Why workers need protections more than ever

Government continues to steal Labour Party ideas, only to water them down

Labour leader Alan Kelly with the party's various Seanad spokespersons.

Labour leader Alan Kelly with the party's various Seanad spokespersons.

One of the basic lessons from the pandemic is how interconnected we are - your mask protects me, mine protects you. Early outbreaks of Covid in meat-processing factories - where workers cannot practice social distancing - were exacerbated by the fact these low-income workers lack sick pay. Unable to afford to (willingly ) forego wages, workers masked symptoms, hoped for the best, and clocked in, with disastrous results.

And yet, when Labour's Galway City West councillor, Níall McNelis proposed a motion late last year, calling for the Government to bring forward legislation to require employers to provide sick pay, it was opposed by the representatives from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and only passed by the casting vote of Mayor Mike Cubbard.

Niall McNelis 2021

In case there was any doubt about why, Fianna Fáil's Peter Keane was quoted in this publication as claiming that "There is [sic] rampant abuses of sick leave in the public service." It is unclear what the basis for this claim is - only four per cent of work days are lost to illness in the public sector each year, and more than 90 per cent of costs are for certified claims, signed off on by a medical professional, leaving less than a day per employee of uncertified leave each year.

So why cheer the Government for (as Cllr Keane put it, while lauding their decision ) "kicking the can down the road" on a Labour Bill which would introduce sick pay for all workers? Your sick pay, after all, protects me, my sick pay protects you. Heaven forfend that while providing economic security to ensure low-wage employees can avoid infecting others, while still paying their rent, there may be the occasional worker who interprets the rules too liberally.

Maybe - to grant the benefit of the doubt - the seven councillors merely wanted to avoid causing embarrassment to Mssrs Martin and Varadkar, by drawing attention to the lack of Government action in this area. Ireland, after all, is one of only a handful of European states without a statutory entitlement to sick leave.

Knock-off imitations

Now, six months later, we seem to be on the brink of a watered down sick leave benefit. Those employed for less than six months - which would include many low-paid and precarious workers - will be excluded from protection; the rate required will be capped - a 'minimum floor' according to the Government - which will clearly create the spectre of abuse by employers that might reduce their current levels to that new statutory floor. (Might our local representatives raise their voices to challenge this moral hazard? )

The Government was happy, clearly, to avoid acting on this issue. Pressed into action by Labour's proposal, it is now preparing to offer a fast fashion version, which looks similar at a distance, but lacks the attention to detail and robust protections of the original.

Labour Sen Rebecca Moynihan

This is not the only time we have seen the Government appropriate a knock-off imitation of Labour proposals in recent months. Last month, Sen Rebecca Moynihan [pictured above] brought forward a Bill to address the issue of period poverty - the financial burden associated with sanitary supplies - and drew on extensive research, and similar legislation in Scotland and elsewhere, to propose solutions, including that all public service buildings - including schools and colleges - should offer products for free, and requiring consultation with service users on the range of products required.

'The Government has committed itself publicly to supporting the goal of a living wage. Behind the scenes, it is working to oppose a proposed European directive on worker rights, which would require implementing a right to trade union representation for workers'

Just three weeks later, the Government decided to act on the issue - but instead of supporting the existing Bill, Fianna Fáil senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee brought forward another Bill, ostensibly addressing the same issue, but without any substantive content. Where Moynihan's Bill addresses questions of consultations, obligations on the minister, public awareness, and user dignity, Clifford-Lee's proposal is a mere shell, with one substantive sentence: the minister 'may' make a scheme to regulate access to free products.

The Government was rightly criticised for the cynicism, not only of attempting to claim credit for an issue others have done the groundwork and research on, but also for undercutting Moynihan's proposal with one that does not adequately address the issue at hand.

Co-living developments

Late last year Labour, and other Opposition parties sought action to prevent construction of massive co-living developments that offer over-priced, sub-standard accommodation to well-paid single workers, while driving families and other households out of our city centres. The minister announced a freeze - but there must have been a thaw, because new developments continue to be constructed. Similarly, the Government let a temporary ban on evictions expire over the summer, and around the RTB was informed of around 800 evictions between March and September.

Labour Senator Annie Hoey.

And it continues. Last week, when Labour senator Annie Hoey [pictured above] proposed a bill to pay student nurses - who have been at the frontlines in our pandemic response - the government decided not to oppose the legislation. So far, so good. Was the government finally seeing the light, a year into the pandemic?

Alas, no. The Government continues to insist that student workers are not actually doing work, and hoped that rather than have to make this tenuous argument on the floor of the Seanad, it could just stall on scheduling the Bill for the next stage of the process. No schedule, no debate, no blowback. Oddly, having agreed on this PR-friendly strategy, Minister Stephen Donnelly then proceeded to make the provably false (and irrelevant ) claim, during debate on the Labour Bill, that all student nurses have been vaccinated.

Reasons to hope

There are reasons to be hopeful. Bowing to pressure from ICTU and Opposition parties, the Government has committed itself publicly supporting the goal of a living wage. Behind the scenes, though, it is working to oppose a proposed European directive on worker rights, which would require implementing a right to trade union representation for workers, long championed by unions and Labour, but fiercely opposed by those employers who prefer unilateral power to set pay and conditions.

Labour Sen Marie Sherlock.

Insider recognises that the world of work is changing, and believes worker protections must respond in kind. Take the so-called 'gig' economy, where companies too often make their profits by eroding working conditions and worker compensation. The UK Supreme Court last week upheld rulings recognising Uber drivers as employees rather than contractors.

Labour senator Marie Sherlock [pictured above] has cited this development in highlighting how workers in Ireland, for services like Deliveroo, often receive less than minimum wage, and receive no support when injured on the job. Following from an interesting discussion on Flirt FM's A Critical Ear this week, about the US experience of 'the gig economy', Insider is more certain than ever that extending protections to those working in the gig economy is a crucial challenge, if we are to avoid a race to the bottom in pay and conditions.

Sen Sherlock has also been examining the protections needed by those working from home - newly expanded due to the pandemic. By the time you read this, she will have addressed the issue in an online meeting chaired by Cllr McNelis, structured around the 'right to switch off' that has been adopted in some jurisdictions. "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will" was the factory workers' slogan of the late 19th century. In this new era of precarity and 'flexible' working, we must ensure that those hard-won protections are not shredded by the capitalist class.

 

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