Essential workers including those in retail, transport, cleaning and food service should receive a living wage with access to an occupational pension, according to the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar.
However, addressing a seminar of the Employment Bar Association, Mr Varadkar failed to indicate any time frame for when the Government would legislate for this to happen.
He told the seminar of employment law specialists that the Covid-19 pandemic had caused society to redefine frontline or essential workers beyond the traditional view of doctors, nurses, gardaí, firemen, or “generally people in uniform with good public sector jobs”.
He said that nowadays that definition must include retail and transport workers, cleaners and food service staff.
“One of the legacies of the pandemic must be better terms and conditions for them including the move to a living wage and access to an occupational pension,” he told the seminar.
On mandatory sick pay, the Tánaiste said it was clear that while the Government had introduced the Enhanced Covid-19 Illness Benefit when the pandemic struck, a longer term and more sustainable scheme must now be established for all illness.
He noted that Ireland is one of only a small number of European countries with no legal obligation on employers to provide for sick pay, in the way they do for annual leave.
“This needs to change and I am committed to introducing a statutory sick pay scheme that works for employees and employers as quickly as possible and will bring forward legislation shortly,” the Tánaiste stated.
He said that legislation would build on improved social protections for workers introduced over the last five years, including paternity benefit, parental leave and the extension of social insurance benefits to the self-employed and those in the gig economy.
Mr Varadkar also cautioned that the transition to remote working could “hollow out” our major cities, which could face competition from other locations from which workers could choose to work remotely from anywhere.
“Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway will be competing with Barcelona, Liverpool, Paris and Lisbon in the battle for talent. And talent can remote work from almost anywhere, so our cities need to be vibrant places where talent wants to live,” he said.
He said it was imperative to find a way of ensuring colleagues could properly connect with each other when not sharing the same office, while also ensuring that they feel they can disconnect when the workday is over – so that homes do not turn into workplaces where employees are “always on”.
However, the Tánaiste also highlighted the benefits of remote or blended working, including less commuting, more time for family and leisure and fewer greenhouse gas emissions from transport.
He also pointed to potential new job opportunities for people in rural Ireland, with smaller towns and villages boosted with new investment, footfall, as well as better openings for those with disabilities or caring responsibilities.
Responding to a query from RTÉ as to when the Government might legislate to give frontline workers the right to a living wage and an occupational pension, a spokesperson for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment pointed to the commitment in the Programme for Government to “progress to a living wage over the lifetime of the Government”.
He noted that the Low Pay Commission makes recommendations to Government every year on the appropriate rate of the National Minimum Wage using an evidence-based approach.
The spokesperson said the commission is in the process of commissioning research and intends to provide a report to the Tánaiste on these matters in the second half of this year.
A spokesperson for Leo Varadkar stressed that the Tánaiste (and the proposal in the Programme for Government) favour a living wage for all employees, not just essential workers.