Boycott Workfare members recently met Irish activists challenging workfare from young people’s organisations We’re Not Leaving and #WorkMustPay, and Paul Murphy TD, who set up the Scambridge website. Here’s what they learnt.
The Irish government’s response to huge unemployment rates of over 10% (and more than double that for young people) follows the same disastrous blueprint as many others in Europe: more sanctions, more conditionality and the introduction of workfare.
Its “Gateway” scheme puts claimants to work in public sector jobs for twenty hours a week for nearly two years, all for a bonus €20/week on top of the ‘dole’. With a thousand placements already having taken place and a further 3000 planned, it’s clear unpaid work on this scale is plugging the gaps left in a public sector which has already lost over 45,000 jobs in austerity’s squeeze.
The fact that workfare clearly replaces jobs has been no deterrent to the Irish government, who also continue to push the JobBridge scheme as a solution to unemployment: This despite the fact that 200 employers (3% of the total) have admitted to displacing paid workers with claimants on JobBridge. A further 29% admitted they would have advertised a paid role if free labour hadn’t been on offer.
JobBridge sends so-called “interns” to businesses and charities on 30-hour a week 6-9 month placements, while the government pays the claimant a top-up €50/week on their ‘dole’. Current advertised roles include a butcher, a chef and a medical receptionist, clearly core roles in the businesses profiting from free labour. If you refuse to either attend a course or become free labour for a company which used to pay wages, you risk your benefits being docked for “not engaging”. Campaigners told us that since local Social Welfare offices have discretion on how they apply sanctions, prejudice is rife: it is often people from lower income backgrounds, manual workers and non-graduates who face the penalties first.
The only deterrent to an employer from using JobBridge “interns” to replace paid workers is the risk that they might not get another free “intern” for a period of a few months. Munster Express newspaper was caught out using JobBridge for its photography – an essential role that clearly should be paid. But after its two month ban was served, it was happily advertising placements again. The names of the other forty employers who have been caught out haven’t been published, so they haven’t even risked damage to their reputation.
There seem to be few or no checks on who can advertise a placement either. #WorkMustPay exposed this last month: ‘Howth Railway Refreshment Rooms Ltd’ were fined €6,750 in 2005 for nine breaches of legislation regarding the employment of minors where in one case it was found that a 15 year old was made to work an 11 hour shift. Regardless of this, the company involved were allowed to advertise for three JobBridge internships: two as social media positions and one as a graphic designer.
The rules state that businesses must leave a six month breather between placements before filling the same role using JobBridge. However, one of the interns we met told us that part of their role had been to rewrite their own job description so that they could be replaced with more free labour when their time was up: effectively writing themselves out of any possibility that the role will ever become paid.
Another pernicious scheme is promised: JobPath, modelled on the UK’s dire Work Programme, is set to launch in early 2015. Ireland’s new scheme is based on one in which more people have been sanctioned than have found work, and which was found to be worse than doing nothing at all. Contracts for JobPath have been awarded to Turas Nua, a consortium including UK company Working Links, and to Seetec, the most vindictive Work Programme contractor for sanctioning people in the UK. In one week alone, they referred 4,417 people for sanctions. They have also been accused of malpractice in their contract for work with disabled people.
The Work Programme’s “black box” approach, which means private companies can demand almost any action from jobseekers on the threat of sanctions, has become a “grey box” approach in the JobPath literature. However, it is clear that the emphasis will be the same: recasting unemployment as a problem with individuals’ effort and motivation rather than with the economy. Joan Burton, the Tánaiste (deputy prime minister), explains the approach as being “to facilitate, to incentivise, to motivate and to activate jobseekers back to employment”. It seems likely therefore that the arrival of JobPath will mean importing the coercive psychology so widespread in the UK’s welfare to work industry in order to restructure claimants’ expectations and attitudes, while the possibility of decent work becomes ever more elusive.
Evidence and claimant experience are clearly irrelevant to the European governments bent on implementing austerity. As national governments work to restructure the economy to meet businesses’ needs for flexibility at ever greater cost to job conditions, the agenda is also being rolled out at EU level. Irish campaigners highlighted to us that the EU’s Youth Guarantee is pushing workfare out across Europe. In practice, its offer of “job, apprenticeship, traineeship, or continued education” is a recipe for putting access to paid work further from the reach of young people by introducing and extending layers of unpaid work in the economy. No surprise that “work experience” and “work placements” feature high on the list for Ireland’s pilot of the Youth Guarantee in Ballymun.
The young people on JobBridge placements told us how quickly work without jobs and welfare cuts for under 26s have become normalised. Many young people now expect JobBridge to be the first kind of work they will find on leaving school or graduating. In a country whose public services have faced decimating cuts, and where funding to the voluntary sector has been slashed, being able to do useful and rewarding work for a charity or NGO while claiming jobseekers’ benefits can be an attractive option. As in the UK, taking on the ethical issues surrounding workfare, benefit sanctions and unpaid work in the voluntary sector is crucial.
But despite the creep of unpaid work and sanctions in Ireland, its route down the path of austerity suddenly looks less certain. In recent months, the government’s plans to privatise water have met with mass resistance and the water charges, which were meant to take effect from this month, have been postponed and a capped rate introduced. This success has changed the mood and increasingly people are articulating their discontent with austerity more broadly: including with unpaid work and benefit sanctions.
When we met young people’s organisations “We’re Not Leaving” and “#WorkMustPay”, and Paul Murphy TD, who set up the “Scambridge” website to challenge JobBridge, all were energised from their recent successes in the water charges campaign. It was exciting to realise the possibilities of what action on both sides of the Irish Sea might look like: Can we in the UK use the fact that the Irish managed to stop Tesco’s plans to use hundreds of JobBridge placements to challenge its use of workfare here? Might charities like Oxfam that have pledged to boycott workfare in the UK, also pledge not to use JobBridge or JobPath placements? As our campaigns grow, it is clear that we will be stronger for working together. Because the drive to normalise unpaid work and increase welfare conditionality is Europe-wide, our resistance must be too.