Latest Outbreak Exposes the Cutthroat Nature of Neoliberal Ireland

OM, Baile Átha Cliath

Naas General Hospital is the latest epicentre of a potential Covid-19 outbreak. Hospital management were informed of the suspected outbreak a couple of weeks ago and, by the following day, a 31-bed ward had been temporarily closed with several members of staff being told to self-isolate. Management believe that the source of the outbreak may have been a member of the hospital’s cleaning staff who had recently tested positive for the virus. Do you hear that sound in the distance? It is the sound of an angry, suburban mob ready to leap down the throat of a cleaner earning minimum wage. Some will ask, “how dare this person be so irresponsible as to work while contagiously unwell?” Why didn’t they stay at home to protect the community? Since the initial outbreak of the pandemic, the government has repeatedly warned us that if you feel unwell, you must stay at home. However, what the holier-than-thou brigade choose not to recognise is that the majority of the working population cannot afford the luxury of taking a day off.

Framing the conversation about ever-shifting guidelines in moral terms is no accident. The ruling class loves nothing more than yet another excuse to vilify those performing 3D jobs (dirty, dangerous, and/or demeaning) and to argue that they “deserve” their working conditions. At the same time, when the rich and powerful themselves fail to abide by the rules, it’s a sin to be easily washed away with a half-baked public apology.

Karl Marx wrote that the worker’s labour power “is the only commodity which he can and must sell continually in order to live”. In other words, workers have nothing to sell but their labour, and must continuously do so to survive. We must bear this statement in mind when we witness politicians, journalists, and armchair commentators cynically blaming working people for the perpetuation of this health crisis, with social welfare benefits progressively eroding and unpaid sick leave an industry standard in many areas. Time and time again, governments have been quick to point the finger at various groups and individuals in order to divert attention from their own failures, whether it is migrant workers, anti-racist protesters, or the mysterious bogeyman under your bed known as “The Welfare Cheat”. The shambolic neoliberal response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been no exception. An unwell member of the cleaning staff in Naas General Hospital is not to blame for a potential outbreak in the workplace. The blame is to be placed on the socio-economic conditions that forced that cleaner to show up to the workplace with a life-threatening disease in the first place. In other industries, workers have been placed on unpaid leave after the HSE informed their employer of the test results before even informing the patient. The COVID Payment is boasted of by the government as generous and soon coming to an end, but is below minimum wage at which workers already struggle to support families.

The sad state of affairs in Naas is by no means an isolated incident in recent Covid-19 related news. The biggest story of the past week, the outbreaks of the disease in various meat plants in the midlands, is a prime example of how low-paid workers have no choice but to work through illness. This issue is exacerbated by the dire sick pay provisions in the meat industry. According to SIPTU’s Greg Ennis, currently “nine in ten workers do not have sick pay within the meat industry and workers are forced into a place where if they have symptoms they may go to work because they can’t afford not to”. If a worker is being paid pennies as it is, how can they be expected to sacrifice even a day (let alone two weeks) to self-isolate? In the case of workers in the meat industry, the overhanging socio-economic threat of destitution is often accompanied by very literal threats from their employers. In one case, a migrant worker returning to Ireland from checking up on family abroad informed his employer that he would be undergoing the recommended 14 days of quarantine. He was subsequently told by his employer that “one: he would get no sick pay; and, two: he would be lucky to have a job to come back to”. These workers are at the mercy of their exploitative employers. If a worker is successful in exchanging his labour for a wage, then this exchange involves submitting to the authority of the capitalist. This authority, embedded in the DNA of the capitalist system, is being wielded openly with an iron fist.

We must recognize the double blackmail we are subjected to as workers: damned if you stay home if you aren’t completely incapacitated by your symptoms, damned if you don’t. You are demanded that you demonstrate responsibility to your community and your employer, but who is meaningfully holding your employer accountable these days?  

But let us not be too harsh on our beloved ruling class. Yes, the union of politicians and the rich has led to a rushed re-opening of the economy. And yes, this reckless re-opening has put all of our lives in immediate danger. But they are simply acting in accordance with their governing ideology: neoliberalism. Their actions are for their own benefit, and who could blame them? In Labour in Irish History, James Connolly wrote that anyone who agreed with the logic of capitalism could not fault the British policy of continuing to export vast quantities of food from Ireland during the height of the famine. To refuse to do so would be interfering with the free market. Likewise, those today who agree with the logic of capitalism cannot find fault with the government’s re-opening of the economy. They agree that the survival of the free market is more important than the survival of a few essential workers. Our ruling class are acting in their own class interests; won’t you?

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