Frances Fitzgerald: Pandemic highlights the true essentials which we all rely on

The 'essentials'. Since the Covid-19 virus and the accompanying crisis arrived into our lives in early March, our lives have revolved around the 'essentials', writes Frances Fitzgerald MEP
Frances Fitzgerald: Pandemic highlights the true essentials which we all rely on
Dr. Ruth Lernihan, (right) director of nursing South Infirmary/Victoria hospital with staff Brenda O'Brien, nurse practice development co ordiantor; Noreen O'Sullivan, assistant director of nursing, David O'Brien, Marie Heffernan, Eileen Cotter, Linda McCarthy, Maeve O'Hagan, Kayleigh Hehir, Sinead Maher, Therese McDermott and Kate Coy celebrating 2020 as Year of the Nurse and International Nurses day, on May 12. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

The 'essentials'. Since the COVID-19 virus and the accompanying crisis arrived into our lives in early March, our lives have revolved around the 'essentials', writes Frances Fitzgerald MEP

Before leaving the house for any reason, we ask ourselves “is it essential”?

When in the supermarkets, we are there for 'the essentials'. Things that we used to regard as essential — that new purchase, whether it’s a dress for a wedding or a new set of cutlery for the kitchen — suddenly do not seem so essential.

The question of the essentials also bounces around the corridors of government. What are essential businesses, essential services, essential journeys?

The essentials are our every movements, our every decision, and every choice these days.

Yet for all the pondering about all this, it is those people essentially keeping our society and lives functioning in some form or fashion that we seem to know the least about.

Our essential workers, diligently and quietly working throughout this period when life has been upended.

Healthcare workers, refuse collectors, cashiers, supermarket employees and farmers are the ones whose names we do not know, and whose work has until now remained largely below the radar.

So who are they?

When it comes to care work and personal and domestic services, figures from the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) show that in the EU, women account for 93% of child care workers and teachers aides, 86% of personal care workers in health services, and 95% of domestic cleaners and helpers.

Overall, approximately 76% of the 49 million care workers in the EU are women. This includes formal long-term care in people’s homes, where 4.5 million of the 5.5 million workers in the EU are women.

In addition, according to a 2017 report from the European Public Service Union, there are almost one million people employed in the waste management sector in Europe.

Most surprisingly, in terms of supermarkets and other essential retailers, 82% of cashiers in the EU are women. This may be obvious when we do our weekly shop, but is not something that has been surprising enough to comment on.

And when it comes to the agricultural sector, more than 90% of farms in the EU are tended to just by family members, amounting to approximately 10 million farmers in the EU.

The farmers who diligently milk cows at the crack of dawn, and who tend crops in the worst of weathers, to ensure in Ireland that we can continue to eat and to be one of the world’s most food-secure nations.

It is these employees, these essential workers, who are disproportionately at risk of contracting the virus by being on the front line, often facing the public every day.

So what can we conclude?

Firstly, the vast majority of those who are on the frontlines at this time are women. This isn’t a new phenomenon or occurrence, women have always been doing these jobs. They have always been in hazardous situations, but this fact has just been amplified in the current COVID-19 climate.

Secondly, these jobs are among the lowest paid in the EU.

This is surely a contradiction when we are now fully embracing the importance of this essential work and these essential services.

A reconsideration of how we value essential work in our society is now overdue. And not after the virus has been eradicated, but now.

Crucial to that will be making sure that for the first time, women are actually paid the same as men for the same work.

While it is true that the Treaty of Rome (now Article 157 in the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU), enshrines the right to equal pay for work of equal value, this is still not a reality in Europe. In the EU, women are still paid 84 cent for every euro a man earns.

In Ireland, this is 92.5 cent for every euro a man earns. The question of “how can anybody know what their colleagues earn, and what the gender differential is?” continues to be a stumbling block.

To ensure we finally close the gender pay gap, I hope to see the Gender Pay Gap Bill 2019 finally passed into law.

In addition, in November of this year, we in the European Parliament are expecting the European Commission to put forward a proposal for a directive on pay transparency.

We need a gender pay bill passed in Ireland and a European wide pay transparency directive.

Ensuring proper pay and conditions for our essential workers must be one of the legacies of this crisis. They have been critical to our response and approach and, essentially, we cannot survive the crisis without them.

- Frances Fitzgerald is a member of the European Parliament for the Dublin constituency. She is a former Tánaiste and Minister for Justice (2014-2016).

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