Wednesday, 7 October 2020
Statutory Right to Sick Leave Pay: Motion
"That Seanad Éireann: acknowledges that:
- 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 majeureleave. There is only a right to three days of force majeureleave 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.
I thank Senator Sherlock. It was remiss of me to not welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English. He is very welcome, and he will be addressing us later. I call Senator Bacik to second the motion. She has eight minutes.
It gives me great pleasure to second this motion on behalf of the Labour Party. It also gives me great pleasure to speak following my colleague, Senator Sherlock, who has spoken so eloquently to propose the motion. She has done an enormous amount of work on pushing for the introduction of the right to paid sick leave. As we state in our motion, it is extraordinary that Ireland is one of only five countries in the EU without a statutory sick pay scheme. Some 22 EU member states have such a scheme in place.
It is very disappointing for us in the Labour group to see the Government's proposed amendment to our motion. It is not surprising given what happened in the Dáil with our Bill, but it is disappointing. It is particularly disappointing to see the very minimal text used in the Government's amendment. We have pointed out that the Government has stated that it will take up to six months to review the practicalities of introducing a statutory right to sick leave. As Senator Sherlock stated, we acknowledge that the Government has recognised the benefit of such a scheme and stated that it might take up to six months.
In the Government's amendment to our motion, however, there is not even a mention of that minimal timeframe. Instead, there is just a very weak commitment to consider reforms and improvements and to engage in consultation. We are disappointed about that. We are being reasonable and we note that consultations are ongoing. We are simply asking the Government to expedite those consultations so that we are no longer among this small minority of five EU member states without a sick pay scheme. When one looks at international comparisons, we see that the Netherlands has a right to two years of sick pay at 70% of a worker's wage, while in Sweden there is a right to two weeks at 80% of a worker's wage. There are, therefore, some very generous examples.In Ireland, by contrast, many workers, mainly those in non-unionised private sector employment, often feel under pressure to continue working when they are sick. Of course, that has implications in the context of the enormous challenges posed by Covid, which really makes the case for expediting the introduction of paid sick leave now, rather than in six months' time. The OECD stated that, in the context of coronavirus, paid sick leave plays a key role in protecting incomes, health and jobs during a health-driven labour market crisis. That is a crucial point, particularly as we moved to level 3 nationally from midnight last night.
As Labour Party spokesperson on children, disability, equality and integration, the motion makes enormous sense. It makes sense from the point of view of children and parents. On 22 September, my colleague, Deputy Sherlock, received a reply to a parliamentary question he had tabled. The reply revealed there had been 63 incidences of Covid-19 in 62 early years services. However, as noted in the motion, research conducted by the SIPTU Big Start campaign indicates that 79% of childcare workers do not have access to sick pay. Most of them earn less than the living wage. Parents are placed under pressure if they have to stay at home to mind children who are sick or need to isolate because another person in the childcare facility or school is sick. We have called for an extension of the statutory entitlement to force majeureleave in those circumstances because we want childcare workers and teachers, as well as parents and children, to be protected by law.
On disability rights, we are conscious of the importance of a right to paid sick leave because many workers in the 80% of nursing homes in the State that are privately operated are on low pay and may be vulnerable without an entitlement to sick leave. Ireland has one of the lowest rates in the EU of employment of people with disabilities. Statutory sick pay may enable more people with disabilities to participate in the labour market. This is not just about people with disabilities who are patients in nursing homes or care homes. It is also about enabling people with disabilities to work and enter the workplace.
On equality and integration, an article I wrote which was published in The Irish Timesin June addressed the gendered effects of the pandemic and the disproportionate way in which the pandemic has affected women. We know that women are more likely to have to take time out of the workplace to care for children or others who are ill. The majority of lone-parent families are headed by women. The lack of a statutory sick pay scheme impacts disproportionately on women. Such a lack also impacts disproportionately on those from migrant communities. There are approximately 16,000 undocumented workers in the country, many of whom work as front-line carers upon whom our care system depends.
For all of the reasons I and my colleagues have outlined, I urge the Minister of State and fellow Senators to support the motion.
I welcome the Minister of State. I thank Senator Sherlock for her considerable work on the Sick Leave and Parental Leave (Covid-19) Bill 2020 which recently went through Second Stage in the Dáil and for her work in preparing the motion. When a government has no moral argument against a proposal, it seeks to kick it down the road. Unfortunately, that seems to be the approach being taken in the Seanad this evening. The issue will be given a further kick along the wrong road to be dealt with in six months' time or longer, as my colleagues stated.
Irish workers have no legal right to be paid by their employer when absent from work because of illness. Whether to pay sick pay is entirely the decision of the employer. There is no legal obligation on an employer to so do. The comments of Dr. Ronan Glynn, who was until recently the acting Chief Medical Officer, CMO, have been mentioned and it is important to revisit them. He recently stated that the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, had recommended to the Government that whatever measure needs to be put in place should be put in place to ensure that workers who are sick can afford not to attend work. He effectively stated that the introduction of sick pay was important to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and recommended several weeks ago that the Government take action. So far, the Government has done nothing except to say it will launch a consultation process. The can is ready for another kicking.
There is no doubt that we are all in this together but, unfortunately, there are those who are more in it than most. I refer to those working in meat plants in particular and those who are left with no option but to continue going to work while sick. In every interview given by the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, in recent days regarding moving to a new level of restrictions, he cited the success of interventions in County Kildare, my county. The real issue in County Kildare and the major cause of the outbreak came from meat factories and the fact that those workers went to work while sick because there was no sick pay scheme of which they could avail. I am sure all Senators are aware of the stories of workers using Calpol and other medication to lower their temperature to ensure they could go to work and afford the basics of life, such as food and rent.
The Labour Party motion is trying to address that issue and help those workers to afford the basics when they are sick. Many such workers are front-line workers who are essential in so many ways. An equally important aim of the motion is to try to protect those workers' communities and the wider public and stop the spread of this dreadful disease. I ask Members to support the motion and leave the can alone for another day. Let us bring in a sick pay scheme that will help to fight Covid and protect the most vulnerable workers and their communities.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House. Fianna Fáil will support the Government amendment to the motion. We accept that neither the current regime for sick leave nor the parental leave system was designed for the current pandemic. Although there is no legal right to sick pay from an employer, employees who are not entitled to sick pay from their employer may be able to avail of illness benefit from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Collective bargaining has achieved sick leave safety nets for many workers, but such agreements are not equally prevalent across all sectors. In such circumstances, it is right that supports be reviewed, as has already been agreed.
We are keenly aware that many businesses are struggling to keep their doors open. That is certainly the case in Galway city and beyond. All Senators are aware of the impact of the ongoing pandemic on many industries, including hospitality, tourism, the events industry, international travel, transport providers and many more. Changes which could result in additional costs for businesses need to be developed in careful consultation with those businesses and unions. There may also be a cost to the State involved. The proposed timeline will allow that important engagement to take place. As the Taoiseach has stated, issues around access to sick pay are very important and the Government must start working towards a sustainable sick pay regime. The consultation will be completed as soon as possible.
The motion follows on from the Sick Leave and Parental Leave (Covid-19) Bill 2020 which was recently debated in the Dáil. Although it did not oppose the Bill, the Government brought forward an amendment which proposed that the Bill would be deemed to have been read a second time in six months' time to allow consultation in the meantime by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation with unions and employers on the issues likely to arise from the Bill. The Government has committed to completing that consultation as soon as possible. As has been outlined, there is no legal right to be paid sick leave, but illness benefit is available. Employers may decide their own policy on sick leave whether to provide payment while employees are off work sick.
Section 2 of the recent Sick Leave and Parental Leave (Covid-19) Bill 2020 provides for paid sick leave at the normal rate of pay after the first four weeks of employment for a period of six continuous weeks or a total of 30 days in any 12-month period. As drafted, this would place an onus on employers to provide all of this pay. Section 3 provides for an unlimited period of force majeureleave, as outlined by Senator Sherlock, for a parent or guardian who must care for a child who is sick or where there is a Covid-19 related closure of a school or preschool. Section 4 provides for protections to ensure that employers are not disadvantaged by elements of the Bill, that collective agreements are recognised, and that more generous arrangements are protected. Section 5 provides for recourse to the Workplace Relations Commission where a complaint arises, similar to the process relating to complaints regarding a worker's entitlement to annual leave. Section 6 provides that nothing within the Bill amends the law relating to grounds that would justify the dismissal of an employee.The Labour Party proposals would place responsibility on employers to provide six weeks' paid leave. Such a responsibility, while welcome for employees, could potentially be onerous for employers. It could be particularly severe for small businesses, SMEs and businesses in which there is a large outbreak of Covid-19. While the spirit of the Labour Party motion is not opposed, it is vital that employers and unions are given an opportunity to give input to any forthcoming legislation, ensure that it is workable and that jobs generated by employers are not put under pressure by increased costs.
When a worker is told to self-isolate by a doctor or the HSE due to being a probable source of infection or has been diagnosed with Covid-19 by a doctor, he or she can apply for the illness benefit payment per week. I urge the Government to increase that payment back to €350 which was previously in place.
All employees other than some public sector employees who pay a modified rate of social insurance and self-employed people, including non-nationals and people living in direct provision, are entitled to claim and receive Covid-19 illness benefit where conditions are met.
In response to the current need for Covid-19 supports for parents, the Government is examining the possibility of extending parental leave and benefit from two weeks to five weeks for each parent and extending the period in which this leave can be taken. Each parent is now entitled to 26 weeks of parental leave. The Government proposal would mean that eligible parents of the children born during the pandemic crisis will get an extra three weeks' parental leave to offset the impact of having a child during the strict lockdown measures. The period in which parental leave can be taken will also be extended from one year to two years. This, and the related costs, will be considered as part of the budget next Tuesday. The support is paid at a rate of €245 per week by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
There are other areas in which the Government has requested employers to be as flexible as possible. It has put pressure on them to allow staff to take time off after their children are born during the pandemic. Some of the flexible options include: offering paid compensatory leave; allowing employees to work from home; alternating shifts so that employees can co-ordinate caring between themselves and their partners or another person; allowing employees to rearrange holidays; and allowing them to take paid time off that can later be worked back. Where it is possible to make appropriate compassionate leave arrangements, employees may be able to call on some statutory entitlements, including parental leave together with parental benefit, or carer's leave together with carer's benefit or allowance. Under the proposals in the Labour Party Bill, a new statutory entitlement to six weeks' paid sick leave would have to be created.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “That Seanad Éireann:” and substitute the following:
- the recent introduction of a new social insurance-based paid parental benefit scheme and extended parental leave rights;
- the Government’s intention to examine a further extension of this leave in response to Covid-19 and acknowledges that work is underway in this regard;
- that the €7.4 billion July stimulus package was in addition to the existing measures totalling €12 billion in supports for Covid-19 impacted businesses announced earlier in the year, including liquidity supports, rates waivers from local authorities and the warehousing of tax liabilities of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) by Revenue;
resolves that An Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands will progress consultations with unions and employers as quickly as possible, which will allow for:
- consideration of reforms and improvements to Ireland’s statutory sick pay laws and any related change to illness benefit which is funded through PRSI contributions as referred to in the Programme for Government;
- research into the extent and exact nature of the problems being experienced, including a full evaluation of the costs that a Statutory Sick Pay Scheme would place on employers, particularly micro, small and medium sized enterprises that have been severely hit by Covid-19 and have required a suite of State supports to help them deal with the challenges;
- consideration of other practical issues and consequences that may arise, such as increased business costs and business viability,as a result of the proposals; and
- to consider other options for change which might be available, and which would not make it more difficult for employers to remain viable.”
I thank my colleagues from the Labour Party for proposing the original motion. I am supporting the amendment I have moved.
There is nothing unreasonable in the proposals. The only things that are unreasonable are the times in which we are living. Ireland is one of only five countries in the EU in which employees have no statutory right to be paid by their employer if absent from work due to an illness. The pandemic has revealed a vulnerability that must be addressed, a safety net staff and the State need. The lack of statutory employee sick pay in Ireland is a reflection of the challenges faced by previous Governments and a general acceptance of the status quo. It has been on the radar but has not been prioritised enough. A cursory glance at the Labour Party and Sinn Féin 2020 general election manifestos, for instance, reveals no reference to statutory sick pay that I could see.
When people are sick, they need to put recovery first, not worry about household finances. As a modern, caring State, we must reduce any barriers to staying at home and safe. Never has this been more important. I welcome the commitment of the Tánaiste and hope for the same from the Minister of State, Deputy English, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Minister for Justice and Equality, as well as broad support across our party and the Government, to research the extent and exact nature of the problems being experienced by workers. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection will consider reforms to statutory sick pay laws and any related change to illness benefit, funded through PRSI. This was already committed to in the programme for Government but the timing is right to do it now and with urgency. With cross-party support, I hope those Ministers will succeed where others have not.
It is true that paid sick leave is entirely at the discretion of employers but much has been done to enhance illness benefit during the pandemic. The rate has been increased to €350 per week for all employees no matter their PRSI contributions. Any employee with Covid-19 symptoms who is required to self-isolate or is a probable source of infection has access to that payment. The payment is made from the first day of illness so there are no waiting days. It applies for two weeks for a person who is a probable risk of infection and up to ten weeks for a person who is diagnosed with Covid-19. I am told that payments are now being processed in approximately one week.
The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will spend an estimated €599 million on illness benefit alone in 2020. More than 60,000 workers have availed of it so far, including front-line agency workers, meat factory workers, childcare workers, the self-employed, delivery drivers, zero-hour contractors and more. There is still some necessary rigmarole around applying for the Covid-19 illness benefit. An applicant requires his or her doctor to send a medical certificate to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and wait for the okay. Even though the benefit is back paid once an application is approved, access to seamless sick pay maintained at the right level of benefit would be the best approach now and going forward. In the North, for instance, statutory sick pay stands at £95.98 per week for up to six months. We can and should do better than that.
Some contributors to this debate over the past couple of weeks, not those who have spoken today, have referred to the Government's willingness to rush Covid-19 legislation through on other issues but not on this matter. They have said that if we are supporting businesses through this crisis, we should push for reform or get something back from them. Business owners have given us enough by going against every instinct they have to shut down their businesses and watch their revenues fall by 70% or more while paying fixed costs, week after week.
Statutory sick pay is our commitment to supporting sick workers at all times and not just in times of crisis. We must remember that many Irish employers already pay contractual sick pay, but this step provides for situations where employers do not. The legislation requires collaboration, not coercion, from small and medium-sized enterprises. That is what the Tánaiste has committed to doing and has already begun in earnest with trade unions and business representatives.
A particular body of work is required for early years professionals and healthcare staff to address pay and retention issues and problems. This is a separate piece of work that the Minister with responsibility for children, disability, equality, integration and youth, Deputy O'Gorman, has taken on and must be addressed as soon as possible for childcare providers, workers, parents and children. I absolutely agree and have previously referenced that a disproportionate burden fell on women during lockdown and falls to them if children are sick or unable to go to school or preschool. That pressure is even more acute for single or lone parents. When some people's work-life balance improved during the pandemic, others disintegrated as they juggled home-schooling and home-working. It underlines the difference between the potential of flexible and remote work, and working from home during a pandemic, which are two very different things. I welcome, therefore, the Government's commitment to examine the extension of parental leave in response to Covid-19.It took a global pandemic to make us reconsider how we do things, especially how we work. Reforms to statutory sick pay and illness benefit should be part of that.
I support the aims and overarching objectives of the motion, but I accept that more work needs to be done both to support Ireland's workers at this difficult time and to build the workforce of our future. I am confident that the Tánaiste and the Minister are working to achieve this.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate him on retaining a ministerial post.
I will talk about the occupational health services, particularly in the teaching profession. Some of the letters I have seen with respect to teachers with underlying health conditions are frightening, where the occupational health service says a person is in a high-risk capacity but not a very high-risk capacity, that he or she would be eligible to continue in his or her teaching role but can only teach one student and must be protected here, there and everywhere. Effectively what they are doing is kicking back the issue of ill health or underlying conditions to the school board of management. I know that the Minister of State will probably have sat on a school board of management. It is unfair. Boards of management are not qualified to deal with these issues.
I support fully my colleagues in the Labour Party with this motion. Covid has shone a light into the dark area of employment law and significant issues faced by low-paid workers in many sectors. The absence of any legal right to sick pay by an employee in this country is scandalous, especially in a strong First World economy that is part of the European Union. Employees in meat processing factories recently had to make a choice between their income and health, which is unacceptable. That they had to do that during a highly contagious pandemic is unconscionable, a pandemic in which not only their own health was put at risk but also the lives of the people they shared the community with.
We are now caught in the strong swell of a second wave that can be traced back to the first outbreaks in the meat factories after a very successful lockdown, but the lack of legislation on the issue of mandatory sick pay has failed us for far too long, and all in the name of profit. The argument is made that the State already provides for sick workers through illness benefit subject to a number of qualifying conditions. For the information of the Minister of State, Members of both this House and the Lower House who lost their seats in the previous election will not qualify for sick pay, should they be lucky enough to find employment, for some time to come because of class K PRSI, which is something that really needs to be examined. We are using the PRSI code as a tax. Who would pay for insurance and get nothing for it?
With the increasing number of workers on short-term contracts, otherwise known as precarious employment, many find it difficult to accrue the necessary contributions and, when ill, find themselves without any income at all. Many are hired overseas, and even though they work in Ireland, they pay no PRSI contributions. Again, there are precarious employment situations, especially in construction. I had the occasion to report an incident of builders' labourers, men with shovels and wheelbarrows, being declared self-employed on building sites purely to get around the PRSI and tax code.
We know that companies operate in very tight environments and compete for the lowest cost. We know that every penny counts, but in calculating and deciding what profit level a company needs to survive and thrive, sick pay should be factored in as a given and firmly rooted in employment law. As it is, there is far too much exploitation, particularly of migrant workers who work mainly in the construction, hospitality, caring, retail, food and processing industries. The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland said recently, "The prevalence of exploitation and routine breaches of basic employment standards in the sectors examined is staggering." We have workers in this country who are not even given the pay they are legally entitled to, and on top of that, they do not have any sick pay. Indeed, a person contacted me recently who was told by one of these employers who employs people from outside the country that they were paying emergency tax and should contact the Revenue Commissioners to recoup the tax they had paid. When the person contacted the Revenue Commissioners, the person was advised that Revenue had not received any tax in the name of this person after six months. There is something wrong with the fact that we are allowing that to go on.
Being part of a race to the bottom in employment conditions and law is something that Ireland should not be proud of. We should be deeply embarrassed by it. Patricia King, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, recently said that "up to half of the labour force, including hundreds of thousands of low-paid essential workers, do not receive sick pay and ... [are] financially compelled to keep on working when sick". Right now, in the middle of this Covid crisis, the lowest paid in our society - the cleaners, refuse collectors and people like that - are treated in an appalling way. My own view is that these workers should be paid the same money as consultants because without them we would all be sick.
For workers who are fortunate enough to have sick pay as part of their contract of employment, I would also recommend taking out income continuance insurance for those who can afford it. We need a State-based income continuance insurance so that where an employee gets sick he or she would be guaranteed up to 75% of his or her salary. I applaud organisations like SIPTU, Forfás, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, the Garda Representative Association, GRA, the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI, and the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO - I could go on. All of these unions have done what the State could not. They have done deals with insurance companies to ensure that their members have access to income continuance insurance. Unfortunately, with the way precarious employment has gone and short-term contracts, an awful lot of these people who once held cherished jobs in this country - being a nurse, teacher or any of those things once was a cherished career - sadly, they have now become short-term positions and are of little value.
Employees' income must be guaranteed at every stage in the life cycle. Going back to the teachers I spoke about at the outset, if a teacher is told by the occupational health people that he or she is high risk but not very high risk, the board of management says that person cannot not come to work and to go back to his or her GP, and the GP says he or she is not prepared to certify that teacher to go into a school and teach, after a period that teacher drops off the sick leave payment within the Department of Education and Skills and becomes broke, which is simply not on.
I welcome the motion tabled by the Labour Party. Once again, I am delighted to see the Labour Party row in four-square behind the trade union movement and workers of this country, and I congratulate it on bringing the motion forward. I hope what we do not have is lip service paid to this motion. I hope what we do have is the Minister of State and his Government colleagues coming forward with a complete suite of welfare for workers. We have learned over the past six months just how important the lowest paid workers in this country are - the front-line cleaners, refuse collectors, receptionists and office staff - and it is time we started to treat them the way we would like to be treated ourselves.
It is nice to see the Minister of State and he is very welcome. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I welcome the motion on sick pay, which will have our full support. I also welcome the speeches made by my colleagues in the Labour Party.
Where do I begin with sick pay? I will begin with my own experience of working as a trade union official with red meat workers. What is not often said, and it needs to be said, is that our red meat industry is rife with exploitation. We are not talking about a few bad apples. We are talking about an industry that is rife with exploitation.When I worked with those workers, I could see first-hand the back-breaking work they undertook and the repetitive strain injuries they regularly got, but of course they had to work because there was no sick pay. As we heard from one of our colleagues, 90% of them do not have sick pay. What does it tell us about a massively profitable industry when it decides that 90% of its workers are not worthy of sick pay, even given the back-breaking savage workload these workers undertake? It is not a coincidence, of course, that the vast majority of these workers are foreign nationals and somehow it is almost that they are out of sight so, therefore, they are out of mind. It is a disgraceful industry and I want to put that on the record of the House. We have heard too many times about our wonderful exports. Talk to the people who work in those factories. Examine what they have to put up with and remember that when we tried to organise them in SIPTU, they were fired, not once, not twice but every time in every factory. This is the reality of our red meat industry. Is it not shocking that one of the most profitable industries in the country denies sick pay to people?
I want to give a second example, which is private nursing homes. I did a lot of work with private nursing home workers, and when we look at their contracts of employment they are quite shocking. I have one here. They are expected to work all hours, day and night, including weekends, for a flat rate of pay. There is no additional rate of pay for weekends. I am not speaking about one bad example, I am speaking about one of the industry leaders. This is the standard in these private for-profit nursing homes. Again, I put it to the Minister of State that there is no sick pay in this sector. Think about that. In a sector such as this they work with vulnerable elderly people. We know all too well from Covid how vulnerable these workers are, but there is nothing to be said for it.
The question I would ask is how we got here. How is it we are so out of sync with the rest of Europe? Just looking at some of the schemes throughout Europe, in Germany employers must pay a sick worker's full wage for up to six weeks and in France, sick workers are paid for 60 to 90 days, with 90% for the first 30 days. In Finland, legislation compels the employer to pay nine days of full salary, but through collective agreements workers usually receive sick pay for up to one month and other workers and civil servants receive sick pay for even more than three months. What is it about the Irish workforce that successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments, successive conservative governments, never felt it was worth doing something in this sector? I will address Senator Currie's point. We can go back as far as 2012 to see Sinn Féin Private Members' business on this. We have been consistent on this issue and the need to legislate on it.
It is clear that it is about class politics. It is about the people in these factories not coming into the minds of either of the conservative parties. They never have done. Let us look at the key calls the Labour Party has made. The first is to expedite consultation with trade unions and business representatives to introduce urgently a statutory right to paid sick leave for all employees. Who could possibly disagree with this line? The motion also calls for the provision of a series of targeted and easy-to-access supports to employers who can demonstrate an inability to pay sick leave during the course of the pandemic. It is very important that we put in place supports for small and medium-sized businesses in particular. It also calls for amendment of the Parental Leave Act 1998. There was no need for this really weakly worded, poor Government amendment. I was going to use bad language there but I did not. There is no need for it. Why can the Government not agree with these three simple calls? I would like the Minister of State to respond to this.
Look at the Government's amendment. It calls for consideration of reforms and improvements to Ireland's statutory sick pay laws. We do not have any statutory sick pay laws. What we did have at the beginning of 2014 was a move from three days to six days before workers could access sick pay. That is the Fine Gael record. Unfortunately, it was Joan Burton in the chair at the time. I welcome the fact there is broad progressive agreement on this point and on pursuing it. We have to do better for working people. My worry is exactly what Senator Wall referenced earlier. I am not convinced, and in fact looking at the amendment I am less convinced than ever, that the Government has any real intention to deal with this issue. There is no reason the Government could not have supported the three key points in the Labour Party's motion and given us real encouragement that this huge gap in workers' rights will be addressed sooner rather than later, but it has not happened.
There are so many references here. The Council of Europe has called us out on our lack of sick pay. The European Social Charter condemned the UK, which actually has some degree of sick pay, as being manifestly inadequate and not in conformity. Where does that leave us? We have absolutely nothing.
I am disappointed because the Minister of State had an opportunity to show goodwill and real intent but instead he has come up with this weakly worded, vague, nondescript nonsense. I challenge the Government representatives because word will go out, and there is no doubt about it, that a simple motion such as this which deserves support has not received it and, instead, the Government has engaged in a kicking the can down the road episode. There is no need for a six-month period. The employers and unions could get this worked out in three months. That would have been a much more reasonable timeframe and we could have got real results for these workers, who have been abandoned not just through Covid but for years and decades before this. We can and must do better. I hope the Minister of State can give us something more positive than this appallingly weak amendment.
I welcome the Minister of State. I warmly commend the Labour Party on tabling the motion. It is very important. This is the type of emergency measure we should be seeing. I have seen a lot of other things we are told are urgent moving through the House, sometimes questionably. This is the type of thing that is urgent. It relates directly to the Covid-19 circumstance and it also addresses a long-standing massive gap in Ireland's labour legislation.
I am incredibly disappointed by the Government's amendment. There is absolutely nothing in the motion that should not be accepted. In fact, this is not even a Bill that the Government is seeking to postpone. The Labour Party motion simply asks that consultation be expedited. Does the Government not agree with expediting this issue and recognising it as urgent? It seems extraordinary because there is absolutely nothing in the three reasonable points with which to disagree and nothing that ties the Government's hands on any consultation process. In fact, it encourages a consultation process. It is extraordinarily disappointing.
I am particularly disappointed with the last line of the Government's amendment, which points to the nub of the issue. We heard in the Dáil that the Government simply wants to delay this so we can really work on statutory sick pay and get it right, but the very last line of the amendment states the Government should consider other options for change that might be available and might not make it difficult for employers to remain viable. This is stating the Government does not want to introduce statutory sick pay and is looking to do something else instead. This is what is in the Government's amendment. I will strongly oppose it. The Government is looking at alternatives to statutory sick pay.
Just so we know, others have listed that in Belgium workers are entitled to 30 days' sick leave at 100%, in Finland it is nine days, and in the Netherlands there are two years of sick leave at 70%. There are five other countries that do not have a statutory entitlement but, in fact, these countries have collective agreements. These are countries such as Denmark which have even stronger entitlements to sick leave. They do not have statutory entitlement because they do not need it because they have proper recognition of collective bargaining and union rights.
With regard to why we need this to be statutory and no alternative will do, I will quote from an interview on "Prime Time" on RTÉ with the director of, AA Euro Group, one of the main agencies that provide staff. He stated the agency did not pay sick pay and that the legal requirement for employers in the private sector in Ireland is that they do not have to pay sick pay. He said it would come down to an agency directive, and if the factories were paying sick pay, by all means the agency would do exactly the same thing because it would be able to charge for it. He also stated it is a legislative issue for the Government. He stated that if there were a level playing field in legislation, they would all be in the same boat and would definitely pay sick pay if that were the case. This is the meat industry telling us it will only do this if it is required to do so.Let us be clear and not have meat barons and other companies hiding behind the small and micro business owner that we have heard about. We must protect small and micro businesses and we have mechanisms to do so. The Labour Party motion explicitly provides for a series of easy to access, targeted supports to employers who can demonstrate inability to pay sick leave. They are addressing that. The inability-to-pay mechanism is one we have to ensure there should never be a case where a business goes under because it is not able to pay a statutory entitlement for a period. The inability-to-pay mechanism is one of the measures we already have because we recognise that businesses go through hard times. We help businesses when they are struggling or when they are in ill health and we hope that they will recover. The least we could do is to do the same for the workers. If we are giving the many and lengthy supports to business we have discussed in this House, we must also show that we value and care for workers. We have heard about them being essential workers.
There have been two very negative signals this week, one being the frankly pathetic increase of 10 cent in the minimum wage at a time when we know 23% of Irish workers are in the low-paid bracket, 40% of workers are in insecure work, and according to the 2017 figures, 44% are at risk of poverty if they were not getting social transfers. That is the level of economic vulnerability and poverty that we have among workers in Ireland and we have chosen not to increase the minimum wage, not to include adequacy as a key factor in the minimum wage and now we are saying sick pay is not a concern when we know it is a major factor for insecure workers.
We know many of the meat barons were on the rich list last year. Farmers were protesting outside one meat factory because although it had made a profit of €3 million it would not give a decent payment to farmers. Let us not have these people hiding behind the small businesses. The State is the main customer of the companies providing early years education, so the State can make sick pay a provision for those doing that most essential work that was even required at the height of the crisis.
I will conclude by coming back to Dr. Ronan Glynn, who as deputy CMO affirmed that whatever measures need to be in place should be put in place to ensure that workers who are sick can afford not to attend work. I respectfully suggest that the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation would be wise to listen to the fact that he can put social measures in place. Rather than asking NPHET to change its scientific information and to change the real facts in terms of medical, health and scientific facts around a virus, on which it can only report to us, it cannot change the facts. Instead, for example, he can take action on those measures if he is as concerned with poverty as he claims. He could take action on issues of poverty which are within his remit, for example, addressing a decent increase in the minimum wage, actual measures which would mean people are not in fear regarding their employment. We do not even have sick pay for one day. I accept that once a person goes to a doctor perhaps he or she can get the Covid illness benefit. I commend the Government on bringing in the illness benefit early. Other countries were slower to recognise the need to introduce it. However, people do not have a day off to go to the doctor. That is the problem right now. That is how urgent this is. If one waits two, three or four days before one can take a day off to go to the doctor, one may have been spreading the virus during that time. This is dangerous. Sick pay is not a gift to workers; it is not a perk, it is effectively dangerous not to have it.
I strongly commend the Labour Party on this motion. I am pleased we are continuing the tradition. Senator Gavan and others in the Independent Group have a strong tradition in this House of strong, good measures and co-operation on workers' rights which I hope we can continue. It is not too late. I urge the Minister of State, Deputy English, to withdraw the amendment and perhaps consider accepting the motion. Nothing ties his hands. The Minister of State can decide what expediting might mean. He can provide measures to employers and simply look to the force majeureprovision in the Parental Leave Act, which is different regarding parental leave.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the Chamber this evening. I will be supporting the Government countermotion. It is recognised that there is no statutory sick pay in Ireland, and we are an outlier among EU member states in this regard. As was mentioned earlier, Ireland is one of only five countries in Europe that does not have sick pay. We have illness benefit, which is a payment made by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. In 2019 it amounted to about €607 million and it is expected to amount to €600 million in 2020.
I welcome the fact the Tánaiste publicly stated his intention to establish a statutory sick pay scheme in full consultation with employers and unions. This will build on the various improvements that have been made to social protections for workers in the past five years, including parental leave, paternity leave and the extension of social insurance benefits to the self-employed and those in the gig economy.
While most businesses in the country have reopened and are trading, many are faced with the prospect of a slow recovery in domestic consumer demand and increased international demand, together with the overhang of costs and losses which arose during the global pandemic. Micro and small businesses are particularly vulnerable to the economic effects of Covid-19. Many businesses, even while closed, continue to incur costs, including fixed costs, without being able to generate revenues. This proposal puts all the cost burden on businesses, which would result in jobs being lost.
Although the introduction of the SSP scheme for short-term illnesses makes sense on some fronts, employees would be paid from the first day of illness, which is particularly important for low-paid employees who do currently do not have paid sick leave. It would also bring Ireland in line with the provisions of other EU member states. The lack of statutory sick pay in Ireland has been criticised for many years but has come to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic. The lack of a statutory sick pay scheme has been touted as a contributing factor in the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace, as employees are likely to turn up for work with symptoms to avoid loss of pay. The example of meat factories has been used in the debate. I know of a number of factories in Tipperary where that has been the case and people have gone to work due to being concerned about not getting paid.
A number of issues need to be ironed out. Additional costs would arise for employers through higher payroll costs which would place a significant burden on them at a time when they are struggling with the impact of Covid-19. While larger employers already have sick pay schemes in place, the additional administration and compliance costs for those firms that did not already operate a sick pay scheme would drive micro and small firms out of business. There is a possibility that employees with children would receive lower SSP payments compared with the illness benefit payments that they would receive. If we can introduce statutory sick pay it must be balanced with the need to support the viability of businesses and the enterprise sector, thereby protecting jobs and getting people back to work as quickly as possible.
I wish to respond to the point Senator Gavan made about Sinn Féin's contribution on sick pay in recent years. When this was discussed in 2012 and 2013 one of his colleagues, Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh, said at the time that introducing sick pay would bring the burden onto employers with no regard for their ability to pay and that on the back of that some employers would be forced to go out of business and people would lose jobs. What is evident tonight is that the issue must be teased out more, which is what I support.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House. In particular, I thank the Labour Party for using its Private Members' business to bring this important motion to the House. I am sure the Minister is aware of the importance of the motion.I was particularly struck by the powerful presentation and contribution to this debate by Senator Gavan and, of course, his direct experience because what we bring to the table here in the Seanad is our unique experiences in the workplace and outside of this House. It is a timely and appropriate way to bring and use that real experience he encountered with workers in the red meat sector. I will talk about them too later on.
We are aware there was no statutory right to sick leave and this debate is both lively and long overdue. I am aware it has happened in the Dáil. It is, however, important that we deal with it. Sick pay should be, and is, about a fundamental right for all workers and yet Ireland still has no statutory sick pay policy. As someone who is on the agricultural panel and had much contact with people in both the mushroom sector and cut flower industry, the red meat sector and various other horticulture and agriculture-related businesses and, particularly, the agricultural sector, this is a common problem.
A worker said to me about two weeks ago that thousands of workers, like this person, face a stark choice to self-isolate and go destitute or drag ones ill and contagious self to work. What a powerful and depressing statement at the same time. I will repeat it. Hundreds of workers are facing a stark choice, that is, self-isolate and go destitute or drag their ill and contagious selves to work. That is what this is partly about and we simply must do something about it.
Senator Gavan spoke earlier about the major problem in the red meat sector. We are aware of the knock-on effect of that and we know many people who have shared their personal experiences with regard to it. Having little money in one's pocket, with rent and bills to pay and one's family to support, is why many of these people are forced to conceal illness and drag themselves to the workplace to be able to bring back some sort of earnings to their house. That is important.
I support the Labour Party motion because it seeks to ensure that no worker will be out of pocket when he or she falls ill. I ask the Minister of State to focus on the real issue. Where is our social charter? Where are our workers' rights? What will we do about it? We need to stand in solidarity and many of us here have our benefits. Before we came into these Houses, however, we were workers too and we were subject to some of the shortcomings with regard to this matter. We should not forget that. We are aware of our neighbours, families and friends who are subject to similar situations and lack of supports, and of the security of having statutory sick leave.
I ask the Minister of State to reconsider supporting the three asks in this motion. As Senator Higgins suggested, perhaps he might do so after having listened to and reflected on the contributions in the debate in this House. He might consider either reducing the time he proposes in terms of six months to, possibly, two months if it is a real priority or, better still, perhaps he will stand in solidarity with us in this House and withdraw the amendment.
I thank Senators for all their contributions and for the opportunity to address the House on the Government's position on this motion on the Bill put forward in the Dáil a few weeks ago. I understand Senator Sherlock had a big involvement in and commitment to it and I welcome that.
I certainly welcome the opportunity to have this discussion. The Tánaiste clearly said on behalf of our Department and on behalf of Government that we are committed to introducing a statutory sick pay scheme. That is a strong commitment. While some have gone half way to welcoming it, most choose to ignore that commitment. It is quite a large step on behalf of this country. It is an area we have not seen progress in for a long time and yet the Tánaiste committed to it the other day. It cannot just happen like that. To do this right takes a little bit of time and our amendment refers to making sure we get this right and get the balance right. That is what we are trying to achieve.
Likewise, I have obviously referred to the minimum wage and progress made in that regard. People forget to mention, however, the process behind that, namely, the Low Pay Commission which was introduced by Governments put in place a system to get there. Much progress has been made and, again, any Government with Fine Gael in it has honoured the commitment to the Low Pay Commission and taken on board its recommendations regardless of how high they might be or how low they are. It has taken on board the recommendations and implemented them. That process is working but, again, recognises the timing and balance of when one makes these changes. The Low Pay Commission did not bring proposals forward in July because it recognised the timing. It brought them forward in September and the Government adopted them. It is about doing things right and in a process that recognises it is difficult for some sectors. One must give time and space to be able to achieve success in many areas. The Tánaiste and the Government are committed to it and that is what is important.
I welcome the opportunity to address these important issues again here and I thank the Labour Party for the motion. Covid-19 continues to have significant impacts on all workers and, particularly, working parents and their children. I am aware many families experience significant stress due to the unavailability of family support and in situations where a child’s school or childcare provider is closed because a child or children have tested positive for the virus. We are extremely sympathetic to these families and acknowledge the challenge working parents and employees face, and will likely face, in the months ahead as we learn and continue to learn to live and work with Covid-19 restrictions.
There was some commentary during this debate, but also outside this House, on illness benefit and supports for people who are out of work. It was not always informed commentary and I will put on record exactly what the situation is. The previous Government acted quickly once Covid-19 emerged. Since March, all workers certified by a doctor as diagnosed with or suspected of having Covid-19, or who are awaiting a test result or isolating because of a close contact with Covid-19, are immediately entitled to the Covid-19 enhanced illness benefit, which is €350 for up to ten weeks. We recognise it is not the full wage and it is not 90% of wages. It is, however, a fairly strong commitment on behalf of the taxpayer to introduce that illness benefit of €350. This was an important intervention given the lack of a statutory pay scheme in Ireland and it recognises that fact. To date, more than 60,000 people have availed of it. The goal is to support people to not go to work when they present with Covid-19 symptoms by protecting their income as much as we possibly can and addressing their financial concerns when they should be in isolation.
Normally, a person is not entitled to illness benefit for the first six days of any period of incapacity for work. These days are known generally as waiting days. Significantly, where a person is diagnosed with Covid-19, or is a probable source of Covid-19, he or she will not be subject to the usual six waiting days provision. Therefore, the payment from the first day of illness allows them to comply with medical advice to self-isolate to mitigate the spread of the disease while having their income protected. The rate of the enhanced illness benefit payment for Covid-19 is up to €350 per week. This is higher than the normal maximum personal rate of standard illness benefit for a limited period out to April 2021.
Additional allowances on top of the personal rate in respect of dependant adults and children continue at the normal payment level and other supports that come with that. Payment will be made where an employee or self-employed person is diagnosed with Covid-19 or is a probable source of infection. Payment can be made for a period of up to ten weeks for those diagnosed with Covid-19 subject to ongoing certification. Most people do not require payment for this duration and have not to date.
Payment can be made for a period of two weeks for those who are certified to be a probable source of infection. It is important that employees and the self-employed comply with public health advice to self-isolate, where appropriate, while having their income protected to the greatest extent possible. There is much effort to get that message across. It was important we correct that because misinformation does not help the public health message we are trying to get out there. It is essential if we are to limit and slow down the spread of the virus that we keep the number of people affected to a minimum and reduce the peak of cases which will cause extreme pressure on the health system.
The contribution conditions have been changed so the maximum number of employees are covered, including those in seasonal, part-time or casual employment. There was no charge by GPs for certificates of incapacity for work. The standard consultation fee is paid for by the person who is ill or it was covered by the medical card. It is important that self-employed people who do not normally qualify for illness benefit are also eligible for the enhanced illness benefit in these limited circumstances.
The changed rates of payment will only apply to people who claim illness benefit with regard to Covid-19. This is an easy-to-access support provided by the Government in these special circumstances which provides income support for employees who do not get paid by their employer while on sick leave.Many employees have worked with the system and with their employees to get this balance right. In some cases this does not happen but the majority of employers have acted responsibly and we should recognise that in this House. It is fine to call out those who might not have but we should recognise that the majority have, according to the feedback we are getting as Deputies and Ministers and I am sure Senators will encounter the same feedback.
As of 2 October, more than €38.7 million has been spent on the enhanced illness benefit payment. It is reaching those who need it, in most cases.
On parental leave and the issue around force majeure, this Member's motion calls for an extension of the force majeureparental leave where a child's school or childcare provider is closed due to Covid-19. The House will be aware that form of leave is paid leave provided for under the Parental Leave Act 1988 and Parental Leave (Amendment) Act 2006. It is under the remit of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Helen McEntee, and she addressed this in the previous discussion in this House in relation to the Bill put forward. It is intended to provide for short periods of leave in urgent family situations where a close family members is ill or has been injured. The maximum amount of leave allowable is three days in any 12-month period or five days in a 36-month period. It is important to acknowledge that it is probable that if an employee suspects their child has Covid-19, the employer may not want that employee to attend the workplace until clarity has been brought. That aside, there are a number of issues with the proposal which will need to be considered further and there is a commitment to do that in the wider debate. Force majeureleave applies in emergency situations where an employee must deal with an urgent family crisis. The proposed change would place it on a more long-term footing, similar to other family leaves but without the necessity for a notice period. That would need to be looked at and that has been addressed before.
The shadow motion possibly places a significant burden on employers, which the Supreme Court previously found must be proportionate at a time when many employers, particularly SMEs, are struggling to remain viable. The Bill does not take account of possible working from home arrangements that may be in place and this would need to be looked at further. Many employers have been accommodating employees as best they can.
The reference I made to the viability of SMEs is also relevant to the last part of our countermotion, looking at all ways to achieve what we want. We are committed to the statutory sick pay scheme, as the Tánaiste has said, but we have to look at the burden this will bring to many employers, including small employers who may not be able to cope with that. I accept that is referenced in the motion but we have to go into it in great detail to get the balance correct.
On the introduction of statutory sick pay, the Tánaiste has publicly stated his intention to establish a statutory sick pay scheme in full consultation with employers and unions. That is the best way to do it. It is not to kick it off for six, 12 or 18 months for no reason; it is to give us time to get this detail worked out and to introduce a scheme that will work and stand the test of time. This will build on the various improvements made to social protection for workers over the past five years. Some claim the Government should be judged on actions and our actions are clear when it comes to improvement of parental leave and parental benefit, swift action on Covid, commitments to sick pay and the Low Pay Commission and increases to the minimum wage. We are strongly committed to that and the programme for Government shows our intent to deliver more in this area and that is what we should be judged on. When we say we will do something and need more time to do it, I ask people to accept that and accept that the Government has delivered in the past.
The statutory sick pay scheme would improve workers’ rights, particularly low-paid workers, but there are various issues to consider. In that regard, the Tánaiste presented a draft issue paper on statutory sick pay to the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, the subgroup on employment legislation, last Wednesday, 30 September, with a view to commencing a consultation process. That is not kicking the can down the road; that is action that will result in progress. That is what we are talking about and what we asked for in the discussion in the other House on the Bill and in tonight’s motion as well. The Tánaiste requested that the social partners consider the range of issues and policy options set out in the paper and submit their views on the paper by 14 October, next Wednesday. We are not kicking the can down the road for 18 months or beyond; it is next week. Representatives from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, IBEC, Chambers Ireland and the Construction Industry Federation attended that meeting. The views of the social partners will be taken on board and the revised paper will then be discussed at a further meeting of LEEF later this month. It will then be presented to the plenary LEEF for an agreement in advance of launching a full public consultation in November this year, not six, 12 or 18 months but very soon because we are committed to doing this and let there be no doubt on that. The Seanad calls on the Government to expedite the consultation process but consultation is crucial and has proven beneficial in the past. When we make large steps in the right direction, it is important we do them in the right way and bring everybody with us. That is what we are trying to do. As I said in my contribution in the other House on this Bill, we cannot come in and do it just like that. It does not work that way in the real world because it is a big commitment and a big draw on resources. We have to get it right and that is what we want to do. Any move to introduce a new scheme that will impose further costs on business must be carefully considered and worked out.
While most businesses in the country have reopened and are trading, many are still faced with the prospect of a slow recovery in domestic consumer demand and decreased international demand, together with the overhang of costs and losses which arose during recent months. As my colleagues have already said, many businesses could have taken the easy option at the start of all this and just forgot about it, closed and locked up their business. However, they did not. They tried to find a way to keep their doors open and their staff employed. I sit down on a daily basis with all the different sectors and ask them what is in their head and what they really think. It always comes back to keeping their staff employed for most of them and keeping the service they have established. Number one, from conversations with most of those people, is about their staff. The biggest thank you they have for the taxpayer for all the supports was for the wage subsidy scheme because it meant they could keep their staff there and keep the link to work. They recognise other supports that were brought in by the Government on behalf of the taxpayer. They recognise the taxpayer has put a lot of money into supporting them and their business but the biggest thank you was for the wage subsidy. Employers in the majority are absolutely committed to their employees and I do not like the way this House tries to give the impression on many occasions that they are not. It is a lot of effort to employ somebody and even the raise in the minimum wage – nobody is arguing against somebody on the minimum wage earning more money – can bring extra costs straight away. Consider a small shop employing 20 people, there is an extra couple of thousand euro per year just like that when the minimum wage increases. That, in most cases, cannot be passed on but businesses and employers recognise that is a positive direction for people and they want to see their staff getting more money. However, it does not come easy and we have to recognise that in all these conversations. It takes a bit of working out and sometimes it means, as was referenced by Senator Marie Sherlock today, that the taxpayer might have to step in for some smaller companies to make this happen. We recognise that and that is what we try to do. The Labour motion reflects that we do not assume every employer can absorb all these costs, when it comes to pay, statutory sick pay and so on.
Microbusinesses and small businesses are particularly vulnerable to the economic effects of Covid-19. Many businesses, even while closed, continue to incur costs, including fixed costs, without being able to generate revenue. We hear reference to that with people who own hotels having to pay thousands of euro in ESB bills while no customers come in. We have to get the timing of all this right without adding additional pressure on those who cannot carry any more. I have had discussions with everybody in this House about the necessity for us to be honest with small businesses and all employers that there will be a combination of state supports, more equity put in and probably the necessity to borrow along the way, as well. The Houses of the Oireachtas and the taxpayer will not be able to cover every issue facing small companies and employers but we will work with them across the system, including the introduction of a statutory sick pay scheme. Any move to introduce a statutory sick pay scheme must be balanced with the need to support the viability of the business and enterprise sector, thereby protecting jobs and the desire to get people back to work as quickly as possible in all sectors, including hospitality, childcare and many others. The Government has committed unprecedented levels of financial supports using taxpayers' money to keep businesses afloat including liquidity supports
;the restart grant; the credit guarantee scheme; the rate waivers from local authorities; the warehousing of tax liabilities for SMEs by Revenue; and the different wage subsidy schemes we have had. As I emphasised in the Dáil in September, businesses continue to require help to stabilise, reboot, deal with the challenges they will face coming into winter and make the decision to reopen easier. Sometimes their accountant will tell them they should close the door but they say: “No. We want to open. We want to stay open.” We need them to stay open and create jobs. To wrap up, I will set out the issues that will be examined. First, additional costs that will arise for employers through higher payroll costs have to be looked at. This will place a significant burden on employers at a time when they are struggling with the impact of Covid-19. Second, we must look at the associated increase in administration and compliance costs for micro SMEs, especially for those firms which do not already operate a sick pay scheme. While we recognise that many still do, but some do not, and that is why we are having this discussion. We cannot further risk those jobs. The motion is trying to protect jobs, create jobs and make them better jobs. Third, there will be additional costs for firms or industries with a higher incidence of absenteeism. We have to work through that and factor through that as well. We can see it in all sectors. Another point to consider is that statutory sick pay is a break from the voluntary terms and conditions that many employers afford their employees in contracts of employment. That also needs to be looked at. The discussion around collective bargaining was also referenced here today. We did strengthen legislation on this in 2015, through our colleague from the House, and we are committed in the programme for Government to looking at other areas of legislation on collective bargaining.
All that is impacted by a commitment to implement a statutory sick pay scheme, so it is not just as simple as saying we should do it next week or the week after. It takes a little bit of time. We are committed to coming back to the House with a general scheme of a Bill by March 2021. That is what the Tánaiste has said, and the work has begun, and the subgroup met last week and will report again next week. We will build on that and we will be back here before March with movement in this area.
I will be sharing my time with Senator Hoey, and for clarification, Senator Sherlock will wrap up the debate on behalf of the Labour Party.
I thank my colleague, Senator Sherlock, for all the work she has put into this, in particular on leading the agenda on sick pay. Senator Sherlock has been a leading trade unionist in this country, and neither she nor the Labour Party has come late to the issue of workers' rights. I note, with some irony, a Fine Gael representative referring back to our manifesto on it, as if making out that we have just discovered that this is an issue here today. However, there is a particular urgency, and this is why I am going to argue against the amendment to the motion to extend it for six months.
Covid has exposed many fault lines and inequalities, but a lack of sick pay has been the one that has caused the most hindrance for our ability to fight this virus. Many healthcare professionals who we depend on to care for older and vulnerable people in the community or in nursing homes receive no sick pay from their employers. I have spoken to healthcare workers who tell me that the cleaners and porters in their HSE building do not get any sick pay because they work for an agency. People who work in this building, who come and service us, also do not get sick pay because they are working for an agency. There are an awful lot of State services, not just microbusinesses, that we pay for and provide, that do not provide sick pay for their workers. When the Minister of State talks about microbusinesses and enterprise, he should remember that there are real incidences that can be written into contracts, that can be controlled, and that can be made part of procurement so that the agencies are forced to pay sick pay, but we do not do that.
Agency workers in care and nursing homes do not get sick pay. The vast majority of workers in low-paid or precarious work are not entitled to sick pay. These are our front-line workers. These are the people whose incomes we need to protect and who are doing the heavy lifting during this crisis. These are the people whom we clapped for, whom we tweet platitudes at, and who the Minister of State is saying need to wait six months to get this done. For these workers now, with growing numbers in the middle of a pandemic, it is not acceptable to say to wait for six months. We had an urgency back in March when it came to addressing this virus. We are introducing this motion on sick pay in the context of a global pandemic and rising case numbers, and when so many workers who are working in affected industries have to go to work tomorrow.
For these workers, in the middle of this pandemic, there is also a housing crisis. Does the Minister of State think that somebody who is reduced to hot-bedding because they cannot afford a room will be able to afford to go without pay and not go into work tomorrow? The failure of the Government to provide for sick pay during the pandemic while ending the eviction ban and rent freeze effectively guarantees that people will lose their homes if they do not go to work.
Workers should never be expected to choose between their wages and their health. The lack of sick pay, combined with the housing crisis, now means that many low-paid, young or migrant workers are now living in overcrowded private rental accommodation and forced to go to work every day because they simply cannot afford not to. Some people might refer to this as house parties that young people are having when in fact it is just younger people living in bad accommodation that is not suitable for them.
Many of these people are in unregistered tenancies, falling outside the remit of an under-resourced Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, who have no protection against slum landlords who will kick them out the minute they fall behind in the payment of rent. At the very start of this pandemic, Threshold noted that there would be many people who would be sick who would be left unable to pay their rent because of the shortfall. There has been no indication from this Government that a blanket nationwide eviction ban will be reintroduced, despite the fact that the whole country had moved to level 3 and there are restrictions on travel.
We are all in this together as long as a person is living in a home that he or she owns, with room for a home office in which that person can work from home, and he or she does not need to avail of sick pay. Working from home is pushing the responsibility for providing work infrastructure onto the worker. When it comes to workers' rights, why is the argument that we hear always about the burden that the legal right to sick pay would impose on some employers without acknowledging now the severe burden being placed on employees who are simply trying to follow the public health advice to stay safe and stay in their own homes if they are displaying symptoms? We have heard the same arguments time and again regarding basic entitlements for workers. It was a huge burden to pay women going on maternity leave, to pay workers double their time for Sundays and bank holidays, and to provide reasonable accommodation for workers. It was still the right thing to do.
When I have a look at this motion and listen to the Fine Gael speakers in the House, I hear all the emphasis being placed not on the workers who are going to work in the middle of a pandemic but on what they are saying are small or microbusinesses, and on consideration of the practical issues and consequences that may arise, such as increased business costs and viability as a result of the proposals. There will not be many restaurants that do not pay workers sick pay that will stay open if a worker goes into work sick and manages to infect everybody. There will not be many places that will stay open if they are linked with an outbreak. This is being done in the context of a global pandemic. It is the right thing to do for the long term, but it is particularly the right thing to do with a sense of urgency.
I urge the Government not to amend this motion, not to delay the introduction of statutory sick pay, and use the urgency it showed in March to introduce statutory sick pay again.
I am glad we are discussing this motion here again, as it gives us in the Labour Party another chance to implore the Green Party, Fianna Fáil, and Fine Gael to reconsider the Government decision to kick the issue of sick pay down the line.
As my colleague, Senator Higgins, said, the amendment includes the line, "an alternative to sick pay", which I think is a laudable thing to put in, but unless the alternative is actually to eradicate illness altogether, which is a bold thought in the Covid crisis, I cannot really fathom what the alternative is going to be. Either we are on board with the national sick pay regime or we are not. Also, the Minister of State said that the Government needs more time and has asked for us to accept that. Actually, no, I do not accept it. I do not accept it on behalf of workers, and I am sure many workers do not accept that there needs to be more time to figure out how to deal with sick pay.
In my short time in this House, I have been called upon to vote on more than one piece of so-called emergency legislation, but, sadly, not a provision for sick pay. I find it absolutely baffling that this Government can call as an emergency a shortage of pallets or any of the other things that we discussed and for which, we were told, we had to speed through legislation in a matter of hours, but yet ensuring sick pay for workers during a global health pandemic is not an emergency and can be looked at again in six months. There is also reference to a public consultation, and I am sure that there are Senators, on this side of the House especially, for whom public consultation, given the palaver with the forestry Bill, sends a bit of a shiver down their spines. Will we even get to see this public consultation?What will be included in the public consultation? We did not get to see that during our consideration of the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020. I certainly hope that the standard of public consultation for that Bill will be not be the standard that applies this time.
It is astonishing that there are Members on the Government side listing the benefits of sick pay for all and murmuring support for it while at the same time kicking it down the road for six months. We are debating the radical idea that, in 2020, during a global pandemic, workers should not lose wages because of illness. I am thinking about the many thousands of lecturers, teachers and tutors in our higher and further education sector. Since the beginning of the crisis, they have moved from online work to the campus and from blended work to online work again. They have been sent back and forth, up and down and all around, usually with no more notice than a few days. They will spend this autumn and winter going above and beyond what is required to deliver for as many students as they can. At this time, we are asking workers to blur the line between work and home more than ever. Workers' right to sick leave and to time away from their work in their own home for the sake of their own health is imperative. There are very few certainties in life at present but there is absolutely no room for ambiguity regarding the importance of people’s health. When one is working from home - again, I am thinking about the lecturers and staff working in higher education - there is no friendly colleague or understanding manager who would normally send one home when one is clearly ill. Instead, workers fear losing a day's pay. As lecturers and teachers work from their own houses, without the security of guaranteed sick pay, they are more likely than ever to work through illness. If this pandemic has taught us anything, surely it has to be that our health is our wealth. No workers should have to choose between their well-being and their livelihood.
The language used by the Government indicates there is a "commitment" to addressing this matter in a couple of months. Sick pay is not an engagement ring. This is not about making a commitment to workers; they need sick pay now. There are people watching this debate and contacting Labour Party representatives saying they need this now. They do not want a commitment down the line; they need it now.
I reiterate our plea to Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party to support this motion and withdraw their amendment. Workers do not want to watch their representatives in these parties standing up to list off all the benefits of sick pay and then having the gall to vote against this motion. Either the Government is about creating a social floor below which workers cannot fall or it is not. It either supports parents, through the Labour Party's force majeurelegislation to allow parents to be able to take care of a sick child, or it does not. Quite frankly, it either supports workers or it does not. The Government’s amendment indicates to workers that it does not support them right now. In a global pandemic, this is a nonsense. When the Government says it needs more time, I do not accept it. We were told there was so much other legislation to be rushed through this House. We were moving like maniacs trying to pass it. We were flying through legislation. I have never moved so fast in my life. That was an emergency and this is an emergency. That there is no sick pay for workers during a global pandemic is an emergency. I do not accept the argument that the Government needs more time.
I support the principle of the motion. It is vital that we review the illness supports available to workers at this point and work towards a sustainable sick pay regime for all workers. It is important that there be consultation with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, the unions and those representing the employers. That would be prudent. For that reason, I will be supporting the amendment.
It is remarkable that 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 they are absent from work due to illness. There is generally no legal right to be paid while on sick leave from work in this country. During the pandemic, employers do not have to pay workers who are sick with Covid unless it is part of a contract of employment. This needs to change, particularly because workers in certain sectors may choose to go to work if they are unpaid when sick with Covid. Dr. Ronan Glynn effectively said the introduction of sick pay and the pandemic unemployment payment was important in helping to prevent the spread of Covid-19. His recommendation was that the Government consider sick pay.
Meat packers have low levels of access to sick pay. There have been high rates of Covid among them. Those working in the childcare sector have low pay. Secretaries in schools have low pay and do not have good conditions or benefits. All these workers must not feel pressurised to attend work while sick.
We must acknowledge the disproportionate burden that falls on mothers when it comes to caring for children while ill or restricting movement. In so many families in Kildare and the rest of the country, both parents have to work, and a sick child create serious problems in the household. Grandparents would traditionally have stepped in to help but many such grandparents are now cocooning or are understandably unwilling to take a chance on exposing themselves to the virus. Therefore, parents are out of options on childcare and many must rely on taking annual leave to stay at home with a sick child.
I am aware of the need to be mindful of not imposing additional burdens on businesses struggling to keep the lights on right now. Business owners in the events industry and in the hospitality, tourism and transport sectors are just some of those struggling to survive. They could not take on any extra costs at present. The current regime for sick pay was not designed for the current pandemic, nor was the parental leave system. Therefore, we must be keenly aware of the circumstances of the workers and of the need to improve their rights and conditions. We must also think about workers, such as those in Debenhams, who cannot go out sick because they do not have a job to go out sick from. Debenhams has treated its workers really badly. I look forward to the measures the Government will introduce to ensure such circumstances will not arise again.
Access to sick pay is really important so I am glad to hear the Government is working towards a sustainable sick pay regime. The consultation that has been mooted is important. It is important that it happens as soon as possible so we can adopt a system that is fair to everybody.
I thank all the Senators who contributed on our motion, particularly those who so eloquently indicated their support for it.
Senator Craughwell used the phrase "lip service" regarding the issue of sick pay for workers. It is extraordinary that Government Senators and a Minister of State would come into this House to express support for the introduction of paid sick leave and in the same breath indicate support for an amendment to the motion. Let us call a spade a spade: there is no word of commitment to the introduction of paid sick leave in the counter-motion. It refers to consideration of reforms, research into the extent of the problem, consideration of the practical issues, and, as Senator Higgins highlighted, consideration of other options for change that might be available that would not make it more difficult for employers to remain viable. That is really what the Government is talking about, rather than supporting those in need of paid sick leave.
As a new Senator in this House, I know that my word is as good as the words of the Labour Party motion. My word is reflected in the motion and the Government's word is reflected in the counter-motion, which offers no support. It is laughable that the Government welcomes the recent introduction of the parent's benefit scheme and extended parental leave rights, as if these could be of any help to parents who find they have to isolate at home with their children.A person must give an employer six week's notice in writing if he or she wants to apply for unpaid parental leave. For paid parental leave that is up to a period of 12 months - two weeks in a 12-month period. As such it is ridiculous to suggest that is of any relevance or use to parents whose children have to stay home from school or childcare in the context of the pandemic. A number of Senators have referred in this House to the actual asks within our motion. There are three. First, to expedite the consultation with trade unions and businesses to introduce the statutory right. Second, to provide for a series of targeted and easy-to-access supports to employers because we recognise that there needs to be supports for employers.Third, we are asking for the extension of force majeureleave as an extraordinary and temporary measure.
My politics, and those of the Labour Party, are not about grandstanding or making fine speeches. They are about trying to make real and practical progress for the workers who need that support. What we have here, however, is Government Senators coming into this House and ignoring what the precise asks in our motion are. It is not about bringing the Bill that was before the Dáil into this House. I have chosen not to do that because I want to bring the matter forward, to get the support of the whole House so that this Chamber can say to Members of the Lower House that we want them to get their act together and move quickly on introducing paid sick leave. That would be a reflection of all the nice words that have been said today about introducing that leave. Therefore, the Minister of State and Government Senators in particular now have a choice to withdraw their amendment and support our three simple asks which will not change the world but will send an important signal that the Government is onboard with trying to expedite the process. It would send an important message that the Government wants to help workers who need it, workers who are, in the main, in low-paid insecure employment and who do not have access to paid sick leave. Otherwise, the Minister of State and Government Senators are just talking out of both sides of their mouths. It is a shameful hypocrisy to say that on the one hand one wants paid sick leave and to see it introduced but on the other hand to support the amendment. It is, therefore, in the hands of the Government Members. Workers in this country have listened to platitudes for six months now about the need to support workers, in particular when workers are ill and have access only to an income which is way below what they need, particularly if they are struggling to make ends meet. I strongly urge Government Senators to withdraw their amendment or else we will really know what their true intentions are.
Garret Ahearn, Niall Blaney, Jerry Buttimer, Malcolm Byrne, Micheál Carrigy, Shane Cassells, Martin Conway, Ollie Crowe, Emer Currie, Paul Daly, Aidan Davitt, Aisling Dolan, Timmy Dooley, Robbie Gallagher, Seán Kyne, Tim Lombard, Vincent P Martin, John McGahon, Erin McGreehan, Fiona O'Loughlin, Joe O'Reilly, Pauline O'Reilly, Mary Seery Kearney, Barry Ward, Diarmuid Wilson.
Ivana Bacik, Victor Boyhan, Lynn Boylan, Gerard Craughwell, Paul Gavan, Alice-Mary Higgins, Annie Hoey, Sharon Keogan, Elisha McCallion, Rebecca Moynihan, Niall Ó Donnghaile, Marie Sherlock, Mark Wall, Fintan Warfield.