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Fintan O'Toole: Ireland's young and working classes are in the Covid-19 firing line

Lack of mandatory sick pay means people have no choice but to go to work when they feel ill and this helps coronavirus spread

A friend of mine works for the HSE. And she has no entitlement to sick pay. Like tens of thousands of other workers in the health system, she is employed through an agency, so her rights are limited. This anomaly exemplifies a much larger problem in the official response to the pandemic. All the emphasis is on personal responsibility. The real-life conditions that shape behaviour are largely ignored.

It is wrong to go to work if you are feeling ill. But you can’t just choose to stay at home. You need rights, protections, security, a replacement income – and those are social and political creations, not personal options.

The coronavirus targets people with underlying conditions. But it also targets the underlying conditions of a society. One of Ireland’s chronic illnesses is that it is one of the very few countries in the developed world in which workers do not have mandatory access to sick pay. We have allowed this to continue, now we pay the price.

Hospital Report

Irish employers are under no legal obligation to pay employees who are absent through illness, and this includes staff who are advised to self-isolate because of Covid-19. Sick pay schemes are voluntary. We know that 80 per cent of workers in meat factories are not covered – and that even the agreements reached with unions after major outbreaks in some of these plants still do not create an entitlement to sick pay. According to Siptu, 79 per cent of childcare workers have no sick pay schemes. Agency workers have a statutory right to equal pay but regulations specifically define “pay” as excluding sick pay.


The way this is framed is that these are irresponsible yahoos who should be hunted down by the Garda and dragged to a testing centre

This is a political choice. It is implicit in an economic model that has never been openly articulated as policy but that nonetheless has a profound influence on Irish life. The unspoken contract is this: private employers contribute less to the welfare of their workers than in other developed countries, and the State tries to fill the gap. So we deny huge numbers of workers the right to be paid when they’re off sick – and hope the welfare system will pick up the slack.

Chance for reform

Ironically, the continuation of this anomaly is a perfect example of the failure to use a crisis as an opportunity for reform. In 2012, when Ireland was last in crisis mode, the troika that was supervising Irish government policy strongly recommended that Ireland should introduce mandatory sick pay – for reasons not of social justice but of fiscal prudence.

So there was a moment when this was going to happen. In February 2012, at a big public consultation on the subject organised by the Department of Social Protection, then minister Joan Burton said "she would like to see the reforms in place in time for next December's budget". Last week Burton's own Labour Party introduced to the Dáil a Private Members' Bill on statutory sick pay. What happened in those eight years? The old familiar nothing.

So now we find that one in four people asked by contact tracers to go and have a test for Covid-19 don’t turn up. The way this is framed is that these are irresponsible yahoos who should be hunted down by the Garda and dragged to a testing centre. Undoubtedly, some of them are. But those involved in the process find that, much more often, people don’t turn up because they’re afraid of the consequences for their jobs and their incomes. They worry about having no money. They worry about being dumped from precarious gig economy jobs if they take time off.

When the story is framed as being purely a matter of personal behaviour, it is always young people who get the most blame

But this broader story struggles to be heard. There are big holes in the epidemiology. We can (finally) see the figures for Covid-19 spread in individual local electoral areas. But there is more to what’s going on than geography – there is social class and employment status and economic security.

Age factor

There is, paradoxically, an inverse relationship between danger and protection. The people who can’t work remotely, who have to be in physical contact with others, are often the least likely to have strong employment rights.

There’s also the age factor. When the story is framed as being purely a matter of personal behaviour, it is always young people who get the most blame. But young people are also the ones most likely to be in the most precarious jobs with fewest rights. And we’re not just talking about Deliveroo couriers here – the education system is still, even in the depths of this crisis, hiring young teachers on insecure temporary contracts.

The public health consequences of all of this are entirely obvious – but strangely occluded. It is much easier to see the problem of the spread of the virus solely in terms of individual morality: there are good people who obey the rules and bad people (mostly young and working-class) who don’t. Easier because this is partly true, but also because it neatly avoids political responsibility.

Successive Irish governments have allowed (even encouraged) the re-emergence of an underclass of workers with fewer rights. That’s a form of covidiocy too. If you don’t have power, you don’t have the power to behave responsibly. If the law doesn’t protect you, you are not in a position to help protect others.