Pauline Conroy: The proposal that 10,000 unemployed people will be offered 19.5 hours of social or environmentally useful work a week is an answer to a question that few are asking. The question ought to be: how can the economy provide skills, further education, creative opportunities and decent employment for those the tens of thousands who are unemployed?
Instead, we are offered a solution to the question:
How can the government force ever growing numbers of unemployed people into a state of submission and subordination on the labour market?
The OECD has examined in detail Ireland's approach to and outcomes of labour market activation programmes (Working Paper No.75 8. January 2009). They note criticisms of Community Employment Schemes relating to limited impact on regular employment, limited training content and repeat participation. The OECD observed tha,t while Community Employment was supposed to be a training and stepping stone to regular employment, in fact it became a form of subsidised employment for those with 'reduced work capacity' and a form of funding of social services (page 103).
My own studies of some of the schemes found that they were recipients of large numbers of lone parents who had not been referred for skills training from which they might have benefitted, and people with disabilities who wanted part-time employment in a more sheltered environment than the open competitive labour market could provide.
The OECD recommends that, if creches are needed or maintenance of the local environment, these services should be purchased by local government at prices that reflect cost rather than the coincidental availability of Community Employment Schemes (page 136).
The suggestion that the unemployed should provide free labour is certainly likely to depress the lower levels of wages on the labour market. That pressure is already present.The minimum wage of less than €9 euros an hour is not obligatory in several regards. It is not obligatory for young people taking up their first job or for people with disabilities who have less perceived productivity compared with others. It is not obligatory in those instances where potential employees are asked to start out on probationary periods or internships.
Perversely, the Minister's proposal may actually displace existing volunteers who are not registered as unemployed.
The proposal to engage 10,000 unemployed should be scrutinised as to its specific objectives and whether these can be achieved in the current labour market context, consistent with such objectives as increasing the education and training levels of the population and providing decent work for all.
Dr Pauline Conroy is an independent social policy analyst