Sunday 20 January 2019

Shame of Amazon jobs reaction

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the official opening of the new Amazon Web Services offices in Dublin last week. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the official opening of the new Amazon Web Services offices in Dublin last week. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

It took just minutes for the complaints to start. Because Amazon announcing 1,000 new Dublin jobs really hit us in the gut. Radio, social media and online news comment sections filled up with resentment and insecurity.

"Where will they live?"

"Oh great, even higher rents..."

"Why are these jobs all in Dublin?"

"Are they paying their tax?"

The new Amazon jobs, mostly in engineering, are relatively high-paying ones, well over the average industrial wage.

This isn't better, it seems, but worse.

"How is my son supposed to compete for an apartment with someone earning €70,000?" one radio caller asked. "He's working in an ordinary job."

The worst thing about it, apparently, is that some of the highly-paid new workers might be "foreigners".

Coming in, taking our apartments.

It's a complex form of self-loathing. But how on earth did we get to this point? The conventional answer is that it's because we haven't gotten our act together on housing and infrastructure, so more and more of us are being squeezed out of parts of the city where rents and house prices are rocketing.

But instead of blaming ourselves (planners, politicians, councillors, lawyers and countless Nimby-addled community associations) for the Wild West property market, we're turning on companies offering new jobs.

If only multinational firms would stop coming in with these jobs, things might be easier for 'ordinary people'.

Get lost, Google. Feck off, Facebook. Adios, Amazon.

I see this every morning. My walk to work is through one of the toughest inner city areas in the country. Yet the streets of Ballybough and the North Strand are starting to see scooters and electric skateboards during rush hour. Why? Because Facebook recently put 800 people into a building in North Wall, under a mile away. All of a sudden, house prices and rents in Marino, East Wall and Ballybough - traditionally affordable, working-class areas - are shooting up.

With it is a certain degree of local resentment. It's great if you want to sell or rent out a property in any of these places. It's also arguably good for additional amenities and services springing up in the area, like more restaurants or bigger supermarkets. But the grief comes from those trying to buy a home or rent an apartment. The already sparse stock of available accommodation gets thinner and thinner. A two-bedroom terraced ex-council home that sold for €280,000 three years ago now costs €400,000. A 450 sq ft one-bed apartment that cost €900 now costs €1,200.

Engineers can afford to pay this. Retail or service industry workers can't.

Earlier this month, Web Summit chief Paddy Cosgrave said that his company is now offering to pay part of employees' mortgages or rents, in recognition of the extreme rises in accommodation costs in Ireland's capital.

"Housing was the first thing I thought of when I saw the Amazon announcement for 1,000 jobs," Graeme McQueen, an executive in Dublin's Chamber of Commerce, told me last week.

"Especially as I imagine a percentage of those new jobs will be filled by people coming in from overseas. Increasingly, we're hearing from firms in the tech sector that its apartments that are needed for living within the city centre. If we can't offer that, we might start to see companies not being able to fulfil the job openings they announce."

In Ireland, we aren't used to - and don't expect - any kind of culture in planning or accommodation. Massive price hikes in accommodation are the norm, we think. The problem - and solution - must be on the job-creation front, right?

But amid all the catastrophising, where is the ambition? Where is the alternate view for Dublin? The one that envisions a city augmenting to match great European and American peers?

There appear to be few willing to make the argument.

In that alternate Dublin, large-scale planning would bet on permanent economic buoyancy. We wouldn't assume the sky is going to fall and that we can't plan for a bigger population. We'd embrace the evolution. We'd change confidently, bringing everyone with us.

It'd be a really impressive place to visit and to live.

We wouldn't be relying on the dubious merits of charm, tax and 'being English-speaking'. We wouldn't always be hoping for multinationals to locate here, then cursing them when we failed to bother building houses for the people who got jobs there.

That Dublin wouldn't baulk at high-density (perhaps high-rise) living. It wouldn't coddle a legal system that holds up development for years, sometimes decades, sometimes indefinitely. It would use imagination to remould its planning systems in a way to blend heritage with progress and growth.

But discussing that sort of Dublin is still way out of kilter with every instinct that most of us have.

Even the word 'Dublin' gets backs up.

"Why should everything be in Dublin?" is an angry refrain that radio talk show hosts can rely on when they want to raise a few hackles. "Why can't Google spread their jobs around the country?"

While there is a good case for regional economic development (this column has made the argument for better regional broadband to support economic activity for many years), Dublin is critical as an economic engine for the whole country.

A stronger, better Dublin ultimately more often means economic expansion than economic replacement elsewhere in the country. At least, that's certainly the case in the tech industry. But that's another column for another day.

More and more, we're changing the way we react to significant job announcements. Twenty, ten or even five years ago, they were seen as a huge boost to the country. Today, they're seen as a threat. This is a huge shame. It's also surely an indictment of our lack of talent and inability to run the place.

How has it come to a situation where lots of good jobs landing divides and threatens people?

Are we that bad at steering our own country?

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