What makes a person a proper European? Is it just the chance geographical location where you were born or is it, indeed, an attitude? My experiences this week make me think it is very definitely the latter and while we as Irish people often masquerade (when it suits us) as Europeans, we are on the whole uniquely different and there are cultural ravines that may never be bridged.
Yes we have become a cosmopolitan nation but despite all our current influences and the various nationalities that now call this ‘home’, I believe that inevitably these people will become more Irish than we will ever become European.
I was thinking about this subject because in the early part of this week I found myself in another county with a group of people who have moved to Ireland from Europe. They all work for an international company based here. It was predominantly French, German and English with a few South Africans and Russians thrown in for good measure.
It was Monday, and, to be honest, it was a bit of relief to be in conversation with an entire group of people who were totally oblivious to what had happened on Sunday. Talk of hurling was replaced with conversation mainly about work and working conditions in Ireland, so while the pay talks in Dublin dominated the news I was getting my own little educational tour through employment law and benefits in Europe. I agree that it was all anecdotal and I can only assume they were telling the truth, but generally to my Irish ears some of it came as quite a shock.
The common gripe was the cost of healthcare and the social benefits for workers in general in Ireland. The German and French representatives were appalled to think that workers were only allowed five sick days per year. In their native countries there is ‘unlimited’ sick leave. Sick leave is on full pay for the first six weeks, paid for by the company, and after that your government benefits activate and you are paid on a salary percentage sliding scale from there on in. For example if you are out for over twelve months you get approximately 60% of your salary in benefit. My jaw hit the floor as I thought of such legislation being introduced here.
It reminded me of a story I had heard a few months earlier from an Irish worker at another international company. They had tried to introduce an increased sick day scheme there but within two years it had crumbled. By monitoring statistics they found that, quite remarkably, workers tended to get ‘sick’ around the same time each year. Their sickness often required a week or two in the sun to fully recover! Needless to remark the Irish tried to be clever and use sick days as a holiday. Inevitably such abuse led to the collapse of the scheme and a return to the standard five sick days policy.
Staying with the sick leave issue, my European friends were also annoyed by the need to obtain a doctor’s sick cert if you were out for more than one or two days. They pointed out that some ailments such as the common cold or mild flu may restrict you from going to work but do not necessarily merit a doctor’s visit. If, for example, you had gone over your five days sick leave and were now out of work with a cold, not only were you possibly missing pay but you also had to pay a further €50 (minimum) to see a doctor for a cert. In France the doctor’s visit is free and if you don’t see a doctor you can ‘self cert’. It wasn’t clarified if the free doctor’s visit was based on where you worked or if doctor’s visits in general in France are free, but either way it sounded pretty decent.
The idea of ‘self certification’ was also interesting. Effectively this is a form filling exercise where you are meant to ‘honestly’ list your ailments and the reason for being off work. I wondered how such a scheme would work here when up against the wonderful Irish imagination. Would ‘Monday-morning-itus’ qualify as a legitimate sickness or how about ‘crazy-weekend-osis’! The real question is have we grown up enough in Ireland to actually cope with unlimited sick days and self certification? We may consider ourselves European when it suits us but do we have the proper mindset?
A company dental care scheme was also in stark contrast to mainland European workplaces, as was the general cost of dental work. One chap said he had visited the dentist three times since he had arrived in the country and it has cost him just over €750. The same was said of eye care, with a severe raised eyebrow at the shocking cost of a pair of glasses. Child day care was also mentioned. A German woman stated that while some large companies in Germany strive to provide day care facilities for worker’s children, the government also contribute by paying, in some cases, up to 80% of the costs. This lady’s husband was a ‘stay at home’ dad in Ireland as the cost of childcare in the area where they live was around €800 per month.
Another French man contributed the point that in France you could also claim 50% of your work commuting costs back from the company if you took public transport. I thought that was a particularly interesting incentive that might be good for the environment and ease traffic congestion. Of course such a system would only work where there was a good public transport infrastructure and not one that might inevitably lead to you taking one of those ‘unlimited’ sick days when it didn’t turn up!
The general cost of living was also discussed; the cost of a cup of coffee or soft drinks from vending machines and convenience stores and the lack of companies willing to provide or subsidise lunch for employees. My mind was reeling at that stage; free lunches, dental and eye care benefits, unlimited paid sick days, self certification, rebates on transport to work costs and a salary at the end of every month as well!
It wasn’t long before the obvious question of ‘why did you choose to move here then’ came up. “Oh, I love Ireland” was the first happy response. “I love being here, it’s a great place to bring up children” was another. “The people are really funny”, was a third (and I am choosing to think that they meant we are amusing funny rather than strange). The compliments flowed and generally they all agreed that they were very happy here.
So in a nutshell, in Ireland the tangible working benefits are rubbish, the weather is lousy, the cost of living is outrageous and, as one chap said, “to be ill in Ireland is not good, it is very expensive”, but apart from these ‘trivial’ annoyances it’s a marvellous place! Now if that’s not Irish logic, I don’t know what is!