Wednesday, 3 February 2021
Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020: Motion
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak this afternoon on the motion to extend the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. I very much welcome the extension of the existing rates of the EWSS until 31 March. It is something for which Sinn Féin has been calling for a number of weeks and it is welcome that the Government has finally got around to putting the motion before the House. It is timely that we are having the debate here today.
Extending the EWSS will provide continued support and much-needed certainty for workers and employers amid the ongoing level 5 restrictions. We all know that the EWSS is needed to combat the possibility of unemployment and perhaps it will be needed for a period after we overcome this virus through a combination of public health measures such as social distancing and, more importantly, a widespread vaccination programme. We need to be alert to the fact that it is quite possible the continuation of this scheme may be required even beyond the public health emergency and as the virus goes into retreat, as we hope it will, there is a case to be made for the extension of the scheme even beyond that time to facilitate workers whose businesses will take a while to get back up and running and to ensure we minimise job losses to the greatest extent possible. With that in mind, I ask the Minister to put in place a firm plan for the continuation of the EWSS after the end of March.
In his contribution, the Minister referenced the need to avoid what he referred to as a "cliff edge". That also means not postponing the cliff edge. There needs to be some degree of certainty. We know this public health emergency will not end overnight and will extend beyond March, into the summer and possibly even further, depending on how our vaccination programme is rolled out. At the moment, there is what from the outside looks like a staggering level of ineptitude at the level of the European Commission as a whole, especially in the office of the President of the Commission, as it relates to the procurement of vaccine, which combined with the ineptitude of our Minister for Health, and it gives me no pleasure to say that, means it looks like we are a long way off vaccinating the whole population.
I want to raise a point with the Minister because it is something that has been raised with me and I feel duty-bound to pass it on. Countless times in the past number of weeks, I have been contacted by workers who have referred to the structure of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, and the tax bill they have faced. This causes massive concern for many workers and their families. The Minister's decision to base the wage subsidy on net pay has resulted in what amounts, effectively, to a double deduction for workers. The TWSS was calculated as a percentage of an employee's previous net weekly earnings rather than gross weekly earnings. In other jurisdictions, such as Denmark and the North of this island, wage subsidies were calculated as a percentage of the employee's previous gross weekly earnings, not their earnings after tax, and was at that stage subjected to tax. Tax and payments that were calculated as a percentage of net earnings effectively amount to a double deduction for these workers and they asked me to relay that message to the Minister. He needs to explain to those workers why it was not based on gross weekly earnings because we have ended up in a serious situation where workers are saying that a double deduction is applying to them.
Do not get me wrong, those workers are very appreciative of the EWSS, the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and all of the support schemes but there are a number of workers out there who believe themselves to be entitled to a redundancy payment and we know there is, effectively, a moratorium on redundancy payments. Those workers are keen to have a two-way engagement around the moratorium. Many have contacted my office seeking a discussion on a contingency plan to ensure that workers can access redundancy if they wish in a way that does not put businesses into financial jeopardy. I appreciate that at the time these measures were brought in, it was not anticipated that they would have to last for as long as they have, but that necessitates a further conversation. All that those workers want is a two-way conversation.
I have only one chance to speak in the Chamber today so I will raise with the Minister the issue of the Debenhams workers who have today been on strike for 300 days. They have stood steadfast and campaigned with what can be described as only bravery and, indeed, dignity. All they want is for their collective agreement to be honoured and for a fair and decent redundancy to be paid to them. Last week, we saw nearly 500 workers across Arcadia Group find themselves in the same situation. They also want their collective agreement to be honoured. Not only should the Government take steps to ensure the Mandate workers can benefit to the full extent from the money the Government has promised, €3 million, but we should also expedite legislation to ensure we do not have a Debenhams mark 3 or Debenhams mark 4 and so on. That would be a fitting legacy for what these brave workers have been forced to go through.