Letter to the Editor: Pandemic has shown us true value of our hardest workers

Letter to the Editor: Pandemic has shown us true value of our hardest workers

I recently read an opinion piece in the New York Times about the wages paid to essential workers (www.nytimes.com/2020/04/24/opinion/sunday/essential-workers-wages-covid.html).

The article reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr famously asserting that “All labour has dignity”. The article stated that “today, we are forced to confront the dissonance between our nation’s labelling of workers as ‘essential’ and ‘heroes’ and their limited wages, benefits and ability to organise”.

The current Covid-19 pandemic serves to highlight the disconnect in regard to the long overdue respect, value, and recognition for the contributions of those who stack the shelves, clean the hospitals, care for the elderly or sick, and deliver our essentials.

While the predominant focus of the media will be the seismic shock to the economy, plummeting shares and oil prices, fallen GDP, increases in unemployment, the scale of the death toll, rates of infection, valid concerns for the vulnerable and the nation’s health and wellbeing. 

However, I believe there is a much more profound and intriguing narrative that has yet to be written that will outlive this virus and perhaps shape our politics and social system for years to come. It is my view and hope that the lasting effect of this virus will rather reshape our evaluation and definition of an “essential worker”. 

I hope it will not amount to a mere “pat on the back”, but rather change our outlook and perception of those who truly carry out the essential tasks, which are undervalued and go unnoticed by many.

It is only now during this pandemic that low-paid workers such as healthcare workers, food processors, farmers, retail staff and delivery services are proving their value. The belief that these workers are only worth their replacement value is long forgotten. It has taken a global pandemic to prove that their societal value is much higher.

It is my belief that everyone who has worked to keep our country on its feet during this pandemic deserves financial recognition for their sacrifice. Frontline workers are putting their own health in the balance while caring for the sick and vulnerable, keeping our shelves stocked and our vital services running. 

Now it is time for the Government to give key workers a proper thank you and loosen the purse strings for those less well off, as opposed to usual cohorts who are protected the most during crises.

I took exception to Victoria White’s piece in the Irish Examiner, dated April 30 where she said that many students “are now back living in the family home where breakfast, dinner and tea is being served up to them. Far from keeping money circulating in the economy, many of them only have spending opportunities online and much of this money leaves the country. 

When I asked one of these, during the controversy over the Keeling’s delivery of Bulgarian fruit-pickers, if he would do such a job, he answered: ‘Not when I’m being paid €350 to stay home’.” 

I can vouch that this is certainly not the case in my house, where both my parents are working, one parent working in an emergency department of a public hospital and another manufacturing healthcare packaging for our drugs and medicines. My only sibling is currently studying for the Leaving Cert, whenever that will take place, and also working reduced hours at weekends in the retail sector. 

While Victoria’s portrayal of the circumstances she has come across is stark and worrying, I feel it is deeply unfair to tar each and every one with the same brush. While I accept the point that no other country pays students nearly as much to stay home as to work 40 hours a week in the fields picking fruit, I feel we as a country are still blinkered in our approach to crises such as this.

I am a student, in the middle of completing assessments in my final year of college. I am currently working full-time in the retail sector on reduced hours and receiving no government sponsored income support. Students like me have been the subject of bad press during this crisis. 

There have been the stories of those who are earning twice or even more on the Covid-19 Unemployment Payment than what they would have earned in their part-time jobs. 

I do not attempt to disregard or disprove that. However, who is talking about those of us students who were previously working part-time, but now working full-time in order to keep the country on its feet? What about the students in the midst of studying for final year exams, completing assignments and Leaving Cert students who are working through this pandemic?

During the financial crisis the first port of call was to protect the bondholders and the banks, as opposed to households and families. Yet again, during this health crisis that has morphed into an economic crisis, government policy has again put those most vulnerable at the back of the queue when allocating scarce resources. 

The Irish government moved quickly to protect employers and those out of work at the onset of the crisis, it is about time they began to protect those of us keeping the lights on in this country in the middle of this crisis. It is time for the workers during this pandemic to get a bailout, similar to what the banks got in 2008.

Ross Nestor

Kiltoom

Athlone

Co Roscommon

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