Opinion: we rely on some of our most precarious and lowest-paid workers to keep the country operating during this coronavirus crisis.

By Maeve O'Sullivan, UCCChristine Cross, University of Limerick and Jonathan Lavelle, University of Limerick

Recent events in Ireland and around the world brought to mind The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Considered to be a socialist bible, the book advocates a society where work is done to satisfy many, rather than to generate profits for a few.

Why does this book resonate now? As Ireland becomes accustomed to a new world of self-isolation, social distancing and lockdown, we increasingly rely on those who keep our shelves stocked, serve us in supermarkets and small stores, clean and cook for our sick and elderly and collect our refuse. Who are these workers, how well paid are they and why should we care?

Quite rightly, the country paused on March 26th to applaud the outstanding work of our medical and caring personnel during this unprecedented crisis These dedicated people are our friends, neighbours and the new Irish. They deserve our heartfelt gratitude and admiration for their outstanding dedication to healing and caring for the sick, especially at this time, putting their own health and lives at risk every day.

But how do we show our gratitude to those working in the service sectors who are keeping our country functioning during this national emergency? They continue to serve us in supermarkets, petrol stations and off-licences. These workers clean our medical facilities, feed and care for our sick and elderly in nursing homes and hospitals, collect our rubbish and deliver vital medical and food supplies. These are some of our most precarious and lowest-paid workers; that’s how we show our gratitude.

Recent OECD data shows that the problem of low pay (defined as earnings below two-thirds of the country’s median income), is much greater in Ireland than in most EU countries. In fact, with 23% of our workers being low-paid, Ireland has the third highest rate in the EU. Median weekly earnings in Ireland were €740.72 in 2018. According to the OECD, you are low-paid if you earn less than €488.87 per week in Ireland.

So how great is this problem, who are these workers and why does it matter? Prior to the onset of the pandemic, Ireland’s economy was the fastest-growing in the EU with almost full employment. But despite our strong economic performance, almost one in every four workers is low-paid.

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As well as much of the developed world, Ireland is predicted to enter into recession as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. As of earlier this week, nearly 400,000 workers had applied for COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment, introduced by the Government as a short-term measure to help those who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. 

According to the Central Statistics Office, workers in the accommodation and food sectors (almost 82,000 workers in December 2019) earned median annual pay of €19,949 or €313.59 per week in 2018. The 156,400 people employed in the wholesale and retail sector earned a median annual wage of €26,366 or €441.13 per week. These figures compare with median annual pay of €56,506 (€991.18 per week) for workers in the information and communication sector. 

As if things weren’t bad enough, there’s the gender wage gap to consider. CSO figures show that female workers aged under 25 were paid median weekly earnings of €263.90 in 2018; 19% less than comparable males.

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, Liam Geraghty talks to checkout operators in supermarkets, delivery drivers, nurses and doctors toiling away to keep society running during the coronavirus pandemic

The good news is that personal taxation is minimal for low-paid workers. The bad news is that other living costs such as rent and childcare are among the highest in Europe. The most recent rental report from Daft.ie shows that average weekly rent nationally is €350, ranging from €556 in south county Dublin to €152 in Leitrim.

Despite initiatives such as the introduction of a universal preschool year in 2010 and an Affordable Childcare Scheme (2017), childcare costs in Ireland are among the highest in the OECD, akin to a second mortgage. Recent figures show weekly median fees charged for full-day childcare for one child in 2018/19 ranged from €300 in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown to €140 in Leitrim.

As to why we should care? To quote Mahatma Gandhi, "the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members". We think of our vulnerable citizens as being the sick and elderly and rightly so, but what about our low-paid workers? When the current crisis has ended, how will we show our thanks to those who have kept us going through this national emergency?

Many solutions have been proposed to tackle the problem of low pay such as the introduction of a living wage ( currently €12.30 per hour) or tackling poor job quality. Other solutions include increased funding for childcare from our current spending of about 0.2% of national income to the UNICEF goal of 1%.

Notwithstanding the Irish low pay pandemic and potential solutions, to quote Robert Tressell, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. "there is no such thing as being neutral; we must either help or hinder". Remember, not all heroes wear capes, scrubs or gowns - some wear aprons and overalls.

Dr Maeve O'Sullivan is a lecturer in management and HRM at the Department of Management and Marketing at Cork University Business School at UCCDr Christine Cross is Head of Department, Personnel & Employment Relations at the Kemmy Business School at the University of LimerickDr Jonathan Lavelle is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Work and Employment Studies at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ