Personal Blog of Mark Hoskins – Anarchist Writer and Community Organiser
Irish Health minister, Leo Varadkar’s latest initiative is part paternalistic catholic school interference and part corporatist fascist workers’ fitness programme. While Varadkar’s department claims that the proposed bill will make the civil service a healthier place to work and improve well being for staff, these condescending measures will be looked upon with derision by thousands of public sector workers who know that the government couldn’t give a rats arse for their wellbeing. Here are five reasons why this is just another slap in the face for already red cheeked workers.
1. People know how to get to work
The first provision of Varadkar’s plan is to promote what it calls ‘active travel’. According to the press release, this entails encouraging people to travel to work on foot, by bike, by public transport or car sharing. Next Leo will be offering to hold our hands as we’re crossing the road. People who’ve been beating the same path to work for years already know what the best way to get there is for them. Many workers’ mornings involve bringing their kids to school or creche and they don’t have time to walk or cycle. The last thing they want is to make their working day longer. And anyway Leo, how do you know I haven’t already walked the dog before I left for work?
At any rate, whatever about walking and cycling, what does using public transport or car pooling have to do with getting healthier? There’s nothing ‘active’ about sitting on a bus or in the passenger seat of a car. They’re better for the environment, sure, but if you want to get more people to use public transport, provide a clean, efficient, affordable public transport system that covers the unprofitable routes as well as the oversubscribed ones.
2. If people want to go running, they’ll join an athletics club
The second provision of Varadkar’s bill provides for the setting up of ‘running, walking or other activity or exercise groups’. It doesn’t say whose time these activities are supposed to take place on. Are public sector workers going to be expected to get kitted out for exercise on their lunch-breaks or after clocking out in the evening? As mentioned above, people already have long working days, and other commitments that involve unpaid work, like caring for children and pets. There is also the implication in this provision, that public sector workers are a bunch of lazy, unhealthy individuals who need a good kick up the arse to get active, another way to demonise a group of workers who have been the target of media and employer venom for years. Contrary to this view, thousands of public sector workers are members of sports clubs, engage in activities like walking, hiking and going to the gym. If the government really wants to help, why not build low cost gyms all over the country, giving those who want to use them the option and leave everyone else alone.
3. There’s nothing healthy about shaming people over what they eat
Varadkar’s third provision is to have ‘healthy options in staff canteens’. Leaving aside for a moment that most workplaces don’t have canteens where food is served, the assumption again, is at worst, that civil servants are all sitting around eating burgers and batter sausages at lunchtime, or at best, they’re just too stupid to know what foods are healthy. What people choose to eat is really none of Leo Varadkar’s business, whether that is a salad or a chicken fillet roll.
However, as I mentioned, outside of a few of the big headquarter buildings, most public sector workplaces don’t have canteens that serve food, so put your money where your mouth is Leo. Healthy eating is expensive, lets have heavily subsidised staff canteens.
4. Lecturing people about smoking won’t make them stop.
Remember how those school assembly lectures about smoking stopped you from taking it up? No? Me neither. Varadkar wants to set up smoking cessation programmes and make ‘campuses’ smoke free. Smokers already have to go outside, leave them alone. But if the government was really interested in helping those who actually want to quit, they should make quitting a less expensive business. A free public health smoking cessation programme open to all would be a welcome measure, as long as no one was pressurised to take part.
5. New working conditions are stressing people out, don’t tell them to ‘deal with it’
The last provision of the bill is probably the most condescending and hypocritical. It aims to support ‘positive mental health and wellbeing by encouraging employees to deal with stress, personal difficulties and to seek help when necessary.’ Varadkar backed up the importance of this by saying that “It’s well established that a healthy workforce is a happier one with low levels of sick leave and greater productivity.” But you know what would help alleviate stress for public sector workers and make them happier? Restore pay and conditions to pre-austerity levels.
Since 2008, workers in public jobs have lost thousands in pay, through cuts, extra taxes, and levies. Many of them are on such low pay, that they have to claim Family Income Supplement for some relief. To compound this miserable state of affairs, they have to work harder for longer; when staff leave, are transferred, or go on maternity leave, their positions are regularly left unfilled, leaving the remaining staff with bigger workloads. In the last few years, these workers have lost two days of their annual leave and have been forced to work an extra one hundred and thirty hours a year, without renumeration. In contrast, French workers, who have the highest number of paid holiday days, are among the most productive. A workforce that works less and lives more, is a happier and healthier workforce.
But, to think that the powers that be in Ireland would take notice of that, you would first have to assume that they actually cared. What they really want is to shift the responsibility for mental health from society to the individual. If the individual is responsible for their own mental health, they attend these workshops and they still lose sick days due to stress, the representatives of the state can say, ‘It’s your own fault, we gave those workshops, have you not been practicing your breathing?’ They’ll never have to address what are the route causes of anxiety and other mental health problems for thousands of people – their own policies. It’s very much a ‘Check yourself before you wreck yourself’ attitude to mental wellbeing, similar to the proposed new price regulations for alcohol off sales.
We don’t need condescending lectures and employer organised extra-curricular activities, we don’t need to sit around in a circle singing about sunshine and daffodils and doing mindfulness exercises. We need to work less, commute less, have less economic uncertainty, have a properly resourced health service and the time and the means to live a dignified life, we want well being for all.