Irish Examiner view: Make pay rates match heroism of frontline workers

Many of our citizens have done stellar work throughout the pandemic and they deserve fair recognition and pay for their efforts 
Irish Examiner view: Make pay rates match heroism of frontline workers

Doctors, nurses, and all medical staff have been placed on the frontline of a health crisis unparalleled in living memory. 

As accelerating pandemic figures challenge our composure and health systems we may not immediately appreciate the reservoirs of great strength and resilience that will guide us through this crisis. 

Those characteristics speak loudest through our care workers and those workers long-regarded as peripheral but, as the pandemic has underlined, are now seen as essential.

We may, as individuals or families exposed to the heroism of health workers and their co-workers, recognise those strengths but as a society, we do not acknowledge, or reward, all of those citizen workers properly. 

We do not even offer citizenship to a good proportion of those standing on the very frontline between us and the blitzkrieg of Covid-19. 

The Migrants Rights Centre Ireland estimates that almost one-in-three — around 29% — of Ireland's 17,000 undocumented migrants work as carers.

Their vital role was recognised as long ago as March when the then taoiseach Leo Varadkar used his St Patrick’s Day address to assure the nation we would “get through” the pandemic. 

Even in those early days, the indispensability of frontline workers was clear. As Mr Varadkar put it: “Not all superheroes wear capes — some wear scrubs and gowns.” 

He articulated an undeniable truth of the passing year, one that has seen doctors, nurses, all medical staff placed on the frontline of a health crisis unparalleled in living memory. 

That recognition was extended to many others, everyone from those who drove trucks to deliver food, to those who kept schools functioning despite great challenges.

Those herculean efforts have been applauded, symbolically at least. In March, the country gathered along streets to cheer our appreciation. In the UK, they did so every week. 

In France, they put meat on the bare bones of their appreciation and voted to pay essential health workers more, an example we should follow.

Too many of our health workers, especially agency workers in private nursing homes, are paid the minimum wage, sometimes not even that yet we rely on them to ensure the comfort of our parents at a critical time. 

Yesterday's confirmation that two-thirds of deaths related to Covid-19 in December occurred in nursing homes or hospitals emphasises that reliance. 

In June, the Oireachtas Covid-19 committee was told that the infection rate among our healthcare workers was among the highest in the world. It also heard that many nurses were afflicted with the debilitating weight of long Covid.

The month before, contract cleaners — who risk their lives on the frontline — were fighting for a 40-cent pay rise to their average hourly rate of €11, well below the living wage of €12.30. 

As that struggle intensified, Dorel Giurca, a 53-year-old cleaner at St James’s Hospital in Dublin, died of a covid-related illness. We valued his last working days at  €10.80 an hour, almost €3 less than a packet of cigarettes. 

It has become an established part of the pandemic narrative, a kind of comfort blanket really, that it has brought an opportunity to fix many of the broken things in this society. 

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