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Personal Blog of Mark Hoskins – Anarchist Writer and Activist

Five Reasons Why Varadkar’s Healthy Workplace Plans are an Insult to Public Servants

Ireland's Minister for Health,  Leo Varadkar

Ireland’s Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar (Photo Via International Transport Forum on flickr)

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.

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5 comments on “Five Reasons Why Varadkar’s Healthy Workplace Plans are an Insult to Public Servants

  1. John
    June 25, 2015

    So PS workers should have subsidised food and more pay for less hours. Who picks up the bill for all of this?

    • MarkH
      June 25, 2015

      It’s not really an immediate demand I was making, it was an illustration of a point. If Varadkar really cares about peoples’ health he’d endeavour to make living healthily less expensive. However, on your point of bill footing, you sound like the kind of ‘captain sensible’ I’m more used to seeing on commet threads on the journal. Where were you when the government announced the banks were going to be bailed out? Did you ask who would foot the bill? Because a significant portion ofthe bill was paid by PS workers. We need to ask that question more, but not of PS pay or social welfare payments for that matter. We need to ask that question when Denis O’Brien gets a loan at well below the market rate from a state owned bank, we need to ask it when apple and google get away without paying tax here, we need to ask it when private business gets subsidies, when private hospitals get built on public land, when politicians and business men get brought before long winded tribunals instead of being prosecuted in the courts. Of course we know the answer when those things happen. We all foot those particular bills.

  2. John
    June 25, 2015

    I was vehemently against the bank bailout, no doubt about that. But let’s be realistic here, pay and leave is already higher in the public sector versus private. PS workers also benefit from guaranteed pensions.

    http://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/public-sector-pay-rates-nearly-50-higher-than-those-in-private-sector-1.1907313

    In Ireland 1/3 of workers don’t pay income tax, so a small percentage of people are picking up the can for everyone else (50% of the population are beneficiaries of social welfare payments).

    I can’t see any justification for extending the gap in favour of PS at the expense of higher taxes on other workers.

    • MarkH
      June 25, 2015

      We may have guaranteed pensions, but we pay a hefty price for them. Not only will my pension be paid for by myself, for the last five years I’ve been paying a pension levy (which is actually more than I pay into my pension fund) which I will not see a peny of.

      Of course, I’m not arguing for higher taxes on workers, I’m arguing for big business to foot the bill. I emphasised PS workers in this piece because PS workers are the ones targeted by Leo Varadkar’s new bill.

    • MarkH
      June 25, 2015

      Also!!! Leave is not higher in the public sector than private! It ranges from 20 days (minimum statutory) to 24 – after promotions and years served (One extra day after year five and ten respectively). Anyone that I know with equivelent private sector jobs have more leave than I do. But, I’d never call for them to have less leave. I think there should be parity, and that accross the board – public and private, there should be a minimum statutory paid leave of 30 days.

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This entry was posted on June 24, 2015 by in Work and tagged , , , , , .
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