"That Seanad Éireann:
- Ireland is one of only five countries in the European Union in which employees have no statutory right to be paid by their employer if absent from work due to illness;
- the decision whether to provide sick pay is entirely in the hands of employers under current legislation;
- standard illness benefit is only paid to full-time PAYE workers from the seventh day of an illness, provided 104 weeks of PRSI contributions have been built up plus a minimum number of payments in the relevant year, or previous year or two years, and further subject to a certificate of incapacity signed by a doctor who may charge the standard price of a GP visit;
- the enhanced Covid-19 illness benefit does not cover workers with illnesses other than Covid-19, and at €350 a week, represents less than half the average private sector weekly wage;
- the comments made by An Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Minister for Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands, the Minister for Justice and other Government Ministers that the lack of paid sick leave provisions in this jurisdiction needs to be remedied;
- the widespread public support for paid sick leave in Ireland, as evidenced by an Ireland Thinks survey, showed 87% in favour of addressing the issue;
notes with concern:
- the pressing need to ensure, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, that workers who are ill or have Covid-19 symptoms do not feel pressured to attend work;
- the comments of the Acting Chief Medical Officer on 27th September, 2020 that NPHET has recommended measures be put in place to ensure that workers can afford not to attend work when they are sick;
- the reported low levels of workers with access to sick pay in both the meat preparation and childcare sectors, with 80% of workers in meat processing factories lacking sick pay schemes at work according to Meat Industry Ireland, and 79% of early years professionals lacking sick pay according to research by the SIPTU Big Start campaign;
- the position of parents whose children may be sent home from school or pre-school due to pandemic guidelines, and the arising difficulties for families where both work outside the home or, in the case of a single parent. in terms of balancing work commitments with the need to provide care for children;
- the disproportionate burden falling on mothers when it comes to caring for children while ill or restricting their movements, and the reliance by a majority of parents on annual leave to enable them to absent themselves from work to care for their children;
- that the legislative provision for force majeure leave is limited to three days in a twelve month period as contained in the Parental Leave Act 1998;
- the announcement by the Government that it will take up to six months to review the practicalities of introducing a statutory right to paid sick leave;
and calls on the Government to:
- expedite their consultation with trade unions and business representatives in order to urgently introduce a statutory right to paid sick leave for all employees;
- provide for a series of targeted and easy to access supports to employers who can demonstrate inability to pay sick leave during the course of the pandemic;
- amend, as an extraordinary measure, the Parental Leave Act 1998, in order to extend the existing statutory entitlement to force majeure leave for parents whose children’s school or pre-school must close or restrict attendance in order to comply with pandemic guidelines, ensuring that the parent, indispensable to the needs of the child, can remain at home.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber for this Private Members' motion.
We are living through a global health emergency, a pandemic on a scale that very few of us could ever have imagined a few months ago, and so much of our lives have changed. Unfortunately, it is in the gaps in our social safety net that we now see the true impact of Covid-19. From day one, we told ourselves that we are all in this together but, in truth, the pandemic has been no great leveller. The language of solidarity from the Government is all very well but the reality of the crisis is very different. I refer to the widening gap between the haves and the have nots, those who have financial and job security and those who do not, those who are able to work from home and those who cannot, and, above all, those who enjoy that basic employment right to full pay when they have to take time off from their work because they are sick and those who do not. The reality in Ireland at present is that workers do not enjoy that basic employment right to paid sick leave. Workers in this country are entirely dependent on the benevolence of their employer or where they have a collective agreement with their employer.
In this country, a minority of private sector workers have access to paid sick leave on the first day they become ill. In certain sectors, particularly low-paid sectors such as the red meat sector, the numbers with access to paid sick leave is as low as 10%. In the childcare sector, another low-paid sector, SIPTU's Big Start campaign surveyed over 3,000 childcare workers and found that only 16% of workers in that sector have access to paid sick leave. While we do not have the precise numbers for right across the Irish labour market as to who does and does not have paid sick leave, we know from the data on other employment rights, such as access to paid maternity leave, that the more workers earn the more likely they are to have access to paid sick leave and, of course, the converse of that, the less they earn the less likely they are to have paid sick leave.
For those who do not have paid sick leave, what are they reliant on? The reality is that they are left to rely on a wholly inadequate system of State supports with regard to illness benefit. They must wait a whole six days before accessing illness benefit. What is worse is that the social welfare system excludes quite a significant number of workers, that is, workers who have less than two years' PRSI contributions and who have not made PRSI contributions in the previous years. Who are those workers? They include young workers, workers who have taken long years out of the labour market and come back into a job, and workers who have come back from abroad.
The purpose of the Labour Party motion is twofold; it is to highlight the wholly inadequate system that exists around supporting workers when they fall ill in this country but, more importantly, to say to the Government that it can and must act soon. I welcome the Government's commitment in the past fortnight to act. I acknowledge its commitment to placing sick pay legislation on the Statute Book by the end of next year. However, I have to say to the Minister of State that waiting until next year is simply too late for the thousands of workers who are likely to become sick, either for reasons unrelated to Covid or related to Covid, over the coming weeks and months. I also acknowledge that the Government has responded in small part to the pandemic with regard to illness benefit. We have an enhanced illness benefit payment now but, at €350 per week, it is less than half the average weekly earnings. If one is struggling to make ends meet, the fact remains that without guaranteed paid sick leave, if one finds oneself ill, one has to make that very difficult choice between the paid work that one really cannot afford to lose or making the right decision to stay at home and do right by oneself and by one's co-workers and the rest of society.
It is important to state that paid sick leave is not a new, radical or extravagant notion. A statutory entitlement to paid sick leave is seen as a basic right in 22 EU member states. While Irish workers have not had that right, there has been a statutory sick pay scheme in the UK for many decades. In Australia, it goes as far back as 1922.
Another important point regarding workers without access to paid sick leave concerns our inadequate social welfare system. If we had paid sick leave, there would be no need for low-paid workers to rely on the State's illness benefit. I am thinking in particular about people like Clare, who is a childcare worker in Carlow. Clare became ill with the flu last January. She goes to work looking after our children every day and allowing parents like me and many others to go to work as well. Clare brings in less than €400 per week. When she became ill, she had to wait six days before being able to access sick pay to support herself and her family. That situation requires immediate and drastic change, and it is within the wherewithal of the Government to make that change in the budget next week.
I understand that well-made policy that is meant to last takes time and needs to be teased out. I appreciate that the Minister of State and the Tánaiste have spoken with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, regarding the issues involved with the introduction of paid sick leave. As stated in our motion, however, we believe the Government can expedite those consultations between the unions, employer representatives and the Government itself. I state that because this issue concerns not only individual workers, but workplaces, the economy and society as a whole.
This is also about ensuring we deploy all available tools in the fight against Covid-19. We must also face the fact, and this is why we are bringing forward this motion, that the absence of paid sick leave in this country is a fundamental weakness in the fight against Covid-19. It is not just the Labour Party stating that. The former acting CMO in the Department of Health, the CEO of the HSE and the clinical officer of the HSE have all acknowledged that the lack of paid sick leave is problematic in addressing Covid-19.
I am conscious that many businesses will look on the notion of paid sick leave as an extravagance and something they cannot pay. However, can businesses afford for workers to take the chance of having one or more of the symptoms of Covid-19, coming into the workplace, infecting other workers and then that entire workplace shutting down? There is a real question concerning how employers will respond. In our pre-budget submission today, we put forward proposals regarding helping those employers that cannot afford to pay sick pay. We did that because we recognise that there are employers who do the right thing and provide sick pay and there are also employers who can afford to pay but choose not to do so. There are also employers who are still getting back on their feet and struggling to make ends meet, and they should be supported by the State.
There are three actions which the Government can take in the weeks to come, and especially in the context of the budget next week. The first action concerns reducing the number of days that a worker who is ill must wait to access illness benefit. I refer to workers who do not have Covid-19 but are facing other illnesses. No worker should have to wait until the seventh day of illness to access illness benefit.
The second point is that the Government can move swiftly to extend the right to force majeure leave. There is only a right to three days of force majeure leave in a 12-month period. Any child isolating because of Covid-19 must do so for up to 17 days. That will be unsustainable for parents relying on annual leave or paid leave. Parents from all across the country have contacted me to say that they do not know what they are going to do if their children are out sick and must isolate in the weeks and months to come.
The third key initiative that the Minister could take concerns the extension or introduction of the right to collective bargaining. The reality is that where paid sick leave exists in workplaces, that right has come about because of collective agreements between workers and employers. I refer to employers recognising the right of workers to come together and negotiate, and it has been collective bargaining that has delivered the majority of workplace rights and benefits.
I conclude by stating that the lack of sick pay is far from the only issue exposed by this pandemic. In the months to come, we want to bring forward legislation concerning bogus self-employment. The Minister of State is aware that this issue has been very cruelly exposed in recent months and particularly in meat factories. I refer to workers who fell ill and who believed they had been employed by an Irish employer. When they went to the social welfare system, however, those workers could not access illness benefit because they had actually been employed by an agency located in another country. This issue does not just concern migrant workers who have come into the country. I have been contacted by an Irishman who stated that he only realised he was bogusly self-employed when he became ill. For the Labour Party and for me, introducing the right to paid sick leave is the minimum the Government can do to help workers and employers to address and minimise the risk posed by Covid-19 and ensure workers do not have to be out of pocket but will have certainty and clarity in their lives and in their work.