There is much guff, and contradictory messages, coming out of the government about rewarding frontline workers. Talk of a once-off extra ten days of holidays has faded. Now they are talking about an extra bank holiday in November. A poor reward for workers who put their health and lives on the line during the Pandemic.
We support the demands of workers for recognition of their efforts during the Pandemic.
But there are ways that the government can more permanently protect the livelihoods and improve the working conditions of workers.
#1 Real pay rises to beat inflation
On October 1st public sector workers, including nurses and other health care workers, got the first instalment of Building Momentum: a derisory 1% pay increase. Instead of getting a rest from the stress of the last 18 months, our nurses, teachers and others will be asked to work harder: the 1% is conditional on “reforming work practices to increase agility and responsiveness.”
And that 1% is for a pay increase that won’t even match inflation, now running at 3%. Inflation is predicted to keep rising. Fuel costs are set to go through the roof. The guaranteed minimum payment of €500 from the current Building Momentum pay agreement this year will be completely wiped out by rising gas and electricity bills.
In the North nurses were offered 3%. What did they do? They told the government to get stuffed.
If Fianna Fail the Green and Fine Gael really wanted, they could deliver real rewards for frontline workers by immediately agreeing that pay rises will at least match inflation with no requirement to take on extra work.
#2 End the extra hours for all- especially health service workers!
Government could also agree to immediately end the extra hours that nurses, teachers and public servants generally were forced to take on after the crash. Public servants are working 75,000 more hours each week than in 2013. Many lower paid public servants are working just over 100 hours for free every year. That’s three weeks’ free work. Ten years of this. End it.
The value of these hours, estimated at €620m in 2017, must be worth closer to €700m now. Building Momentum will cuts no hours for its paltry 1% increase this month. In 2022 €150m will be made available to cut some hours. But, at this point, €150m means less than a quarter of the free hours will be cut.
The biggest irony which exposes the shallowness of government’s new found concern for workers is that nurses are now working a 39 hour week as against the 37.5 hour week they had before the crash. In many cases nurses have to work a free half day or a day over an agreed period (eg every 6-8 weeks). According to the INMO nurses in Ireland work the longest hours in the English-speaking world. In the UK and Canada, the standard week is 37.5 hours, in Australia it is 38 and in the US it is 37 hours.
The unions must insist that no concessions be given for the 1%. They should also go back to government and state that the additional increase should at least match inflation, and that the free hours their members have worked for over ten years should cease immediately.
#3 Support People Before Profit’s Bill to build workers’ rights
The government could support the People Before Profit bill to provide for three extra Bank Holidays. Covid has exposed the low levels of workers’ rights here. Irish workers work 114 hours a year more than the EU average. That’s three weeks extra every year. Reducing workers’ hours, bringing in a real Living Wage of €15 an hour, and mandatory sick leave from day one of sickness would really improve the lot of workers especially the frontline workers in private retail and contracted services and care. Supporting our Bill should be the best step in doing so.
Enough of the guff.