At a time of unprecedented health and employment crisis, such as the one in which we remain — despite talk of loosening the lockdown and restarting the economy — it’s reasonable in a compassionate and civilised society to expect to see the milk of human kindness flowing unstintingly to those most in need.
Among the many most in need are those who through no fault of their own have had their lives turned upside down and left to the tender mercies of their employers and a state that has at unprecedented cost pulled out all of the stops to try and ensure that those affected — companies and employees — are treated fairly.
Alarming — and shaming — reports from organisations such as Free Legal Advice Centres (Flac) and Community Law and Mediation (CLM) indicate this is not happening.
Flac has had to create a clinic to answer floods of calls from workers who believe they have been treated unfairly by employers using the Covid-19 crisis as a cover for playing fast
and loose — illegally and immorally — with employment law and other regulations protecting their workplace rights.
Flac recorded 126 calls about workers’ rights to its phone-in clinics in March. By April, that had risen to 180.
The CLM service, with law centres in Dublin and Limerick, reports that since March employment law consultations have increased by almost 200% compared with the same period last year.
Its normal four-weekly clinics have risen to 11 phone-in sessions offering advice to stressed and pressured workers complaining about contract breaches, unequal treatment and problems in accessing payments.
The chronicle of unfair play being reported by these troubled workers is gut-churningly shameful: A woman asked to start her maternity leave earlier than would otherwise be necessary; employees with underlying health problems told they must return to work despite their legitimate concerns for their welfare; staff instructed to take their paid annual leave immediately; others finding their pay reduced while working from home … or being told they must use at their cost their own phones and computers while working from home; and people being asked to resign if problems with getting adequate childcare prevented them from working.
Looking ahead, the advice centres not unreasonably fear that the deluge of complaints about discrimination, contract breaches and unfair treatment will grow as the lockdown is relaxed and the companies that have survived it wrestle with the recession that will follow the Covid-19 shutdown.
This in turn will focus attention on and concern about the lack of free legal aid for complainants who take their cases to a Workplace Relations Commission that is likely to be inundated with claims from workers who believe their lockdown problems have been compounded by companies that have, to put it at the very mildest, lax about their legal and moral responsibilities.
Ministers must act now to warn rogue employers that such disgraceful behaviour will not be tolerated, and that the civil legal aid system will be strengthened to protect employees’ rights.