Ending unemployment should not mean punishing those who are out of work
Published 31/12/2015 | 02:30
Fine Gael and Labour are going into the forthcoming General Election with the promise of ending unemployment. For a country bruised by the scourge of unemployment, haunted by recession after despairing recession, this is electoral gold dust.
That is because most people think 'ending unemployment' simply means creating job opportunities - Enda's 'best little country to do business in' line. However, for the Government parties 'ending unemployment' also means intensifying the 'radical welfare reform' that has been under way since 2012's Pathways to Work policy, largely copied from the UK.
Until then, Ireland had stubbornly refused to adopt labour activation policies, though since the early 1990s the OECD has chided our various governments' 'generous', 'lax' or 'passive' policies.
Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are hinting they will restore benefits and, with some difference in execution, continue job creation plans - Sinn Féin resisting UK welfare policy in the North, and Willie O'Dea has promised a committee to examine 'Basic Income Policy'. Yet, neither has framed a serious alternative to Pathways. What has Pathways done? The shift is from 'passive' welfare measures, which just financially support the unemployed, to 'active' measures - which aim to guide people back to work.
While the unemployed have always been offered training, education and advice on applying and interviewing for jobs, in an active system they are now offers that cannot be refused, because they are backed up with sanctions - of a cut of €44 from the weekly €188, or even the suspension of payments for up to nine weeks. Other aspects of the policy involve corporate welfare: supporting companies hiring unemployed people through tax breaks; or top-up payments to low-paid workers.
One curious change is the rebranding of the authoritative sounding 'Office of Social Protection' to the vacuous 'Intreo', which coincides with a greater investment in the surveillance and monitoring of unemployed people. All of this highlights the shift from automatic entitlements to support, to 'conditionality' - where payments are dependent on compliance with directions from welfare officers. In September, the OECD recommended Ireland make procedures more transparent and reduced the discretion of the office to instruct and sanction claimants.
What results have these policies produced in the UK? There has been a growth in 'precarious work', short-term contracts for low pay under poor conditions. Occasionally, workers have been made redundant then rehired as interns for their former position.
Food banks have proliferated and 83pc of users cite sanctions or delays to welfare payments as their reason for attending. There have been scandals - for instance, deaths and suicides by claimants whose benefits were cut under the 'fitness to work scheme'. Indeed, the UK is currently facing a UN investigation for human rights abuses for its treatment of disabled jobseekers.
Ireland's welfare system has yet to produce such outrageous results. Yet food banks exist across Ireland. The crisis in homelessness here is partially caused by caps on rent allowance. Similarly, JobBridge has generated controversy and will be reformed. Although Springboard appears to have run its course, the funds it sequestered for educating the unemployed are unlikely to be returned to the student grant system.
One comparable figure is the number of sanctions imposed on jobseekers. Over 7,000 people will be sanctioned in 2015, over 3pc of jobseekers. The UK figure has risen steadily since the Conservatives entered government and now stands at 17pc, although many sanctions are reversed on appeal.
Generally, the tendency is for harsher and longer sanctions in the UK - but, clearly, Ireland is catching up with an increasing number of sanctions, even though the number of jobless is falling.
What are the consequences of this policy, and of sanctions? Sanctioned individuals experience poverty and impacts on their psychological well-being, which is already eroded by the harshness of unemployment. Swiss research suggests that sanctioned individuals have reduced future income in work and worse health than their peers. In our own research, we found that even the threat of sanctions provoked these negative consequences.
The 'getting people back to work' mantra is used to justify sanctions, yet routing out a few 'scroungers' by threatening the majority of genuine jobseekers is indefensible.
Generally countries with harsh sanctions see the quality of work and employment across the labour market deteriorate - higher pressure, wage suppression, no security, promotion or advancement and general poorer treatment, such as zero-hour contracts.
Employers are given the whip hand over employees. Over the long-term, this is of no benefit to the Exchequer, never mind society as a whole, which thrives on reliable, secure and decent employment. Beyond economics, sanctions impact everyone in Irish society, by making us less sure of ourselves, less confident that we and our loved ones will be alright if jobs are lost; ultimately, less of a society.
Clearly, Pathways needs to be reviewed, especially in light of the negative impacts in the UK and elsewhere. Ireland, as a wealthy, growing country which implemented activation policies later than any in the OECD, can afford to keep the aspects of activation that clearly help - supports, training and education - but forego the suspicion, pressure and sanctions, all that makes welfare 'conditional' on certain behaviour and creates imbalances between workers and employers.
Making unemployment liveable is a nobler and more achievable goal than ending unemployment.
Tom Boland and Ray Griffin lecture in Waterford Institute of Technology and are authors of 'The Sociology of Unemployment' (2015 Manchester University Press)