Friday 13 December 2019

Onus on State to ensure integrity of job scheme

People queue for social welfare. Picture: Mark Condren
People queue for social welfare. Picture: Mark Condren

UNPAID labour undertaken in the hope of securing experience, contacts and maybe a job at the end, is a rite of passage as old as time. Many people can hark back to a time when they worked for little, or nothing at all, to pursue their dreams and gain employment. But there is a thin line between opportunity and exploitation.

The Government deserves credit for introducing its JobBridge National Intern Scheme.

The scheme, which aims to help break the cycle where jobseekers are unable to get a job without experience, is a welcome addition to a package of measures to eradicate the twin scourges of youth and long-term unemployment.

The financial rewards of JobBridge are modest: interns receive an allowance of €50 per week on top of their existing social welfare entitlement for the duration of their placement.

But the scheme offers the potential for young people to hone their skills and earmark themselves for future employment as the country climbs the recovery mountain.

The low financial rewards, compared to similar full employment, make it incumbent on the Government to ensure that the scheme is not vulnerable to abuse by employers seeking cheap labour and the displacement of actual jobs.

That the scheme has earned the moniker 'Scambridge' in some quarters suggests that the State – which has a secret blacklist of companies that can not avail of interns – has not in all cases succeeded in rooting out bad practices.

That is why it is disturbing to learn that the Government has itself availed of more than 250 interns in circumstances when it knew, or ought to have known, that it could not offer employment because of the public sector recruitment embargo.

It is a sad irony that many of those interns were deployed as policy analysts.

The Government created this initiative; it must be the market leader in its implementation if the scheme is to maintain credibility and public support.

Nationwide broadband should not be a luxury

As the country puts more of its eggs in a hi-tech basket, basic broadband provision has become an ever-more important piece of infrastructure. So the news that Ireland's telecoms regulator is considering a green light for higher rural broadband charges will be a matter of concern to normal broadband users and to regional industrial planners. It will also raise, once again, the question of how we regard broadband infrastructure in this country. Is it a national strategic asset or just another service?

In the last 12 months, Ireland has made some worthy strides in the area of broadband provision. The Government's National Broadband Plan sets out – with funding – ambitious targets to connect over 1,000 rural towns and villages to fibre broadband services. Other initiatives, such as the ESB's fibre broadband partnership with Vodafone, are expected to connect up to 1.5 million people with the fastest broadband possible. And official figures tell us that average broadband speeds now exceed a level that allows users to work and play from home.

But while Eircom has pledged to connect 1.4 million homes and businesses to faster services by 2016, over one million Irish citizens currently have to make do with broadband services that are too slow for modern purposes.

To tell these citizens that higher bills for such basic access may be on the way will be a blow to them.

As a private, regulated company, Eircom is entitled to seek a return on its investment. But if the result is a widening two-tier broadband country, it may be time for legislators and regulators to look at the matter again.

Irish Independent

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