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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 7 Apr 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 7

Sick Leave Bill 2022: Second Stage

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

This Bill creates a new workers’ right in Ireland. For the first time, employees in Ireland will be entitled to statutory sick pay from their employers. It is one of five new workers' rights I am establishing this year. The other four are: a new public holiday, which has been signed into law; the right to request remote working, which is undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny in committee; better protection of workplace tips and gratuities, through the Payment of Wages (Amendment) (Tips and Gratuities) Bill 2022, the Second Stage of which has been passed by the Seanad; and new rights around redundancy for people laid off during the pandemic. The legislation for those new redundancy rights was signed into law last week and I signed the commencement order for it this afternoon.

Introducing statutory sick leave is part of the pandemic dividend, in respect of developing a more inclusive economy and fairer society. The pandemic exposed the vulnerable position of many people, especially in the private sector, when it comes to missing work due to illness. No one should feel they have to go work when they are sick because they will lose all their income otherwise. It is not just bad for them, but it is also bad for public health, as sick workers may infect colleagues, clients and customers and be more likely to make a mistake, injure themselves or do harm to others. Ireland is one of the few advanced economies in Europe not to have a mandatory employer-funded sick pay scheme. Cyprus and Portugal are the only other EU members that do not have employer-funded sick pay or state financial supports similar to Ireland’s illness benefit scheme. The United States, Japan and South Korea also do not have such a provision. It is part of President Biden's agenda in the US and Canada is taking steps to introduce employer-funded sick leave at national level.

This scheme compares favourably with the sick pay scheme in Northern Ireland and Britain, which pays only £96.35 weekly. Many employers – we think approximately half – provide sick pay, but we need to provide that security and safety net for all workers, regardless of their jobs. This Bill ensures that paid sick leave will be available to all workers. It covers full-time and part-time employees. As a result, the Bill will lessen the inequality between the public and private sectors. Nearly all public servants have access to paid sick leave through the public service sick leave scheme. Coverage in the private sector, however, and particularly among the lowest-paid workers, is much lower. Private sector employers providing sick pay are at a cost-competitive disadvantage compared to those that do not. That is not right either.

Statutory sick pay is the latest in a series of actions that have improved social protections for workers and the self-employed over the last five years. These include: the introduction of paternity benefit; parental leave benefit; enhanced maternity benefit; treatment benefit; and the extension of social insurance benefits to the self-employed, including dental and optical benefits, invalidity pension and jobseeker's allowance or benefit. Statutory sick leave will be additional to existing forms of leave and it will be phased in as part of a four-year plan.

As a starting point, it will cover the three waiting days before eligibility for illness benefit from the State kicks in. As we know, illness benefit can last up to two years. Where an employee has an extended period of illness, this scheme will operate seamlessly with the existing illness benefit system. Once employees have exhausted their entitlement to paid sick leave from their employers, they will then move onto illness benefit paid by the State, provided they have made adequate PRSI contributions. The length of coverage will increase over time, eventually providing for an entitlement to ten working days or two weeks annually in the fourth year of the scheme’s operation. The savings to the Social Insurance Fund will enable us to improve illness benefit payment rates and link them better to earnings.

I fully understand that many businesses are struggling now with additional costs because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as the impact of Covid-19 and Brexit. This is also one of a series of reforms the Government is introducing that will have costs for business, including auto-enrolment, and that is why we must ensure we phase them in and sequence them appropriately. We must be fair to employees and employers, particularly SMEs, so the cost is going to be shared between employers, employees and the Government. It will be phased in and we will ensure there are proper controls. The scheme has been designed based on consultation with employee and employer representatives. Prior to seeking Cabinet approval for the draft of the Bill, my officials undertook a full public consultation that sought the views of relevant stakeholders and the public on key policy questions around the design of the scheme. In addition to the public consultation, my officials also undertook an international review to get a better understanding of how sick leave schemes operate elsewhere.

I have been clear on what regulations under this legislation will provide for in order to make it predictable for employees and employers alike. Regarding rates, statutory sick pay will initially be paid at 70% of regular earnings, up to €110 per day, from the first day of illness. We are aware that employers in some sectors will also have to deal with the cost of replacing staff out sick at short notice and we are setting a cap to give those employers certainty around the costs involved at the outset. I refer to the costs of replacing employees who are sick and covering sick leave. The regulatory impact assessment, RIA, of this scheme illustrates that a scenario in which everyone were to take the full three days of sick leave in year one would increase payroll costs by 0.8%. When this scheme has been fully introduced, the additional payroll cost will be 2.7% annually, and that is not dissimilar to a year's pay increase. It is important that we bear this point in mind in respect of the cost to employers.

From the employee perspective, the Bill ensures they will receive an appropriate and predictable level of compensation if they are unable to work due to illness or injury. A minimum rate entitlement will also be set to ensure that all workers receive a reasonable level of financial compensation, even if they work part-time or are on low pay.

I will now provide a brief explanation of the various sections of the Bill. Sections 1 and 2 are standard provisions setting out the Short Title and commencement, and necessary definitions. Section 3 gives the Minister the power to make regulations for matters referred to in the Bill and requires the Minister to lay those regulations before the Oireachtas. Section 4 provides for expenses incurred in relation to the Bill to be refunded out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas.

Section 5 sets out employees' entitlement to statutory sick leave and the conditions employees must satisfy to qualify for paid sick leave. Initially, an employee will be entitled to three paid sick leave days in a calendar year. This may seem modest, but it is set at that level to ensure that excessive costs are not imposed on employers at the outset. It will increase incrementally over time and absences may be consecutive or non-consecutive. It is important to point out that illness benefit kicks in on the fourth day.

Regarding eligibility, employees will be required to have worked for their employer for 13 weeks before becoming eligible to avail of paid sick leave. This is to allow time for an employment relationship to develop between employers and employees and it is a common requirement in other forms of statutory leave, such as carers or parental leave, and in existing company-level sick pay agreements. It is also a common requirement in other jurisdictions that have sick pay measures in place. The 13-week service requirement is subject to the definition of continuous service set out in the Minimum Notice and Terms of Employment Act 1973. This ensures employees cannot be dismissed and rehired immediately by unscrupulous employers to deprive them of their entitlement to paid sick leave. That said, in response to the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, officials in my Department will keep this provision under review, and we may consider amendments on Committee Stage.

Any day taken as sick leave will require a medical certificate from a registered medical practitioner. It would be unreasonable to introduce a legal obligation for employers to pay for sick leave without the need for a worker to produce evidence for this in the form of a medical certificate. That would not be sick leave; it would be a different form of leave if not required. The requirement for a medical certificate is a fair and necessary provision. It is also not an unusual requirement. The State, for example, requires employees to provide medical certificates to access our illness benefit scheme and it is also a requirement in many sectoral and company-level sick pay arrangements. Companies can, of course, waive this requirement if they wish. It is not mandatory that companies request medical certificates be provided, but they can and are legally protected if they do so.

Section 6 provides that the number of sick leave days provided for under the Bill may be increased or decreased by ministerial order, provided the entitlement is not reduced below the three days per year, and other matters the Minister may wish to consider in doing so.

Given the close links between statutory sick leave and illness benefit, and the need to ensure alignment between the two schemes, the section provides for consultation with the Minister for Social Protection in advance of any increase or decrease in sick leave days.

Section 7 provides for the setting of the rate of payment in respect of sick leave by ministerial order. As I said, the intention is to introduce sick pay at a rate of 70% of regular earnings up to €110 per day, and a minimum entitlement will also be set. I know some stakeholders believe the rate of payment and earnings cap should be set in the Bill itself. I do not agree with that. Doing so by ministerial order allows greater flexibility. It will allow the rate to be revised, as necessary, in line with inflation and changing incomes. I have been very clear on the medium-term plan to make sure that employers know what their obligations will be and that employees know what their entitlements will be, too. However, I also want this legislation to be fit for purpose in the longer term, and that is why we intend to set the payment levels by regulation.

Section 8 provides that nothing in the Bill will prevent the inclusion of more favourable provisions in respect of sick leave in a contract of employment. As is always the case with any workers' rights legislation, this legislation sets out the minimum standard that an employer must provide. It will not prevent employers having superior sick pay schemes to that required by law.

Section 9 provides that obligations under the Bill will not apply where the employer provides his or her employee with a sick pay scheme that confers benefits, over the course of a reference period set out in the scheme, that are more favourable. For businesses that genuinely cannot afford to pay we have included, under section 10, an inability to pay provision. This allows the Labour Court to grant an exemption to a business from its obligations under this Bill, for a period of not less than three months and not more than 12 months. There is a similar provision in the National Minimum Wage Act 2000. It will only be granted where there is a real risk to business sustainability. My understanding is that this provision in the National Minimum Wage Act has never been used.

Section 11 provides that the rights of an employee will not be affected by exercising their right to sick leave under this Bill and that sick leave may not be recorded as any other form of leave. It also provides that where an employee is on probation, an employer may suspend the probation period while the employee is on sick leave.

Section 12 provides that an employee cannot be penalised for exercising their right to sick leave under the Bill. Sections 13 to 15, inclusive, deal with enforcement and compliance issues and provide for the relevant amendments to be made to the Workplace Relations Act of 2015. This enables and authorises the WRC to carry out inspections and to take complaints regarding compliance with the Bill. As with other statutory employment rights, where an individual believes they are being deprived of rights to which they are entitled under the Bill, they will be able to refer a complaint to the WRC. There the matter can be dealt with by way of mediation or adjudication leading to a decision that is enforceable through the District Court. WRC inspectors can also be asked to investigate certain breaches of the provisions of the Bill.

I think all reasonable commentators and stakeholders will recognise that this Bill represents progress. It will improve the rights of workers. Events of the last two years have shown how necessary this legislation is. While it represents a new expense for some businesses, it is common across Europe that employers cover a portion of sick leave costs. We have taken care to ensure that costs are not excessive. Some have said and will think the Bill goes too far, and others that it does not go far enough. As Minister, I have a responsibility to strike a fair and reasonable balance, giving protection to employees and predictability to employers.

Ultimately this Bill means that workers will not have to attend work while sick though economic necessity. This will be one of the positive legacies to emerge from the pandemic. While I know Deputies will differ on the approach, I think we are all agreed that this legislation is the right thing to do and the sooner we can implement it, the better. I ask for the help of colleagues in the House to allow us to progress this Bill quickly through the Dáil and Seanad. I would like to have it done in a matter of weeks so we can have the scheme up and running and this new right in place by the middle of the year.

I apologise to the Tánaiste that I will not be able to stay in the Chamber for the full debate. I have another meeting to go to. I will look back over the Official Report. Sinn Féin supports a statutory sick pay scheme. I do not think that will come as a surprise to anybody. We have argued for this for quite a long time now. The fact the Government is moving on it in any small way is proof that the trade union movement, ourselves and others have won the debate on this important workers' right.

I cannot let today pass without referring back to the previous Fine Gael and Labour Party Government in 2012. I was just reading a statement before I came in which was issued by the then Minister, Deputy Howlin, following the slashing of the paid sick leave entitlement for serving civil and public servants. He said that he believed that reducing the sick leave entitlements would result in increased productivity and reductions in absenteeism. That was deeply and grossly offensive to civil and public servants. We can all recall the conditions they were working under at that time. I was representing them at the time. They really felt that was a gross insult to them. I am really glad that now, both of the parties that formed that Government see the merits of sick leave and see how important it is.

The pandemic, as the Tánaiste said, has exposed the need for a paid sick leave scheme and, indeed, the paucity of rights for some workers in the State. The lack of a statutory sick pay scheme puts workers, the public and all of us at risk. The experience of the pandemic has shown us that access to paid sick leave is an important instrument of public health. Unfortunately, there are barriers within the proposals from Government which mean that access to the sick pay schemes will be limited and could exclude workers on low incomes.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment conducted detailed pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill and produced an important report with recommendations to improve the scheme. The committee debate on the need for immediate medical certification to obtain sick pay was robust. There was broad agreement that medical certification to qualify for sick pay is an important requirement. Nobody is disputing that. It is important because it maintains the integrity of the scheme, as we know is the case in other EU countries that operate sick leave schemes. However, the concern of many members of the committee was the fact that, unlike most of our European peers, workers here do not have access to timely and free GP care. Demanding a worker immediately obtain a medical certificate in order to qualify for sick pay, in a State without timely access to free GP care, imposes a significant financial burden on a worker. This is before we factor in that it can often take a long time to get an appointment with a GP. Those living in Balbriggan could wait a week to ten days before they would even get an appointment. I am not sure how that is going to work in respect of people being able to access time off work with pay. In these circumstances, demanding immediate medical certification will result in some workers being unable to access the sick pay scheme because of a lack of access to free or subsidised GP care. This could result in employees attending work when they are sick, or else taking unpaid leave to cover the duration of their illness. This completely undermines the purpose of the scheme. In order to be fit for purpose it has to be accessible to all workers without barriers like having to pay for attending a GP. It is a stated aim of Government that free GP care is going to be rolled out at some point. I do not think there should be any difficulty in facilitating some kind of rebate for workers pending the introduction of free universal GP care.

It is a proposal from Sinn Féin that there would be free universal access to GP care in this State. That would be an important element in any sick leave arrangement. Unfortunately, the Government is not accepting this argument. I have a concern that this will result in workers attending work when they are sick, or else taking unpaid leave, which goes against the principle of the scheme.

Another recommendation of the committee which was ignored in the drafting of the Bill was that on the qualification period. I welcome the Tánaiste's remark that this is going to be kept under review. The committee recommended that all employees be entitled to statutory sick pay, regardless of their length of employment with a particular employer, where an employer can request medical certification. The qualification period in the Bill is still listed as 13 weeks continuous service. In particular, this will cause some workers who are on yearly or short-term contracts to have to restart their qualification period continuously and not be able to claim sick pay for the first 13 weeks on the job. The Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment has outlined this and so too has the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

ICTU has outlined in a letter to the Government that the need for a worker to have 13 weeks' unbroken service with an employer before a sick pay scheme entitlement commences will leave hundreds of thousands of workers employed in low-paid jobs, who are mostly women and foreign-born essential workers and who routinely have their service broken by their employer, without coverage for the three months each year. As ICTU's head of social policy, Dr. Laura Bambrick, said, early-years professionals working in preschool services on a 38-week contract are forced to sign on for social welfare in the summer. There are term-time workers in education and seasonal workers in tourism and horticulture whose contracts will require them to rebuild their 13 weeks of service. The Tánaiste mentioned the need to have an established, or to establish an, employment relationship. There are workers with that established relationship who, after the breaking of their service, go back to the same employment. I am aware that the Tánaiste said he will be keeping this under review, but I would be very grateful if he concentrated his review specifically on those workers. People working in the education sector will be laid off; they know they will be. The concern is that they will have to work up 13 weeks even though they will be working with the same employer. There is no sense to that. I genuinely do not believe that is the intention of the legislation. Nothing is ever easy, as the Tánaiste knows, but this could be rectified fairly easily.

The increase in the number of sick days provided to workers year on year, as outlined in the Bill, is to be actioned by ministerial order. I understand the need for that and heard the Tánaiste state the reason. It gives flexibility and scope to respond quickly but it also allows the Minister, if he or she chooses to be obtuse, to delay increasing the number of days outlined. We should examine this because it will inhibit the performance of the scheme.

While we in Sinn Féin support a statutory sick pay scheme, the fact that the Government is not taking on board the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment and trade unions shows it refuses to see things from the perspective of ordinary workers. It is the latter who will benefit, we hope. As with the remote-working Bill, it looks like the Tánaiste is trying to pull a fast one in that he appears like he is giving workers a right but is not granting it in a way that makes it accessible. I sincerely hope that is not the intention. I will work with him to ensure a swift passage of this Bill and to make improvements where necessary.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. For many years now, Sinn Féin has been a strong advocate of bringing in statutory sick leave. The Bill has generally been welcomed but it is not without flaws. It is good to see that the Government is finally moving on this issue. The pandemic of the past two years has shone a light on the need for statutory sick pay and highlighted the issue of having nothing set in stone. Workers on low incomes have been forced to go to work even if they do not feel well because they cannot afford to go without a day's pay. It is not because they are selfish or reckless but because they need to pay their rent or mortgage and put food on the table for their children, and also because there has been no social security net to protect them financially.

This Bill still leaves questions over the capacity of workers on low incomes to access sick pay. Demanding that workers get a medical certificate as soon as they become sick is all well and good in a country with no issue in gaining access to a GP. Unfortunately, that is not the reality here. The Government has failed to acknowledge the lived experience of workers by keeping the immediate acquisition of a medical certificate as a requirement in accessing sick pay.

There are financial barriers to accessing a GP that people simply cannot afford to surmount. Many people are not in a position to pay €60 or €70 to a doctor. With the ever-rising cost of living, people simply do not have that sort of money lying around. This demand will almost certainly result in workers attending work when they are unwell. Workers need to be able to self-certify where they cannot get a doctor's note within 24 or 48 hours. We have had many discussions on the cost-of-living crisis that people are facing. The Government seems to be blind to the fact that people on low incomes are struggling. The same applies here. I hope this can be addressed on Committee Stage. My colleague, Deputy Louise O'Reilly, will be seeking to amend the clause in this regard.

The general secretary of ICTU, Ms Patricia King, raised some serious concerns over the Bill. The Irish Independent reported this morning that she has written to the Minister outlining her unease over certain parts of it. She said the need for 13 weeks' continuous service could be open to abuse, with employers purposely breaking workers' service to avoid paying sick pay. There are concerns that thousands of workers will be overlooked by this Bill. That needs to be rectified.

I thank all our essential workers, who went to work every day and put themselves at risk over the past few years. They deserve rights and entitlements like any other workers. Sick pay leave is the bare minimum to which they should be entitled. The Bill is welcome but there are still several points in it that need to be addressed. Sinn Féin and other stakeholders want to work with the Government to improve it for workers. I hope the Minister can work with us on Committee Stage to strengthen it to protect workers' right to sick pay in the future.

For many years Sinn Féin has been calling for a statutory sick pay scheme. When employees cannot access financial support when unwell, they ultimately go to work. As we have seen over Covid, that spreads diseases and causes further illnesses in the community. We need to plan for this.

There are two issues I want to highlight. I am raising them because they arise repeatedly in my constituency office. We cannot talk about sick leave without also talking about access to GPs. This is a genuine issue across the country. Furthermore, we cannot talk about sick leave without asking low-paid workers to keep a kitty in their back pocket of €70 or €75 in case they need it when they get sick. Where a certificate is asked for immediately, there also needs to be a very strong focus on pathways to obtaining it. I understand medical certification is essential to the integrity of the scheme but this was caveated in a reference to access to GP services. Demanding that a worker obtain a medical certificate immediately puts a great financial burden on him or her that needs to be considered. That is before recognising the delays that have been established and are well known in accessing medical care. We do not need to see circumstances arise in which those who are unwell or, heaven forbid, injured must go to work simply because they cannot afford not to.

With regard to low-paid workers specifically, the cost of going to a GP if one is not a medical card holder can be the equivalent of half a day's pay. That is not something people are able to absorb at this point. The cost of living is rising, as we have discussed multiple times, and it is likely to continue to do so. We need to pay heed to the important lessons we learned during the pandemic, one of which is that access to paid sick leave is a genuinely strong instrument when it comes to public health. Equally, we must recognise the barriers, including the financial barriers and delayed appointments, that will prevent workers who need to access the scheme from doing so. The scheme will simply be beyond their reach. I ask the Tánaiste to take on board and address these issues and ensure those who genuinely need the scheme can access it and benefit from it, particularly regarding the potential for a rebate of the medical outlay for low-paid workers if he is not open to re-examining the immediate-certification need. Until free GP care is in place and we have made significant progress on GP access, what appears to be a very well-intentioned Bill will simply not deliver for those who most need it, namely, the workers in our communities and in certain sectors whom Deputy O'Reilly outlined, so they will not have to go to work when they should not do so.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Sick Leave Bill. Sinn Féin fully supports the introduction of a statutory sick pay scheme. We support this Bill and have argued for such a scheme for decades. The Bill has been broadly welcomed by trade unions, many of which were instrumental in lobbying for it. As a former shop steward, I urge all workers to join a union to help them make advances in pay, terms and conditions for all workers.

We support the aim of the Bill but it is not without flaws. The lack of free and timely access to a GP is a huge problem, as previous speakers have mentioned. Immediate medical certificates from registered medical practitioners are hard to access if people cannot find a GP. Sinn Féin proposes that until there is universal GP care in this State, workers should be allowed limited periods of sick leave. It would be wrong to require GP certification, given the severe lack of doctors throughout the country. In part of my constituency, it can take over a week to get an appointment. I have raised this issue in the House several times, but the Government has turned a deaf ear to the problem. The best time to act to solve this problem was ten years ago. The second-best time is now. I again ask that the Government act as soon as possible to address the lack of doctors and dentists.

The need for medical certification in order to qualify for sick pay also places an unnecessary financial burden on workers. This will result in employees attending work when they are sick or taking unpaid leave to cover the duration of their illness, which will undermine the purpose of the sick pay scheme. Workers who are with their employers for less than 13 continuous weeks are excluded from the scheme, and this must change.

Section 10 of the Bill allows the Labour Court to exempt an employer from the obligation to pay an employee sick pay if it can prove to the Labour Court that it cannot pay it. This is an unnecessary measure. Any employer that can afford to have employees needs to prioritise the people who help it to make profits. No doubt right-wing parties in this House will argue that workers will abuse the sick pay scheme and employers should have an opt-out clause.

Some companies have claimed they cannot afford to pay things like the minimum wage. Since the National Minimum Wage Act was passed, not a single employer has ever appealed to the Labour Court and opened its books to show it cannot pay the minimum wage in an effort to receive an exemption from paying it. I, like previous speakers, remind the House that, in 2012, the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government introduced tax on illness benefit from day one. Talk about kicking people when they are down. This kind of attitude is why Sinn Féin will continue to expose their anti-worker agenda.

If we learned any lessons from the pandemic, we learned that in some sectors, workers' rights have been eroded beyond recognition. There is a reason the hospitality and caring sectors are struggling to recruit enough workers. We need to move towards a living wage economy if we are to address poverty and ensure a fair wage for all. Realistically, if we do not do that the rising tide will not lift all the boats.

I thank the Minister for his contribution. We spoke about this Bill before and I have reflected on his comments earlier today about the nature of Government intervention and universality in reference to free GP care. It is something on which I agree with him. As referenced by other speakers, a previous Government introduced free GP care for children on the basis of universality, on the understanding that members of our society who pay their taxes in that society should feel that everybody should benefit from it, regardless of background or income. It allows everybody to feel as if there is no myth of a squeezed middle, of those who solely benefit and of those who shoulder the famous tax burden. That is why I agree with the Minister's earlier comment on the nature of universality.

When we speak about the cost of living, as my colleague, Deputy Bacik, said earlier, we in the Labour Party constantly say that in Ireland there are expenses that are not expenses anywhere else in the Europe or that an average European citizen relocating here would find to be quite unusual. GP care or GP visits are among them. People relocating from the North to the South have to get used the idea of putting a hand in a pocket for a GP visit and other things such as schoolbooks, etc. The ambition from the Government to move to a universal system, something that was achieved by a Government referenced earlier in terms of free GP care for children, is something that will go in tandem with the provisions in this Bill as time moves on.

The Minister will know that at the beginning of the pandemic, in September 2020, Senator Sherlock of the Labour Party put forward a Private Members' Bill to recognise that not having a statutory sick pay scheme at the start of a pandemic was a major gap in our legislation. In fairness to the Tánaiste, he acknowledged that at the time and said he would prioritise it. Sure enough, he is true to his word and has produced the goods in the form of this Bill, although we obviously will have issues with it and will want to improve it. ICTU also has paid tribute to the collaborative nature of the process. This is an improved Bill but as others have said, it certainly has a way to go.

It is unfortunate that it appears the Government is ignoring some of the very clear recommendations, made on a cross-party basis, from the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment on certified sick leave and the enormous issues faced by low- and middle-wage workers in paying for and accessing timely GP services. I remind the House that, as stated in an earlier discussion, Ireland has a disproportionately low-pay economy. An OECD statistic showed that 23% of Irish workers are on low pay. In fact, about 40% of younger workers, that is, those aged under 30, are in insecure work. Insecure work leads to insecure accommodation and all sorts of other insecurities. Health insecurity is another issue, and that is why the right to statutory sick pay for those workers is so essential.

The reality is that a low-paid worker could end up paying more to a GP than what he or she would get back in terms of 70% of daily pay for being out sick. For a minimum wage worker, that would be a certain reality. The Government is failing to protect and look after workers on the minimum wage. While I appreciate that the Tánaiste has to balance the frustrations or concerns an employer would have, we in the Labour Party feel the most vulnerable person in the transaction would be a low-paid worker who does not ever feel as if he or she has enough power to make his or her case. That is why we are here to make the case for those workers.

Unfortunately, the Bill is still a far cry from what the Labour Party proposed in September 2020 on foot of appeals by workers' representatives, on behalf of meat plant and early years workers, in SIPTU and ICTU who sought the provision of a sick pay scheme for all. The Bill does not represent a right to access sick pay from the start of employment. Seasonal workers, early years educators, such as early childhood care and education, ECCE, workers, and others employed for part of the year would be forced to have worked for 13 weeks before they would be entitled paid sick leave. ECCE workers are typically employed on 38-week contracts. Therefore, every September every worker would have to wait 13 weeks before getting paid sick leave. That is not right or fair. As has been referenced, it has been described as a major flaw in the Bill by Patricia King and others in SIPTU, such as Laura Bambrick, who have asked that the word "continuous" be omitted from the Bill. I am quite sure that when we debate Committee and Report Stages of the Bill we can work on that in a collaborative fashion.

The Bill fails to ensure that workers will not be out of pocket. The Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment recommended that a minimum rate of pay be introduced. From the Government's statement last week, it is not clear that the Bill does that. Serious questions remain about the reluctance of the Government to hardwire into the Bill the provision of ten days of sick leave that is due to be paid in 2025. There are real concerns that the three days the Government will make available from this year will remain at the mercy of ministerial regulation and that is not acceptable.

In conclusion, sometimes we in this Oireachtas do our best to be as unco-operative as possible. We often play the role of the pantomime villain but that is not a fair reflection of what genuinely happens in these Houses. The Labour Party made a recommendation to the Government in September 2020. The Government recognised that it needed to be done and is now bringing forward legislation. It is unfortunate that Bill was not introduced before now, when the pandemic appears to a large degree to be over. That said, with goodwill, we are now at a stage where it is to be hoped we can bring it into law. I noted the determination of the Tánaiste to work with Opposition parties to ensure we can have this in place by the middle of the year. I think that is the phrase the Tánaiste used. That kind of energy probably needed to be there from September 2020. If it had been, far more workers could have availed of sick leave provisions as they worked their way through the pandemic.

The points I have made in respect of the word "continuous" and low-paid workers remain but the point on which I began is the one on which I will finish. In the context of the current debate on the cost of living, there are certain expenses in Ireland that would be unusual to a person relocating here from another country. In most European countries, and certainly on our neighbouring island, it is considered the role of the state to pay for visits to a general practitioner, GP, and to protect its citizens in that regard. To even have to consider the cost of such a visit, regardless of one's income, is something people in the North or in Britain never do. That is the kind of lesson we have to take from this pandemic. We welcome the fact that the Bill has been brought forward, although it can be improved, and I will certainly work with the Tánaiste on it, but it is only one part of a wider discussion on how we deal with sickness and healthcare, and what the State provides in that regard. The Labour Party will always argue that we need a bigger State, more rights and basic provisions that are available in other jurisdictions. It changes the way people interact with their employer and the State.

I agree with the Tánaiste on the ethic and principle of universality, as does the Labour Party, including Senator Sherlock who in September 2020 proposed the Bill that kick-started this debate in the Houses. I again thank the Tánaiste for taking on the legislation and bringing it to this point, but we want to improve it so there is balance for the vulnerable worker rather than always for the employer who is trying to pick holes in the rights of his or her employee.

I too welcome the Bill. It is a much slighter document than the Electoral Reform Bill the House just dealt with, but it is no less impactful for that. Its impact will be felt most by those who need it most. As the Tánaiste noted in his opening remarks, it creates a new right here in Ireland, one that is long overdue. It is still a case of playing catch-up. As the Tánaiste acknowledged, Ireland is one of the few jurisdictions that does not yet have this right enshrined in law. However, the Bill is a significant step in the right direction, towards providing what is needed.

All Members will accept that we learned a harsh lesson during the Covid pandemic that this legislation was sorely needed and it is everybody's interests for workers who are sick to stay at home. That can be a difficult decision to make, however, particularly for vulnerable workers, even though it is good for their welfare and for the wider good, as noted by the Tánaiste.

A phrase that is not in the Bill but is in the exploratory memorandum jumped out at me. It describes one of the purposes of the Bill as being, "to set a minimum floor of entitlement for employees who are unable to work due to illness or injury". That reminded me of the remarks of President Higgins, a colleague of Deputy Ó Ríordáin's who is in a larger house at the moment, who, in a speech in this House on recovering the promise of a real republic, stated, "what one would do ... would be to speak about a floor of citizenship below which people would not be allowed to fall". It is worth acknowledging that the benefits of the provisions of the Bill will predominantly be felt by people on lower pay. Indeed, sections 8 and 9 stipulate that the Bill should not impact the provision of more favourable provisions in contracts of employment. I think all Members would accept that, in general, better-paid workers are already well catered for in terms of sick pay provision.

As I stated, the Bill only begins the process of catching up with sick pay provisions in other jurisdictions. My natural impulse would have been for us to go further and faster but I have, in the interim, engaged with several small businesses in Waterford and heard their concerns. I accept the space the Tánaiste has left in the Bill for us to sequence appropriately, as he termed it, and for businesses to be given time and space to adapt to and accommodate the provisions set out in the Bill. I welcome the provisions of section 5(2) and section 6, which allow us to go beyond the original scope of the Bill and to expand and extend. The points raised by Deputy Louise O'Reilly and other speakers in respect of section 5(5) are well made. Deputy Ó Ríordáin referred to ECCE workers and that is a good example to illustrate one of the issues in respect of the requirement for 13 consecutive weeks of employment. Those points are well made and perhaps that is something to which the Minister will return on Committee Stage.

Section 7 as presented relates to regulating for exactly how much is put in. I agree that the amount should be set by regulation because we would like the Bill to be here for the long haul and if we set out rates of payment within it, those rates will quickly become out of date. However, we should have a mind to whether the figure of €110 is sufficient. I have a nagging concern relating to section 5(8). It has also been referenced by other Deputies. Of course, there is a need to have medical certification, but there is a cost attached to that. If the daily rate is €110 but €55 of that is used to pay one's GP for a medical certificate, that is a large cost to bear. It effectively reduces one's three days of paid sick leave to two and a half days.

Section 10 deals with exemptions and obligations. The provisions look strong to my eye but it is essential that the section is watertight in order to prevent abuse. Perhaps that can be examined and the language strengthened on Committee Stage.

To zoom out on the Bill - I apologise to the Ceann Comhairle, who has heard this spiel from me before - I wish to look at the bigger picture and the wider conversation on how we cope with disruption in the world of work caused by digitisation, automation and artificial intelligence. There is an ongoing challenge in respect of valuing care work and the caring economy. In the context of automation and digitisation and to borrow some language from Marx, increasingly, capital does not just own the means of production but also the mode of production through non-human labour. Perhaps the most important point is that we have to think in the long term about how we reimagine our economy in the face of the climate challenge and whether we need to be considering degrowth and steady-state economics. At the least, we should be considering how we decouple economic and social growth from our emissions profile. To return to President Higgins's concept of a minimum floor of citizenship and cognisant of the often-overlooked objective truth that economy is a subset of ecology, rather than the other way around, if we are to have a society that can hope to sustain a minimum floor of material well-being for our people, we must make the changes in economy and society that will allow us to attain our climate objectives. That is a broad sweep but, as a legislative House, we need to have one eye to that longer future.

The Bill is a small step in the right direction in terms of securing and improving the rights of workers. I agree with some of the speakers on the other side of the House that there may be scope to consider some of the provisions of the Bill on Committee Stage in order to strengthen those rights and to ensure the Bill achieves what it is intended to achieve, that is, to protect, in particular, workers who are on the lowest levels of pay and to allow them the facility and opportunity to remain at home when sick, as should be their right and as benefits both them and wider society.

Glaoim ar an Teachta Catherine Murphy agus tá 20 nóiméad aici.

The introduction of a statutory sick pay scheme has been long asked for and is long overdue. Statutory sick pay schemes are well-established across Europe and there is a glaring lack of one in Ireland that has left generations of workers very vulnerable. We are one of the very few European economies that does not have mandatory sick pay entitlements. With few exceptions, workers in Ireland have no right to be paid by their employer if they fall sick. In the eyes of the law, sick pay is a perk that employers can decide to include in a contract if they feel charitable.

Good employers often look at retaining employees and it is part of a package of entitlements that come with the job. Around half of all workers receive some level of sick leave under their contracts but everyone else is left without any cover should they fall ill. Workers, mainly in non-unionised jobs in the private sector or if they are self-employed, are forced to continue working while they are sick to the detriment of their own health and that of their co-workers. Many people have said that already and that became very obvious during the pandemic. Their only other option is to turn to illness benefit which is completely inadequate and inaccessible. It is paid at €203 per week, before tax, to a full-time PAYE worker from the seventh day of illness. No payment is made for the first six days and to qualify workers need to have a minimum of two years PRSI contributions, which completely prevents younger workers from accessing payment.

To put this Bill in context, a worker on a minimum wage working an eight-hour shift will earn €84 a day. Statutory sick pay at 70% will give them €58.80 before tax. To get a single day of sick pay, they will have to get a certificate of incapacity from their GP which will cost them €60. For a minimum wage worker, a single day of sick leave will actually cost them money. These workers will not go to the doctor. They will either go to work sick or they will stay at home unpaid and their employer will not have to pay the €58.80 that some employers claim will cause them financial ruin.

If workers are sick for a longer period of time, they will get the 70% from their employer for a total of three days. They will then go on illness benefit which is equal to the grand sum of €29 per day. I do not believe any of us would even conceptualise living on that kind of an amount, having to pay rent, gas bills, for food and all the rest of it. Is that genuinely the proposal that has been put forward to this House as an accomplishment for workers' rights in Ireland as a new workers' right? The Government knows that the illness benefit is not up to scratch. The payment is too low and has worked to the detriment of workers’ health and that of their co-workers. Any person who works from cheque to cheque cannot afford to live on €203 a week. The Tánaiste admitted that during the height of the pandemic when it was very clear that a large number of workers could not afford to follow the public health advice if they were required to isolate. The enhanced illness benefit was introduced at €350 per week.

Statutory sick pay should be centred around some fundamental ideals, namely, that workers should not be out of pocket when they fall ill; when workers are unwell, they should have a right to recovery time; and when sick workers are given the means to stay at home, they protect other workers. It was not just Covid-19 as there are all sorts of things that we did not see during the pandemic, such as the traditional flu. We could see that it actually did matter that people stayed at home with coughs and sneezes.

There is an astounding lack of ambition in this plan. We need to be moving incrementally and to work towards an ambitious goal. The best outcome would be for employers to pay the full rate of pay for an initial short period, as is standard among our counterparts in Europe. In Germany and Austria, for example, a rate of 100% sick pay is paid for at least six weeks. In Luxembourg it is 13 weeks. France, Sweden and the Netherlands pay between 70% and 90% of wages for a number of weeks.

That early period of sick pay could be followed by a payment of tapered rates from the social security system, gradually declining over a period of two years but never lower than the unemployment payment rate. This dual system is common across Europe.

While the requirement to have a sickness certificate from a doctor is common practice in sick pay schemes throughout Europe, Ireland is unusual in that workers have to pay to see their GP. This does not seem to have been taken into account here at all, not to mention that at this current moment it is impossible for workers or people to get appointments with their GPs. Indeed, even getting on a GP list is problematic in some locations and in some parts of my constituency this issue crops up regularly. Most GP surgeries will not even taking appointments at the moment for non-urgent cases because so many healthcare staff in their offices are out sick with Covid-19. Do we really expect somebody with a stomach bug who is not sick enough to be required to attend their GP to be given an urgent appointment?

This Bill will have absolutely no impact on many responsible employers in Ireland who take a responsible approach to intermittent sick leave. Many employers from small to large organisations accommodate a period of between one to three days paid sick leave before requiring a doctor’s certificate. It is absolutely crucial that workers are given a certain number of cumulative uncertified sick days in recognition of the lack of a universal primary health care system that is, obviously, free at the point of delivery.

The coverage of sick pay is far lower in the private sector than it is in the public sector. Many employers in the private sector do have good sick pay arrangements. They recognise the need for it and their responsibility to treat their workers with dignity and respect. The arrangements they offer will exceed the minimum statutory requirements and they want to hold on to their staff. Similarly, many unionised workforces will have favourable sick pay arrangements which need to be protected and preserved. Others do not and it will be those employers who need to be targeted by this. These are employers who want to deny employees the right to sick pay and to make it as difficult as possible for them to avail of any employee benefits. In cases such as Deliveroo, for example, they go as far as to centre their business model around denying that their employees are employees at all, solely to avoid the responsibility for their well-being and their working conditions.

I would really challenge any employer who claims that they cannot cover the absence of a worker for three days over the course of 12 months to prove the financial impact of this on them when they have already factored in paying, for example, their wages, holiday pay and other aspects of what their entitlements might be. For intermittent days of absence, when a worker calls in sick in the morning with a bug, a cold, or whatever, how many employers will actually bring cover in? In many cases they will not. In some cases it will have to be the case because of the nature of the employment but in many instances it will not be the case.

I ask the Tánaiste why eligibility to this scheme is deferred for 13 weeks of employment. Any employee accrues annual leave and holiday entitlements from day one of an employment and by the time a worker qualifies for three days sick leave under this scheme they could probably have taken five days holidays and are probably likely to if they get sick.

What did the Department factor in when putting this scheme together? Does it expect workers to take their annual leave to cover them through those weeks if they fall ill? It is a real shortcoming of the scheme.

Thousands of Covid cases are being reported daily at a time when, coming out of the pandemic, many workers are looking for new jobs. Covid-19 does not care if you are in a new job, so why should this sick pay scheme? There has been that displacement in some of the more precarious sectors. People are less likely to take time off a new job. Employees do not tend to take annual leave for the first number of weeks or months of employment and, I think, are far less likely to call in sick during that time. They are often on hired a trial basis. I heard from one woman who has been three weeks in a job. A few people in her office tested positive last week. Luckily, she tested negative, but under this scheme she could have been one of those unlucky ones who had to go out sick. No one wants to get sick, certainly not in the first 13 weeks of a new employment. I do not understand why this benefit is deferred.

Under the Bill, sick leave will be paid at 70% of the employee's wage, but no definition is given for earnings that are taken into account. Could the Tánaiste qualify when he wraps up exactly how that is defined? That needs to be explicitly included in the Bill. What are the means to calculate an average day's pay for hourly paid workers who work irregular hours or workers who get paid on a commission basis, for example? Many sales reps, for example, get a base pay. Often it is about 50% of their earnings; sometimes it can be less. Commission makes up the rest. The practice in other European countries is to factor in actual earnings over a defined period. France, for example, pays sick leave as a percentage of average earnings over the three-month period prior to the absence. The calculation is done by social security and the payment is made from mandatory insurance carried by all employers.

While any progress on a statutory sick pay scheme is welcome, this Bill falls far short of what is needed. It reads like a get-out-of-jail card for the exact cohort of employers it is supposed to be aimed at. It will do very little to protect the workers it is supposed to protect. It is entirely lacking in ambition to bridge the gap in workers' rights between Ireland and our European neighbours. It is clear that the Bill was written not with the well-being of workers as the priority but, first and foremost, with the fear that people might take sick days to which they are not entitled. Constructing this scheme with that mindset has damaged completely the integrity of the intention behind the Bill. In its current form, the Bill fails to give any serious protection, especially for the first year of employment. It protects employers who claim financial difficulty but not their employees struggling to make ends meet, who must incur the expense of a GP visit, unlike so many of our European counterparts. One can be ill without requiring to go to the GP. That really needs to be considered in the context of the capacity of GPs across the country to provide urgent appointments to people who do not require those appointments but who are still sick.

I welcome the Bill. The response from some in the Opposition to what we are achieving here is less than fair. Almost 1 million workers in Ireland are without either a sick pay or pension scheme, and this year we will move to remedy in our legislative code both those elements. One thing we have learnt from Covid is how many very important and strategic workers are in precarious positions. Some of that precariousness comes from their exposure in having no pension scheme other than social welfare and no sick pay scheme within their workplace. It is welcome not only that we have moved to respond to the remote working issue, which has become so clear during Covid, but also that we are moving in this area too. If I may be so bold as to say so, training is the next frontier. We need to start to develop statutory rights to training and the opportunity for personal development for people within our code. That is very underdeveloped in Ireland, and it is important and right that people in an environment in which change so frequently occurs have that.

At the committee, we grappled with some of these issues. I see Deputy Paul Murphy is here. One might say that we do not often agree on things, but one thing on which we did agree - I do not think it is reflected in either of the recommendations, which I thought it would be, and it is still in the Bill - is the requirement of 13 weeks' continuous employment before becoming eligible. If people fall ill on the first, second or third day of their employment, they should be covered for sick pay. They are not less entitled to be covered for sick pay and to get the opportunity to see a medical consultant if they need one because they have been only 13 weeks in their employment. I do not really understand that. Like Deputy Paul Murphy, I feel that people do not take on jobs to head off on some spurious illness claim, especially not when medical certification is required.

The committee also grappled with the fact that getting medical certification in Ireland is not free. At the same time, most of us - probably all of us - recognised that, in the final analysis, an employer must be able to see verification that the sick leave claim is valid. We struggled with that. We produced a consensus of words but we recognise that there is a difficulty there. We need to see codes of good practice developed by employers that would recognise some level of flexibility in the way in which people would be certified. At the end of the day, however, there has to be certification. I think that is recognised.

We also grappled with the issue of small employers that have to substitute people when they go out ill. There is no doubt but that there is a difference between a large organisation that finds it easy to substitute people and a very small one-person or two-person operation where if one staff member is gone, the employer has to find a substitute. However, it is difficult to see, other than in the inability-to-pay clause, how that could be responded to. The convenience stores have written to Deputies talking about the need for an offset. There is an offset in the tax code in that there is a tax allowability for the additional pay that would be there. Again, however, I do not think the committee was able to come up with a solution other than what is here.

The criticism is that this scheme is very ungenerous. It is worth saying that the 70% rate is pretty much at the midpoint, if not on the upper end, of what happens in the rest of Europe. Yes, there are countries that have 100% cover and they have very long traditions of very high employee obligations that have been there for years. However, as for developing a new obligation on employers to pay, this is a very important step forward and the phasing is appropriate. Employers also are coming out of a very difficult pandemic and many of them are struggling, but we cannot afford to ignore that cover for sickness is one of the things that has to be in place. Pandemics have exposed that particularly but, even without a pandemic, it is right to have such cover in place.

I welcome what is being done with this Bill.

While the case has been that medical certification should be dropped, I think it has to be there as a longstop. There has to be the right for an employer to see that there is certification. It is not something that would always be used, and I would hope employers would be able to proceed on a trust basis. However, in my view, it has to be there.

I do not think the 13 weeks requirement is something that ought to there. I do not think it is justified element of this Bill. I hope that can be examined in the course of the debate. To be fair, in the committee, I think everyone tried to find the middle ground at pre-legislative scrutiny. While we might have come with different perspectives, we managed to get something that highlights some of our concerns. It is not in the report I got on the website, but I think Deputy Paul Murphy will confirm that there was consensus at the committee that the 13 weeks was not a good element to have in the Bill.

I can confirm what Deputy Bruton said.

Obviously, we welcome the introduction of a right to statutory sick leave in this country. It is a good thing that we are going to have it, even if it is extremely overdue and even if it is a lot less than what we need to have and what workers deserve in this country. Ireland has been an extreme outlier in not providing any statutory sick leave. This is also the case in terms of the lack of the right to collective bargaining or trade union recognition. It is striking that it took a global pandemic to force the Government to act in the very meagre way that it is acting in terms of the stipulated three days and so on but we still welcome the introduction of statutory sick leave.

What is offered now and what is being presented in the Bill falls extremely short of what is needed. What is provided for in the Bill is three days of paid leave. The Tánaiste said that Government will respond and will tell us not to worry, that it is going to increase it and that it has a plan to increase it initially to five days and eventually to ten days. The truth is that if the Bill passes unamended, we only have the Tánaiste's and the Government’s word on that. We have no guarantee that that will ever happen. When you look at the Bill and at the very wide loophole open to this Government, or to future governments, not to follow up and increase the number of paid sick leave days raises a serious concern.

Section 6(1) states that in considering whether to increase the number of statutory sick days, the Minister will have regard to, “the state of the economy generally, the business environment and national competitiveness”. It also refers to “the potential for any disproportionate or other adverse impact on the economy generally, specific sectors of the economy, employers or employees” and “the views of employer representative bodies”. I cannot imagine the employer representative bodies will be very fond of increasing the number of days. There is no guarantee here that we will ever go up from the three days. If it passes unamended, it will require significant continued pressure from the trade union movement to at least ensure we get the ten days by 2025, as promised by the Department during the pre-legislative scrutiny.

Let us imagine even that we get there and that we get to the ten days of paid leave. We will still be far behind what is normal in much of Europe. If we take the example of Austria, which is a similar-sized country to Ireland, workers are entitled to between ten and 16 weeks, not days, of paid sick leave on 100% pay. In the Netherlands, workers are entitled to receive 70% of their wages for up to two years when they are on sick leave.

Another point is the level of sick pay that is being proposed here. Again, for some reason, it is not contained within the Bill itself. However, what the Government said will be introduced will be 70% of pay up to a maximum of €110 a day. Therefore, what we are starting with and the only guarantee in the Bill is that workers can get a maximum of €330 in sick pay a year in the first year of this scheme. That is less than a week's worth of the enhanced illness benefit, which has been widely and correctly criticised for being too little for many low-paid workers to avoid falling behind on rent and bills.

In reality, many workers who are able to avail of this scheme will be entitled to significantly less than €330. That is because many of the workers with no access to sick pay at the moment are low-paid or minimum-wage workers who earn much less than the national median weekly earnings on which the €110 ceiling is based. If we take the example of a full-time minimum wage worker, they will be entitled to only €171.36 in sick pay a year. That is what they will get in the first year of this scheme. Out of that, we know that they are going to have to pay the €50, or, more likely these days, €60 cost of getting a mandatory medical certificate from a doctor each time they are sick. Therefore, if they are sick three times, on three separate days, effectively that money is all wiped out. It is worth absolutely nothing to them.

There is also no provision in the Bill for index linking sick pay to the spiralling cost of living. This is the biggest political issue right now. The biggest issue in society for people is how all their costs are going through the roof. It was reported during pre-legislative scrutiny that this could be provided for by ministerial order. Again, if it is the intention to do that, why do not we have that in the Bill before us? Why do we not ensure that it is going to happen?

Instead of setting arbitrary limits on the level of sick pay that workers are entitled to, every worker should be entitled to nothing less than 100% of their full wages for every day that they are sick. It is a basic issue in terms of respect, decency and decent conditions for workers. If the Tánaiste does not accept that, and if employers are going to insist on medical certificates and if the Government is going to back that up, then, at the very least, workers should not be left paying for those medical certificates. We think that employers should have to pay for medical certificates and, failing that, the State should intervene and assist with the costs.

We oppose this idea of having a mandatory requirement for sick pay certificates. It is in the Bill, I think, as a sop to employers who hope that the requirement to get a sick certificate would discourage people from staying at home when they are sick. Is that what we want to achieve? Do we want there to be continued pressure for people to go into work when they are sick? Do we want that to happen at a time when we have been through two years of a pandemic of a highly infectious disease, and when we know that in certain workplaces workers felt the pressure to go in to work when they were sick? That potentially had catastrophic effects in terms of the spreading of Covid-19 workplaces. We all heard the stories of workers taking paracetamol to bring their temperatures down to ensure they could work even though they were sick.

Why on earth would we make it difficult for workers to claim sick pay? The evidence is that workers are not working because they want to scam the system and are going to pretend they are sick all the time or whatever. The evidence is not there. For example, if you look at the experience in the in the public sector, it is not some widespread problem. Why on earth is the Government forcing people to risk spreading infectious diseases at the doctor’s surgery and on public transport on the way to the doctor’s surgery, just so that they can access sick pay?

The final criticism I would make is similar to the point made by Deputy Bruton about the requirement to be in employment with the same employer for 13 continuous weeks. The effect of that is to exclude many of the most vulnerable workers the Government claims to be trying to protect. There is no rationale for it. We do not say workers are worthy of fewer protections in other spheres of their working rights because they have only been working in a place for a certain amount of time.

Why on earth would we deny them the right to sick pay in the first three months of their work? ICTU has highlighted how this will hit women and migrant workers in particular. Congress wrote to the Tánaiste and pointed out that this provision will leave hundreds of thousands of mostly women and foreign-born essential workers employed in low paid jobs, who routinely have their service broken by their employer, without coverage for three months each year. This happens all of the time in childcare, for example, when workers, who are 98% female, are let go over the summer holidays and then rehired in September. They will lose out on protection in two periods throughout the course of the year. It will also hit young workers, more than one third of whom are on temporary contracts. People cannot choose not to get sick because they have started a new job, are on a temporary contract or because their employer has broken their service. Again, it will just mean that there are more workers and in this case, vulnerable workers, who feel under pressure to go into work when they are sick. That is not good for the individual worker but it is also not good for his or her co-workers or for society at large to have those sorts of pressures existing, which is precisely the logic behind introducing sick pay.

Every worker must be entitled to full sick pay on 100% of wages from day one. That should be the basic position and the number of statutory sick leave days must be radically increased to cover every day a worker is sick. This is not over, from our point of view. Obviously, there has been a lot of discussion on this in the Oireachtas committee and we will be putting forward amendments, as I am sure others will, to try to improve this Bill to ensure that workers get the best sick pay legislation possible.

I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this important legislation. The old saying is that it is an ill wind that does not blow some good. The pandemic caused us all to concentrate on the particular circumstances that applied in some situations. People were vulnerable in particular situations and were called upon to work for as long as possible in order to keep the show on the road and in order to ensure that they had sufficient funds to pay the rent or mortgage and at the same time, were able to contribute to the emergency that existed.

I want to correct a number of claims that were made by the Opposition, and by Sinn Féin Deputies in particular. They mentioned that a previous Government consisting of the Labour Party and Fine Gael introduced restrictive legislation in this particular area. We must revisit that for a moment and the circumstances in which that happened. Members of the then Government were faced with a situation whereby there was a possibility of paying nothing to anybody for anything, including pensions, public sector wages and as a result, wages in the private sector. The IMF was ensconced in Government Buildings, less than 200 m from here. There was no money to pay for anything. There was no place to borrow money. We had no borrowing capacity and no banks to lend us money. We were going to get nothing from anybody. I would be the first to accept criticism when warranted but in those particular circumstances, the choices were very limited. An bord snip nua went around and snipped everything that could be snipped, anywhere and everywhere, with consequential negative impacts on people all over the place. When we criticise such issues, and I have no problem with the criticism, we do need recognise the circumstances that prevailed at the time. At that point, we were between a rock and a hard place.

I acknowledge the points made in relation to the continent. It is true that there are variations and that Europe is ahead of us in some areas. However, we are ahead of Europe in other areas. That is something which does not get so much coverage. We need to keep that in mind and to recognise that in this particular situation, we had to learn quickly. A new situation developed and that may well happen again. New situations will develop from time to time that will affect each and every one of us in one way or another. When we are faced with that type of reality, decisions have to be made by the Government and by Ministers. It is important to take into account all of these factors and features. It is also important to remember that the trade union movement in this country was under extraordinary pressure and criticism during the period because it was not able to do the job that it would ordinarily be expected to do. That was just a fact of life. Many people will criticise employers on the one hand or trade unions on the other but there is a balance and a place for both. They all have to be observed and we have to do our best to meet their requirements, as they arise, from time to time. In any event, hopefully we have learned and we recognise that there will be other instances in the future that will be challenging and that we have to accept.

In terms of the particulars, I am not so sure that any person taking up a new position or a new job is likely to want to opt out at an early stage on sick leave without good cause. There may be exceptions to that rule but generally speaking, people are not going to opt out. They are at work and they want to remain at work. They want to ensure that they remain at work by being present in the workplace at the earliest possible stage.

We may learn much from the application of the legislation. Reference has been made to the fact that changes are proposed to ameliorate certain situations that may arise. I accept all of that. The Tánaiste indicated his willingness to see how the legislation works and to determine whether it works to the extent intended. He has said he will look at it again once it has bedded in. That is a fair commitment to give at this stage. Indeed, it is a commitment that needs to be given with regard to all legislation because laws can have different impacts on different people in different situations, particularly when specific challenges arise.

I welcome the fact that this Bill has been introduced and acknowledge that the pandemic brought particular issues to light that affected people in a negative way. At the same time, we needed people in the workforce. That situation will arise again and again. All in all, the legislation is welcome and hopefully in the course of Committee and Report Stages, all possibilities will be examined with a view to ensuring that the Bill sits easily with both employers and employees in the future.

I am very pleased to speak on this Bill, which will have a tangible impact on workers across the State. I commend the Tánaiste and his Department, as well as the Oireachtas committee, for engaging in significant work on this subject matter. I thank them for their efforts. The introduction of this Bill will, for the first time, ensure that sick pay is put on a statutory footing and will allow all employees to avail of sick leave owing to illness or injury, which is to be welcomed.

I had an opportunity to read the report of the Oireachtas committee and the explanatory memorandum accompanying the Bill but I regret I did not have an opportunity to read the Bill itself. I have a question on the entitlement and the time it takes to avail of this provision, once introduced, which is 13 weeks.

Perhaps in his summation the Tánaiste will clarify whether he means 13 weeks from the start of that employment or from entry into the workforce.

The Bill provides for the phased introduction of statutory sick pay in Ireland over the coming years, ultimately rising to ten days per annum by 2026. This will allow employers, particularly the small and medium enterprises that have a significant foothold in the Irish economy, to plan accordingly. The last time I checked there were approximately 700,000 of them and there are probably a lot more now given there are more than 2.2 million people in the workforce. Importantly, this method will reduce the cost burden on employers to the greatest extent possible. This is of particular importance in the context of the previous two years, when we saw small and medium businesses around the country limited in their ability to operate in a normal way. In such a situation we should be mindful of introducing measures in a fashion that further complicates their recovery in the post-pandemic period.

While there may be continued criticism from the Opposition of my party, this criticism rings hollow and is unfounded when the record is checked. Since entering Government in 2011, Fine Gael has defended workers and their rights and sought to enhance their ability to keep more of their earnings. We were laughed at when my colleague, Deputy Bruton, who spoke a few minutes ago, launched the Action Plan for Jobs, setting out 100,000 jobs by 2016. If memory serves me, we surpassed this in 2015. In the years since the financial crash, my party has been pivotal in the recovery of jobs and the economy in Ireland. We knew then, as we know now, that if we were to be successful in this goal, we needed to bring workers of all backgrounds and income levels with us. This is why under this Government and previous governments, the minimum wage has been increased on eight separate occasions. It now stands at its highest level in the history of the State, marking a significant increase from the level inherited in March 2011.

We have increased maternity and paternity benefits, allowing parents to spend more time at home when it matters most. We have enhanced the treatment benefit scheme through which people can access dental, optical and aural treatments and services. We ensured that for the first time benefits were opened up to the self-employed. We also achieved our commitment to equalise the tax treatment of self-employed people, marking a transformative change to the lives of so many in our communities. We also delivered public sector pay restoration and recovery from the worst economic crash in the history of the State, when many doubted we could do so.

I am eagerly anticipating the publication of a study, commissioned by the Government, on the introduction of a living wage in Ireland, which I heard the Tánaiste reference. He has received it and will be considering it with the Minister of State, Deputy English, over the Easter recess. In recent days, we have seen the introduction of a pilot scheme that will see €325 paid to artists on a weekly basis as part of a basic income. This scheme will benefit an initial 2,000 artists as part of the arts and culture recovery task force recommendations. It is another example of something Fine Gael and our partners in government, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, have prioritised. We have also recognised that the nature of work has been changing for some time. The notion of remote working, while on the rise in recent years, was dramatically increased by the pandemic. Earlier this year we saw the introduction of the Right to Request Remote Work Bill. This is bolstered by the right to disconnect, which the Tánaiste introduced last year.

As we look towards the future, we can also recognise that how people enter the workforce to begin with is in need of modernisation. This is why the Government is investing heavily in apprenticeship schemes that will allow thousands of people every year to reskill, upskill or find their vocation. In doing so, it will drive job creation in well-paid positions, building green sectors and new technological sectors in the years ahead. I am very proud to play a part in this as a member of the Oireachtas education committee, working with the Ministers, Deputies Harris and Foley.

These are but a few of the policies that Fine Gael in government, along with our partners Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, have initiated during our time in office. It is unequivocal that we are on the side of workers and that we, as a party, support the dignity of work and fairness in employment opportunity. We are a party that supports workers of all backgrounds and in all industries. In the process, we have enhanced what others have characterised as one of the most equitable taxation system in the world. The future of our economy and our country can only thrive if we achieve our goals together. I very much look forward to progressing the rights of workers even further in the lifetime of the Government.

As a group colleague, I congratulate the Acting Chair, Deputy Verona Murphy, for assuming the role today.

The Bill acknowledges that Ireland does not have a mandatory employer-funded sick pay scheme. As the Tánaiste outlined, one of the obvious impacts of not having a sick pay scheme is that some workers take the decision to attend work even when sick. In the context of spreading infection and Covid, we well understand the damage this can do. There is the potential for injury at work or injury being caused to fellow employees. I do not think employers or employees would want to see this.

The Tánaiste outlined that the Department has done quite a bit of background work and that up to 50% of workers in the State are already covered by statutory or employee sick pay schemes. The Tánaiste also noted that public sector workers already enjoy a sick pay scheme. This is an anomaly for employers in the private sector. Smaller private employers who are going to have to fund the scheme will do so out of their revenues while public sector bodies and employees are funded from the State. This is an inequity that exists in a number of other areas. It is something we will have to look at. It is not fair, particularly for small, medium and micro enterprises, that suddenly they have to suffer this cost. Perhaps the State can look at remediation in this regard.

The Tánaiste highlighted an annual entitlement of three days on the scheme. Nobody would say this is a significant burden on small businesses but as it ramps up to ten days over the next three to four years, it could become so. It is my experience that most small businesses do their best to cover genuine sick days as they understand it is a fundamental part of employer-employee relations. It assists them with retaining staff and valuing staff. There is no doubt that lower-paid workers, contract workers and part-time workers need to have a scheme to support access to sick leave. Therefore, I support the Bill the Tánaiste is progressing today.

The Tánaiste also outlined that the Bill represents one part of a suite of legislation the Government hopes to roll out to further protect employee rights and safeguards in the State. I do not believe anyone could argue with a socially progressive agenda to benefit all citizens and all workers and, most especially, those productively earning and generating tax revenue. This is needed to pay the social contract to which we have all signed up and aspire to, to look after every individual in the State when they are in need.

The Tánaiste referenced that the scheme is really only needed for those in private employment and for those who are low paid. This also points to the vulnerability of business. As the Tánaiste outlined, the small and medium sectors are grappling with the effects of Covid and the impacts it has had on their businesses to date. He is well aware of the many businesses that have warehoused debt through availing of Government Covid schemes. This will be somewhat precarious for businesses when they have to engage again with Revenue on the repayment of this debt. They are facing increased cost environments across the board in terms of manufacturing and service provision. They are struggling to recruit in many sectors. This is particularly applicable to food manufacturing and the construction sector.

I do not subscribe to the view that every employer is out to screw their employees, that every employer seeks profit at every turn or that every employer sees only capital labour and not the faces of those they employ. Many small employers whom I know are intrinsically involved in the lives of their employees. They celebrate family days such as communions and confirmations and sometimes holiday events. At times I have a concern as to how private employment is portrayed in the House and in the State. More than 900,000 workers in the country are employed in the small and medium enterprise sector. Many are promoted by people who have risked everything to build on a dream to start a business, see it grow and provide a financial future for their families and those whom they employ, becoming something on which they can all come to depend.

I have to confess frustration when I hear that bodies such as IBEC and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, have been consulted and have expressed support for whatever legislation is being proposed when very little representation has been offered to the owners and operators of indigenous small businesses and microenterprises. IBEC and ICTU represent, in the main, the wishes of large-scale businesses and the aspirations of large-scale public sector unions. I have, in the past, expressed in the House my disappointment at the lack of small business representation on the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF. The Tánaiste has mentioned today that one-size legislation may not fit all but, in effect, that is exactly what is being proposed here today.

This Bill does not recognise the cost to small businesses arising from the requirement to add statutory sick pay to subcontractor costs to cover employee absence. This happens frequently in the agriculture sector, including in the area of dairying, and in the construction and fabrication sectors. If I were to propose an amendment to this Bill, it would be to make some sort of tax credit available to microenterprises and small businesses whereby the additional costs of supporting a statutory sick pay scheme, where incurred, can be offset or ameliorated to some degree.

The issue of access to GP visits and their cost has been covered a number of times already. Further work is obviously needed on this, particularly in respect of the low-paid for whom the cost of accessing a GP will cancel out the benefit of a day's statutory sick pay. The issue of the difficulty of getting more GPs to train and then stay in the system in Ireland also arises, an issue the Tánaiste will be well aware of. As he will know, there is a major problem around the country with GPs retiring. How will this scheme work when most people now ringing a GP find themselves unable to get an appointment that day?

In the main, I look forward to this legislation progressing, although I hope to see a change in the attitude and language of some in this House - I do not include the Government parties in that - with respect to the positioning and representation of private employment in this country. Many businesses in this country cannot recruit at this moment in time and I will not accept the suggestion that exploitation is widespread and that groups of employees are being deliberately targeted. We have robust legislation covering the world of work. This must be added to and Government has proposed and is considering a suite of measures to improve matters and to remove shortfalls, where they arise. Most of all, we need a collaborative approach between all employers and specifically between those who are most marginal, that is, the small, medium and micro enterprises, so that all representations can be done on a managed basis, that all aspirations can be achieved and that we wind up with agreements that reflect the needs of small and marginally profitable businesses as well as those of larger employers. In such an environment, progressive legislation could be tabled and adopted to ensure both the rights of workers and the ability of our productive sector to continue to compete and grow.

I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill. I fully support workers’ rights to statutory sick pay. The fact this country has never had a statutory sick pay scheme needs to change. One positive element of this Bill is that it starts to bring about change in this area. However, it must be viewed very much as a start because we have a long way to go if it is to be in any way adequate. In preparing to speak on this Bill, I was thinking about my time working in London, England, in 1988. At that time, I was entitled to five weeks' sick pay with my employer from the day I started the employment. That was a long time ago now but here in Ireland we are only talking about introducing a statutory sick pay scheme now. That is a big problem. We are one of the few countries in Europe not to have mandatory sick pay and I am glad this Bill intends to introduce it.

The current illness benefit scheme does not cover employees for their first three days of illness and so those who are sick for less than three days are forced to face the consequence of taking a cut to their wage, which is not acceptable. This unfortunately causes people to come into work despite being sick, which is not only unsafe for the person who is sick, but also for their co-workers. It is disappointing that it took the Covid pandemic to force people to realise this fact but I am glad the issue is finally being addressed. One of the few benefits of the pandemic is that people have started to think about this. They are seeing that workers need these benefits and that providing them results in an ongoing benefit for wider society and for employers.

We constantly hear employers saying they cannot afford the costs and so cannot do this, that or the other. This will actually benefit the workforce as a whole. It will also benefit employers and our society as a whole. Most people in my town of Killybegs and in every other town in the country are low-paid employees. If they are given the benefit of a sick pay scheme, they will be able to contribute and spend that money so that it can go out into wider society, which will benefit other employers who pay low wages to their employees. This sick pay will circulate right across the board. I know it a bizarre thought but an employer who has respect for his workers, who pays them a reasonable wage and who has a sick pay scheme in place actually benefits from that because the workers feel they are accepted and wanted by their employer rather than being seen as a cost burden. The biggest problem we have in this State is that employers feel they have some kind of divine right and that employees are a cost burden they should not have to put up with. The reality is that employers will not have a successful business if they do not have good workers and employees. The way to get good employees is to treat them with a bit of respect. Many employees and employers across this country have to learn that.

An issue with this Bill is that, unless amended, term-time and seasonal workers will have to repeatedly build up their entitlement to sick pay, leaving them without coverage for three months each working year. The 13 weeks’ continuous service with an employer required before an entitlement to sick leave commences will leave hundreds of thousands of mostly women, rural workers and foreign-born essential workers employed in low-paid jobs, who routinely have their service broken by their employer, without coverage for three months each year. That is wrong and should be addressed. This would affect many people in my constituency of Donegal and particularly in my own town of Killybegs. We rely on seasonal work and a significant number of people in this area have seasonal jobs such as fishing, working in the fish factories and hospitality jobs. These people should also be entitled to statutory sick pay just like everyone else. We need to make sure that holes in this legislation are addressed.

Another issue I have with the Bill is the fact that it will put the sole responsibility for payment of sick pay on the employer rather than putting any of this responsibility on the State. I wonder if the intention of this Bill is to spare the State some costs rather than to strengthen employees' rights to sick pay. While it will not make a difference in the first year, because illness benefit does not come into effect until people have been off for three days, when employers are paying ten days' sick pay, will it be the case that illness benefit will not come into effect until after ten days? That was proposed previously by the former Minister, Joan Burton. She proposed an increase in the waiting time to five days but that was rowed back on as a result of opposition. It is obviously the intention that employers will have to pay the ten days' sick pay, thereby saving the Department of Social Protection from paying anything for those ten days. I would be interested to see what that will save the Department because I believe the savings will be enormous. I would be interested in seeing where the motivation for the provision of sick pay is coming from. Perhaps it is simply about a saving for the Exchequer. Given how much illness benefit costs the State, there will be a huge reduction in the cost to the State under this legislation when the employers eventually cover the cost of ten sick days per year in 2026.

The cost to employers of providing sick pay will not be very great either. It will ultimately be 0.8% of the cost of a person's wages over a year, which is not a great amount. This shows even more so that employers should have to provide a sick pay entitlement to their employees as a matter of right. In 2019, €607 million was spent on illness benefit, which seems considerable but is actually a large reduction on the spending on illness benefit in previous years.

As I said earlier, I cannot help but wonder if this Bill is just an attempt to reduce costs further, dressed up as a win for workers' rights. It will create a massive cost to employers and I think more needs to be done to support employers in providing sick pay and in easing financial burdens. The sick pay scheme should include a combination of illness benefit with a top-up payment paid by employers. That would ensure the provision of a scheme that is useful to everybody.

Everyone who pays PRSI should be eligible to receive a sick payment from the State. The scheme should provide a combined payment. It may sound bizarre, but people should be able to afford to get sick. That is the reality. That is why we have not had a proper sick pay scheme, because people cannot afford it. Self-certification should also be included in the scheme. It speaks to the point in relation to affordability. The statutory sick leave scheme should give a self-certification period of up to two days' sick leave. This is a common feature in many other countries and I do not see why it cannot be included here. We talked about low-paid workers and those working in meat factories. For many people, in particular low-paid workers on minimum wage and slightly above, the amount that they receive in sick pay will be less than what they pay the doctor to get the certificate to qualify for sick pay. How does that make sense? It does not. Either the cost for the consultation with the doctor should be refunded to the worker, or the statutory sick pay scheme should be increased to ensure workers can afford to be sick. That is vitally important.

Overall, there is no doubt that this Bill falls short. There is no guarantee that the Bill will increase sick leave days from three days a year to ten days a year. I know the Tánaiste said that that will depend on the economy at the time. I do not think it should depend on the economy. Entitlement to sick pay should not be dependent on how the economy is functioning. It should depend on one thing and one thing only: whether a person requires it and the fact that it is right.

I support this Bill in essence, but it falls short in too many ways. There should have been an immediate introduction of ten days' sick leave. The sick pay scheme should not be limited to those who work continuously for 13 weeks. The financial cost should not be on employers alone, and illness benefit should continue to be provided as part of the sick pay scheme. There should also be an allowance for a certain number of self-certification days. That would go a long way to making this Bill acceptable and making this Bill achieve what it aims to achieve. Ultimately, the Bill should not be allowed to pass and fail to achieve the goals it needs to achieve. It must ensure that workers do not go to work when they are sick and infect co-workers and others, as we saw with Covid, thereby exacerbating the problem. An opportunity will be lost if that happens with this Bill. My fear is that it will happen if the Bill is not amended now.

I thank colleagues for their considered contributions throughout the debate, which I found very useful in terms of ideas as to how we can improve the Bill. I am very pleased that it has broad cross-party support, at least in principle. The Bill will ensure that for the first time in Ireland, almost all employees will be entitled to paid sick leave in the event that they are unable to work due to a certified illness or injury. This will improve workers' rights and public health, reduce inequality between the public and private sectors and bring Ireland more in line with other advanced EU economies.

I have listened very carefully to the views of the Deputies who believe that the length of coverage provided at the outset of the Bill is insufficient. Taking into account the current economic climate, the initial period covered by employers will be modest but will increase incrementally. I think it is important to point out that after the three days, illness benefit kicks in on day four. We have to be mindful of imposing excessive costs on employers, particularly small businesses, many of which have had difficulties in the past two years with costs related to Covid, Brexit and the recent general increase in energy costs. That is why we are taking this incremental approach to the scheme.

Three days' sick pay is one of the lower entitlements in Europe, but it is only a start. We must remember that when comparing systems across jurisdictions, we very often do not compare like with like. Not all countries operate a State illness benefit scheme like we do. For instance, the UK offers a far longer period of employer sick pay of 26 weeks, but at a much lower rate of compensation, only £96.35 for the entire week. Therefore, I suspect that it was Deputy Pringle's employer in London that provided the generous sick pay to which he referred, and not the British Government that was in office at the time.

We also must remember that in Ireland, illness benefit can run for up to two years. Ten days or two weeks of paid sick leave is in line with the entitlement in many EU countries. It is the same as the entitlement that Australia and New Zealand provide for, and that Canada is currently planning. Other countries were mentioned, such as France, but what was not mentioned is the fact that countries like France require both employers and employees, including those on low pay, to make higher social insurance contributions. For example, a worker earning the minimum wage in Denmark will pay something like 13 times more tax than a worker earning the minimum wage in Ireland. Perhaps it is worth it, but it is interesting that a fact like that is often omitted from arguments by people who make comparisons between us and other countries, such as France or Denmark.

In relation to people on low pay struggling to pay the doctor, I take on board that it is a real issue that Members are raising and needs consideration. However, I point out that roughly 50% of the population now qualifies for a medical card or doctor visit card. When it comes to the adult working age population, that figure is much lower. It is closer to 15% or 20%, but that encompasses a lot of low-paid, part-time and minimum wage workers who do have a medical card or doctor visit card. I think the solution to this issue is not legislating for employers to pay sick pay to people who do not produce evidence. The solution is improving access to GP care and healthcare and raising the eligibility limits. I am aware that a proposal came from the main Opposition party that there should be a rebate of GP fees in some way. That is not a bad idea. We do that already with the treatment benefit scheme for dental and optical care. Perhaps we should do something for people who do not have a medical card when they attend their GP. Let us not forget that currently, if a worker is sick, let us say, for three days, he or she gets no sick pay and may still have to pay the GP. That would cost him or her around €60. Under the new scheme, he or she could get up to €330 in sick pay and the cost of seeing the GP will be deducted from that. The worker would be much better off than he or she is in the current situation.

Many Members raised the issue of the 13-week length of service. I will give that some more consideration. A minimum term of employment is a common provision to access other forms of statutory leave. Both parental leave and carer's leave require 12 months' continuous service for an employee to avail of it. I do not think it is unreasonable that we would allow a few weeks for a relationship to develop between an employer and employee before somebody is eligible for sick leave. I know that an employer would not want to take somebody on and only find out, after day three or in the second week that they are working, that they are off sick. However, I get the point that I hear from Deputies opposite that in some sectors like ECCE, childcare and the care economy, people are regularly employed for perhaps 30 or 38 weeks of the year. It would be unfair if they had to wait, on each occasion, for 13 weeks to get their entitlement, especially if it is with the same employer. Perhaps we can look at an amendment in that space that can resolve the issue. Certainly, the intention is that people, once they are working for a particular employer, will have the right to sick pay after 13 weeks. I would not like to see a situation whereby somebody who works for the same employer every year for 30 weeks will have to wait until week 14 to get the entitlement. That is not the intention of the Bill. We will give it some more thought.

On the inability to pay clause, I think it was pointed out that that has never been used when it comes to the national minimum wage. Employers tell me that where they actually cannot afford to pay, they still do not want to go to the Labour Court, because they will then be putting up in lights the fact that they have difficulties paying their bills and they will run into problems with suppliers and so on. The fact that it has not been used does not necessarily mean that there are not employers who cannot afford to pay. It just means that employers who cannot afford to pay do not avail of that mechanism for very good reasons.

In relation to Deputy Murphy's comment on illness benefit being too low, I agree with her on that, but I think that some of her facts are out of date. Illness benefit now kicks in on day four and not day seven. The €203 rate is the individual rate. If you have a dependant partner or children, the rate is higher, closer to around €300 a week. However, it is still too low. To answer Deputy Pringle's question, we intend to do the following. When we go beyond the three-day period, there will be savings to the State and the Social Insurance Fund because employers will be picking up sick pay for day four, day five or day six that would previously have been covered by illness benefit.

What we intend to do is increase illness benefit and use the savings that will be made to make illness benefit more generous. At the moment, illness benefit is very low - it is something over €200 for a single person and just over €300 for a dependent, but that is for the entire week. If a person is used to getting paid more every week, that is a big hit to their income. We hope to use the savings that are generated to improve illness benefit for employees when they hit the 11th day or the 12th day, as the case may be. The cost of sick pay to replace somebody who is sick is recognised as a cost in the tax code for employers.

On a point of record, ICTU is an umbrella organisation that represents almost all trade unions, but not all, and IBEC is an umbrella organisation that represents a broad spectrum of business, including small firms, as the Small Firms Association is a constituent member of IBEC.

Question put and agreed to.