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Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage [Private Members] (Continued)

Thursday, 3 December 2020

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1002 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Réada Cronin: Information on Réada Cronin Zoom on Réada Cronin] If Fine Gael in particular had given the same attention to the notifiability of Covid-19 as it gives to Sinn Féin, we might not be having this debate. This disease would be long ago notifiable. That it is not exposes the Government's priorities, which are public relations over public health. Perhaps making the disease notifiable would have required real action to protect workers at the expense of the public optics that protect nothing but private profit in the end. It would have signified and demanded real concern for the low paid and the poor conditions in which they are forced to work.

During the lockdown, I dealt with people who are working in the meat factories in Kildare and the stories were horrendous. I did my best to help them and to improve their working conditions. I have been dealing with the union since then but it highlights the need for adequate protections and guaranteed sick pay for those workers. With regard to all these things, too many workers see and experience them only by their absence. That is when they realise what is happening. When it comes to Covid-19, the notifiability is noted by its absence. Increasingly, those who suffer as a result of that absence of notifiability are notifying the Government of their dissatisfaction and are refusing to take any more guff and neglect.

I am pleased the Minister of State will not be opposing this legislation. I hope it will quickly pass Committee Stage because we are nine months into this pandemic. It is unbelievable that in the middle of a pandemic this is not a notifiable disease.

Deputy Thomas Gould: Information on Thomas Gould Zoom on Thomas Gould I thank Deputy O'Reilly for bringing forward this Bill. Not every worker can work from home. Those in meat factories, retail, healthcare and childcare services need to go into work but, unfortunately, some of those places have seen significant clusters. We have been asking the Minister of State for far too long to take the simple step to protect workers' rights and workers. We should not be wasting time. All we need is the Tánaiste to come into the House and give his signature but, once again, we will be waiting on Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, which is falling down with regard to workers' rights.

There is no provision for the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, to be made available for childcare workers or workers who are high risk and cannot work. I was contacted by a lady who is 28 weeks' pregnant. She is concerned about the Covid protections in the childcare centre where she works. As she said, she cannot social distance from a toddler. She has checked the HSE guidelines in regard to pods but there are no rules against pods or staff mixing. They are not wearing masks because masks are seen as a barrier to care. Recently, her doctor informed her that she is at high risk of contracting Covid-19 due to complications in her pregnancy. I contacted the Minister for Social Protection but was told this lady would not qualify for the PUP and the best she could hope for was a supplementary welfare allowance of €201 a week.

The University of Limerick recently found that one in three childcare workers wants to leave the sector within the next year. Who can blame them when this is how they are being treated? We need protections against Covid-19 in the workplace and the employer needs to be responsible and act responsibly. When they make their employees attend offices unnecessarily and do not put in the proper protections in the workplace, when employees get sick or when clusters of Covid rip through workplace, that is not the workers' fault. It is the fault of employers who do not put the proper protections in place to protect workers and their staff. We need to see real protection for workers, especially during this pandemic. I thank Deputy O'Reilly again for bringing forward this Bill.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Would the Minister of State like to make some brief remarks by way of a response?

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Damien English): Information on Damien English Zoom on Damien English If I could have a couple of minutes, yes. Deputy Ó Ríordáin asked me what I was referring to earlier when I spoke about misinformation or the perception being given. It was repeatedly stated that Covid-19 is not notifiable, which gives the impression that nobody is told of incidences of Covid. That is not the case. The appropriate authority is our public health authorities and they are told.

The question we have to focus on is the impact of the Bill and what it desires to achieve. All of us here would agree to increased protections for employees, which is what we will do. That is what we have to assess and work out but, as it stands, this change would not give significant new or additional information to the Health and Safety Authority as the authority already receives Covid-19 outbreak information from the public health authorities. It is reported to them, yet the impression has been given that it is not being reported, and that might scare some people. That is the wrong impression to be giving, and that is what I was referring to. However, the Bill might create an administrative burden for employers in meeting the new reporting obligations, so it is not as simple as putting a signature on it. That is not the way it works. Something as serious as this has to be analysed properly and then those decisions are made.

Separately, since employers are not informed by the Health Service Executive or by a doctor of individual cases due to privacy reasons, an employer will only be able to report a case of Covid-19 in a workplace to the Health and Safety Authority if he or she is informed of such by the employee. Employers might also feel that they are not able to pass on information about a Covid-19 infection due to the general data protection regulation, GDPR, and wishing to maintain confidentiality with the employee, again to protect the employee's own privacy and rights.

To be clear, on balance, as a Government, it is our view that it is appropriate not to oppose the Bill at this point since the Health and Safety Authority is currently carrying out a regulatory impact assessment on making workplace incidents of Covid-19 reportable to the authority. It is looking into this to determine the difficulties it will cause in the workplace for employers. If it is worthwhile to do that, that is a decision we can make.

To set out the process, what is under way and has been even before this debate, which is a useful opportunity to discuss it, is that the Health and Safety Authority is preparing a regulatory impact assessment, RIA, to support consideration of a proposal already made by the board of the Health and Safety Authority to amend regulation 224 of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) (Amendment)(No. 3) Regulations 2016. The proposal aims to introduce a requirement for employers to report cases of Covid-19 that are attributable to work activity to the Health and Safety Authority. The RIA will identify a range of possible options for implementing this proposal. It will give us the evidence to inform the discussion when Deputy O'Reilly's Bill goes forward to Committee Stage, as we are not opposing it and are happy to do that. We can tease this out with the evidence the authority is already gathering, which will prove very useful. The information it is gathering will give us detailed information on the cost, the benefits and the impacts of each option, making it clear to us whether what we are doing here is worthwhile and if it will give us any added value because there are reporting mechanisms already in place. If we can strengthen that, why would the House not agree? That is the information we are trying to gather. This information will provide the board, and our Committee Stage debate, with a basis for a recommendation to be made to the Minister, which is me, on the most appropriate way forward with the proposal. If it recommends it and backs it up with evidence, why would we not implement it? That discussion can happen on Committee Stage as the Bill goes forward because the Government is not opposing it.

I thank Deputy O'Reilly for bringing the Bill forward and all the Deputies for their contributions, but it is important that the tone reflects the reality and the facts. I appreciate that the Bill is intended to improve the overall management of Covid-19 in the workplace and the capacity to deal with the impact on places of work. We will support that work once the RIA evidence is brought forward and recommends that. Across all sections of society our knowledge of and ability to deal with the outbreaks of Covid-19 have improved greatly over the past nine months.

In respect of businesses and workplaces, the Government responded quickly with a range of targeted practical and financial supports as well as protocols to deal with them. Among the practical support offered was the development of the Return to Work Safely Protocol and the recently launched Work Safely Protocol, which was developed in co-operation with the social partners through the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, process. It was very much involved in that conversation and in implementing that. Everybody is playing their part in implementing that and following that protocol. I believe that is keeping many of us safe as we interact with the workplace.

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