Making people jump for work that does not exist must stop

Thu, Sep 6, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:It is demoralising, nay, degrading, to herd vulnerable people into a long line to ‘sign on’, writes BRENDAN LYONS

A RECENT editorial in my local paper, The Southern Star, was titled “Demoralising for the Long-Term Unemployed”. It was a humane and considered piece. It cited national statistics from the Central Statistics Office, and got me thinking.

Here is my less than scientific snapshot of the work situation in Skibbereen last week. When I looked at the job aggregator website indeed.ie, it had one local job listing. No, I lie, one internship offered through Fás.

In nine months’ time, “the intern will have attained skills in running of a shop, including dealing with customers on a daily bacis” [sic]. Literacy skills are obviously not a prerequisite for paid employment with the National Training and Employment Authority.

I trawled the Fás website: a hotel has an unfilled vacancy for a chef de partie, a fish plant has an assistant sales executive job and a pizzeria has work at €12 an hour. The nine other local vacancies are schemes – community employment, work placement or JobBridge – and there are also a couple of internships.

One-morning-a-week housework was the only vacancy I spotted for Skibbereen in the Southern Star of September 1st.

I looked at the CSO site myself. In July 2012 there were 789 men and 582 women available for work in the town.

It is demoralising for the unemployed, either long- or short-term. Demoralising also, because Skibbereen is a microcosm of the whole country.

More demoralising – no, let me be blunt – more degrading, is the 19th century practice of herding the vulnerable into a long line to “sign on”. For the most part, I imagine, they would prefer to have nails surgically removed without anaesthetic than this.

Despite all the rhetoric, expensive reports and rallying cries, there are, in Skibbereen at least, few “real” jobs. So why maintain the charade? What is the rationale for the degradation?

Information technology is our way out of the mess, we are told. It cannot be beyond human ingenuity to devise a humane technological solution that accepts unemployment is a reality for many people, and treats them with some modicum of dignity.

The vulnerable are, as always, an easy target, queuing on the street for everyone to hurry past, eyes downcast.

I applaud journalist George Monbiot, who, in his blog on the Guardian website, last year tried to promote accountability in his profession by publishing an overview of his income sources. On August 29th he wrote: “One or two journalists have told me it was a ‘brave’ thing to do (by which, I assume, they mean stupid); no one – as far as I know – has yet copied it.”

People do not like all and sundry knowing what they earn. Neither do I, but I might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb: it is €95.70 a week. As someone who was self-employed for more than 20 years, this is what I now receive per week in State benefit.

I may as well shout it from the rooftops, because the second form of degradation visited on the unemployed is that the post office staff in Skibbereen, all of whom I have known for that same 20 years, are put in the embarrassing position of knowing what it is every unemployed person in the town earns. After all, they count every cent into their hands.

Apart from his “Lenin-gate” gaffe, there was stirring oratory from Enda Kenny at Béal na Blá for the 90th anniversary of Michael Collins’s death. He said “the Government will not rest until Ireland has reclaimed and restored its economic sovereignty”. Sounds impressive, but I am not sure I understand it. I have no political affiliations, just a healthy dose of scepticism. The charade of making decent people jump through hoops for work that does not exist is an anachronism that needs to be dismantled.

Despite many years of self-employment, I do not regard myself as very entrepreneurial, but many of the self-employed are. Gratuitously humiliating them in their own communities is hardly likely to foster the spirit of adventure required to create new business. That there is little or no safety net for the self-employed who fall on hard times is a scandal in itself. That, however, is a rant for another day.

The statistical office of the European Union, Eurostat, does not offer great cause for optimism on the jobs front. Its “long-term unemployment as percentage of active population” data shows Ireland’s long-term unemployment creeping steadily upwards, from a low of 1.3 per cent in 2007 to just over six and a half times that figure today, at 8.6 per cent. This is more than double the EU 27 average. Greece and Spain are in a worse position than ourselves, but at least they have the benefit of sunshine.

A study just published by the Economic Council of the Labour Movement concludes that unemployment within the EU 27 is at more than 25 million, with 10.5 million of these unemployed for a year or longer. That is a lot of human talent to disregard.

What would Collins think were his descendants to be among the 1,371 queuing for their dole in Skibbereen in 2012? I doubt the long-term unemployed give more than a passing thought to “sovereignty”. They need to see some innovative thinking. I fear politicians earning €100,000-plus a year will not be the ones to provide that creativity.


Brendan Lyons was a self-employed typesetter and editor between 1992 and 2012.

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