It is now seven months since Covid-19 arrived in Ireland. If this crisis has taught us anything it’s that we must value every worker in our country, especially in times of ill health. Yet the stark reality in Ireland is that workers do not have access to the basic right of paid sick leave.
nstead, employees are entirely dependent on the benevolence of their employer to pay them when they are ill. In the private sector, we understand only a minority currently choose to do so. Those worst affected tend to be on lower incomes and in certain essential sectors: for instance, Siptu’s Big Start survey has shown that just 16pc of childcare workers have access to paid sick leave.
One thing must be made clear: paid sick leave is not an extravagance. Across the EU, 22 countries already have a statutory right to paid sick leave, as does the UK. Ireland is one of just five EU members that does not recognise this essential right. Instead, we have Illness Benefit, which a worker must wait six days before accessing, which freezes out those with less than two years’ PRSI contributions, and which directly affects many young workers and those returning to work here from abroad.
This is not an easy issue for workers to speak about in public. No one wants to talk about the possibility of having to take time off to recover from an illness. And for those most affected, not being available for work can have a devastating impact.
But while this is certainly an issue for individual workers, it is also a fundamental weakness in our fight against Covid-19. No worker should be out of pocket when they fall ill, yet too many are being forced into a difficult choice between going into work while sick, or else losing a portion of their income.
We need only look at developments in meat processing plants, with outbreaks occurring in workplace settings where as few as 10pc of workers are estimated to be entitled to sick pay, to see the awful consequences.
And while Covid-enhanced Illness Benefit is available to those who have to isolate, the rate is less than half of private sector weekly wages – little consolation if you are struggling to make ends meet.
Fixing this problem is an urgent priority as long as the virus is with us; we simply cannot find a way to live with Covid if workers who have symptoms are penalised for staying home.
But thinking of the kind of society we want to live in once Covid-19 is brought under control, I believe that workers have a fundamental right to sick pay, which transcends the current crisis and should be properly vindicated in law.
That’s why Labour published the Sick Leave and Parental Leave (Covid-19) Bill 2020 in the Dáil last month. The Government’s response has been to kick the can down the road with promises of a “review” to consider the issues.
As a new senator, I’ve seen massive pieces of legislation with far-reaching fiscal and legal consequences rushed through the Oireachtas in order to deal with the pandemic. Yet for the lowest paid and least secure of workers, they are being made to wait. A clear indication, if ever, of the priorities of this Government.
It is well within the wherewithal of the Government to act now to provide more certainty to workers and their families if they fall ill. As a temporary measure they can reduce the number of days waiting to access the State’s illness benefit scheme and ease the qualifying criteria.
For working parents and particularly working mothers and lone parents across this country, there is a very real worry about balancing work and using up all available annual leave to care for their kids if they are forced to isolate.
Already we have seen a number of schools with outbreaks of Covid-19. The Government could make an immediate amendment to legislation to extend force majeure leave. This is the leave available to parents in the event that a child is ill or injured and right now there is only three days provided for in legislation.
Finally, it is not practical to expect that paid sick leave in this country can be introduced without an accompanying hardship fund for businesses struggling to operate.
We know that in this country there are decent employers who already offer paid sick leave, employers like those in the red meat sector who could afford to pay but choose not to, and then there are those who currently find themselves in difficult situations.
The need for a hardship fund to support businesses unable to pay was an important part of Labour’s alternative budget plan.
It is within our power as a country to ensure a safe, fair Covid recovery. But to do this, the right to paid sick leave must become a permanent feature of employment rights in Ireland.
Only then can we ensure that workers are never expected to choose between their wages and their health.
Marie Sherlock is a Labour senator