Friday 26 December 2014

‘Do I have a problem with the fact that I claim welfare? Yes’

Published 02/02/2012 | 06:00

YESTERDAY'S story about a Polish woman living on welfare payments in Ireland sparked much discussion and controversy.

Some parts of the original interview, on which the story was based, were inaccurately translated. The following is a fuller version of the interview written by journalist Katarzyna Brejwo

IT is six in the morning and we are marching through the golf course in the pitch-black darkness. I came to Ireland to see how Poles who lost their jobs manage in Ireland.

I thought that at least an unemployed person does not have to get out of bed early in the morning. It is not like that at all. Magda (not her real name) is in her thirties and has been almost two years on welfare in Ireland.

She says: “I start my days always the same way: I go to the beach to watch the sunrise. This energises me for the rest of the day. I used to sleep until noon, now I don’t want to waste my life.”

The nearest beach is five minutes’ walk away. When she looked for a house, there was one condition: that she could hear the ocean through the windows.

Then she thought that there must be light and space, so she wouldn’t feel suffocated, a fireplace for chilly evenings and rent of not more then €85 per week, otherwise she would not get a rent allowance.

“What’s my life like? Wonderful. I can grow as a person, I can breathe. I get a welfare payment – €188 per week plus €59 for the rent. In the winter, [I get] an additional €20 for fuel. It’s €267 per week. Nothing extravagant, but it is enough to have a quiet life.”

Donegal, a county on the northern tip of Ireland, is for some the most beautiful place in the world, for others – it is nowheresville.

Wherever you look there are green hills and beaches stretching towards the horizon, like in a postcard. On the other hand, you can walk along a beach for an hour and you will meet only one old man in a rain jacket. “Everything is here, except jobs,” Magda laughs. “Half of Donegal has left, the other live on the dole.”

It takes about four hours to get from her village to Dublin. On the weekends, the middle class come here to play golf, tourists come in the summer. The town’s centre can be walked through in 10 minutes: church, coffee shop, gift shops and a pub. There is a bench which overlooks the bay and the famous Donegal sheep that nibble grass on the other side of the bay.

Courses Recently a new shop has been opened at a square and young people who have not yet left for work in Australia or the United States meet there. Around a corner, there is an office, which is set up to support the local community. They advise to ask for a job in a hotel or a cafe.

“Work for the minimum wage? It’s not worth it. When working in a hostel I earned €200 per week and I was busy from morning until night.

“First breakfast for guests, then the reception, between 2pm and 3pm cleaning the rooms, then taking the phone calls again. Kind of cool, you meet people from all around the world, but when they are knocking on the door at 11 o'clock in the evening, you feel like murdering them. “Waiting tables is more profitable – but how long can you be running around with a tray?

“It happened that I was at a wedding reception looking after two tables for 36 people all by myself. There wasn’t even time to go to the toilet. Finally after my requests for help, they assigned a cleaner to help me out – plates were falling from her hands, and she spoke no word in English. The stress got to her. She left the job with no regrets. Since being unemployed, she admits, she revived. Firstly, she walks along the beach twice a day. The seaside is the best for thinking.

There are about nine beaches around, she chooses a different one every day. Secondly, she practises yoga. Sessions are free, because she has a deal with her instructor, that in return [for a yoga class] she will give her a massage. Magda can do a basic massage, a Hawaiian and hot stone one, which she learned at a free FAS course: hot stones are moved along the back, until all the tension goes away. Sometimes people feel so heavenly that they fall asleep. Other things are bartered, too.

“I have an appointment with a carpenter to make me a bookshelf, and I will massage his back for this, because the lad has back problems.” Recently in the same way she acquired picture frames (for minding a local gallery during lunch time), a pair of thick socks (helping in a local shop), and an hour of meditation (Hawaiian massage).

Thirdly, she surfs. During the first week her muscles ached so much that at night she could hardly turn on the other side. Now she waits for the phone call every day: if there are good waves, her friends will pick her up in their van. In Donegal you can swim all year round, even in winter. If the waves are too big, she does surf-watch: watches other people surfing. Sometimes she takes pictures.

Her eye is trained; she knows when to press the shutter to capture the best moment. Fourthly, she can finally cook healthy meals. “I buy milk and cheese from my neighbour, vegetables at the market. . . tofu and eco muffins, with no preservatives.”

She doesn’t use the fridge, as she prefers shopping regularly and buying fresh food. Her friends say she has lost weight and looks better now.

“Previously, I was picking at food all the time: because of stress, or because of other problems. Now, there is no hurry, I don’t have to do things. I live modestly, but in my own way.”

Fifth, she decorates her house. [It’s] 200sqm, with three bedrooms downstairs, living room and dining room upstairs. The owner wanted €110 weekly, negotiated down to €95 because she doesn’t have a job or children. . . Downstairs is already painted blue, in the future there will be a massage studio there.

“The purpose of claiming social welfare is to have time to reflect on a person’s life. For example, I discovered that I no longer want to work for someone. I like to do things my way.”

Sixthly, she meets her friend, her name is *******, and she can be reached at any time. The unemployment rate in Ireland is 14.3pc.

Unemployed are looked after by: social welfare, which pays benefits; FAS, which does not give money, but advice on how to set up your own business and sends people for the free training if they want to learn; and a local development office, which assigns a guardian angel to each unemployed person.

A year ago, when Magda wanted to open a massage studio on the ground floor of her house, her friend whispered: “Not yet. What if – God forbid – there are no clients, then what?

he business will go down, social welfare benefits will be lost, and she will have to toil in some hotel again.” You leave unemployment the smart way – through the ‘backto- work allowance scheme’.

This is a special offer for those who are on welfare for at least two years. An unemployed person who starts his own business, gets the full benefits for the first year, and for another – more than half. You say goodbye to the benefits after two years, when – thanks to state support – your business runs well. In December last year, 927 Polish benefited from the backto- employment programmes. And 465 from “back-to-education” – for the unemployed who want to study.

Magda, in less than half a year, will qualify for the “backto- work” scheme. By this time she will do driving licence, business plan, accounting and marketing courses (everything with [an employment office]).

“Do I have a problem with the fact that I claim social welfare?” she wonders. “Yes. I do not want to live at the expense of the state, so I treat it as a support that will allow me to set up my own business.”

And how people around react to this? “I have never met with unfavourable comments. Maybe it's because a lot of Irish people claim benefits too. And a friend told me once that she prefers that her taxes were spent on me than on the various a**holes from Dublin.” In the afternoon we go for coffee for €3.

“We could drink the same at home, but the point is,” explains Magda, “to support local businesses.” And to be among the people. “After paying for my house I have €172 per week; €40 a month goes for the internet and a landline phone, €35 for a mobile.

“Once every two months I pay for electricity, about €100. I cook at home, do not go to pubs. During the season there is a local market where you can get local products cheaper than in a store. In the shop I look for offers – for example, six rolls for €1.50. It lasts me for three days, I just have to toast them.

“I buy clothes in Penneys but not too much, because I have no need to dress up. Recent purchases: yoga clothes for €1, trousers for €7, pyjamas for €3, bed linen for €6. Shoes in TK Maxx, no more then €10 for a pair. In autumn, I get an allowance for warm clothing.

“I look for books in charity shops, second-hand: ‘The Jungle Book’, ‘Robin Hood’, ‘Out of the Silent Planet’, CS Lewis – three for €2.50. Recently published books are posted to me by friends in Poland.

“Last year I bought a surfing board, in instalments. When it’s paid off I’ll think about getting a car. For now I hitch-hike or use a bus. “What am I missing? Entertainment. Here, life revolves around pubs. So when I go to a pub in the evening, I order a glass of tap water.”

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