Speech on Labour Motion: Sick Pay for All

7 October 2020

Ivana Bacik

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 majeure leave 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 Times in 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.