that occurrences of Covid-19 in the workplace would be notifiable to the Health and Safety Authority.

This failure has been compounded by the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, who is now responsible for workers' health and safety and, I shudder to think of it, workers' rights. He does the very opposite of what his title would suggest. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, has been to the fore campaigning for this change and has written to the relevant Ministers on a number of occasions requesting that this simple change be made. On 24 July ICTU met the Tánaiste to discuss the issue of notifiable illnesses and diseases being reportable to the HSA. This, however, resulted in no change to the law and no additional protections. At the stroke of a pen, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, could make workplace outbreaks of Covid-19 notifiable to the HSA. Unfortunately he has point-blank refused to do this. This is in stark contrast to his performance last night, when he tried to portray himself as someone who has concern for workers. Thrashing public health officials and gaslighting the nation that he has concern for low-income workers is pretty counter-intuitive. He talks about workers and he refuses to legislate for protections for workers' health and safety. He talks about poverty and votes against Dáil motions to combat child poverty and introduce a living wage. He talks about mental health as if his party had not spent the last nine years gutting and underfunding our mental health services. Indeed, we will see how far the Government's concern for the less fortunate extends this week when we vote on restoring the cuts made to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. The failure of the Tánaiste to do what this Bill seeks to do in making Covid-19 notifiable is proof of his attitude and the attitude of the Government to workers.

One only has to look at the alarming rise in the rates of infection for health care workers which has trebled in recent weeks from 100 per fortnight to 300 per fortnight. This Bill is intended to protect workers who simply cannot work from home. These people work in meat factories, food processing plants and supply chains to get the food to our supermarkets, in nursing homes and hospitals, respite centres, shops and on building sites. These people are our gardaí, prison officers, Army personnel and many more. Ordinary workers have been put in danger because of the failure to legislate for this.

At the time of publishing the Bill in June I stated that given evidence of the incidents of Covid-19 in workplaces such as meat factories and health facilities during the lockdown period this change absolutely must be made and if it was not workers would again be put in danger. It is with great regret that we have seen this become a reality across countless workplaces.

The aim of this legislation is to protect workers in all workplaces whether they are in a meat plant, a care home, on a building site or in an office block in the International Financial Services Centre, IFSC. It can be done by statutory instrument but the Tánaiste refuses to do this. Therefore, I am left with no option but to table this legislation.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

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

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

Question put and agreed to.