From bank holidays to pensions, life should be better than ever for workers. So why is it not?

With a general election looming this Government might be tempted to list off its achievements, but it would be unsurprising if they fail to reasonate with voters

Given its ever-so-slightly right-of-centre composition, this Government has introduced a surprising number of measures that might be considered to improve the lot of the working man or woman at the expense of the boss class.

They include an additional two weeks of parental leave introduced in July 2022 followed by an entitlement to three days’ paid sick leave and an 80 cent increase in the minimum or living wage to €11.30 in January 2023.

It was followed by a new annual public holiday (St Bridget’s Day) in February 2023 and in April by a Work-Life Balance Act. The latter was in effect the transposing of the EU directive on work-life balance into Irish law but it created new rights for workers in Ireland. They included extended breaks for breastfeeding or expressing milk as well as maternity leave for transgender men. There is also domestic violence leave and the right to request flexible working.

They did not stop there, with paid sick leave extended to five days last January along with a €1.40 increase in the minimum wage.


And there is more to come. The second half of this year should be marked by the auto-enrolment of employees into contributory pension schemes and parental leave extended from seven to nine weeks. Next January paid sick leave rises to seven days.

Taken in the round, it all seems progressive. But in reality the changes are only bringing working conditions here into line with most other EU and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. According to a report on the cumulative impact of the measures published this week by the Department of Employment, these countries tend to have more public holidays and statutory sick pay. Auto-enrolment pension schemes “are a standard feature of the employment landscape in many countries”, the document notes.

The imposition of all these costs on business — there will also be associated increases in PRSI — probably wasn’t music to the ears of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil but the economic argument was sound. Countries that focus on policies and institutions that create more quality jobs and an inclusive workforce tend to do better than those that focus on labour market flexibility — making it easy to hire and fire employees in response to market conditions.

Unfortunately, the strategy would seem to have backfired, at least in part. The same report also arrived at the rather surprising conclusion that for many workers — and firms — the measures will have little, if any, impact.

The conclusion is not as counterintuitive or negative as it seems. The report also notes the main reason the measures have had so little impact is that workers in many sectors of the economy already enjoy wages above the Living Wage and benefits such as paid sick leave and hybrid working.

This doesn’t just apply to the large multinationals. The group includes “many of those employees working in large domestic corporations and also those working in areas including, but not limited to: financial services; real estate; professional services (ie, legal, accounting and consultancy); healthcare (ie, medical and dental) as well as those working in the commercial semi-State sector”

The real problem from the Government’s point of view is that in the areas where the various measures had an impact it was — or will be — an overwhelmingly negative one.

Two sectors in particular will be hit, according to the report’s authors. Retail and hospitality — both of which are labour-intensive and low-wage — will see their costs rise significantly over the coming decade as a consequence of the measures.

And it will likely be workers in these industries that bear the brunt of this. The report warns of the risk that employers may change employee working hours and patterns in ways that mitigate some of the impact of the measures — particularly the increase in PRSI. What this means in practice is more people working fewer hours, possibly having to hold down two jobs. It doesn’t sound like the improvement in working conditions that is the objective of the whole exercise; more like the opposite.

It might be an exaggeration to write the whole project off as an exercise in futility, but it is unlikely to deliver any sort of dividend as the next general election comes into view.

It is a pity given the progressive nature of the various measures, but although the Government might be tempted to list off its achievements in this regard, it won’t resonate with much of the electorate. And those who do notice may have a negative perception.

It is a case of not being able to do right for doing wrong. Minister for Employment Simon Coveney seems alive to the danger and announced a range of measures in tandem with the publication of the report. They include that commitment most beloved of the Fine Gael Minister — to reduce red tape and the administrative burden on business. That ought to do it.