Posts Tagged 'activation policy in Ireland'

Workfare Won’t Work for the Unemployed

Aiden Lloyd is the Coordinator of the Irish Network of the European Anti-Poverty Network and a member of the board of the Society of Cooperative Development Studies Ireland (CDSI). He was previously the national community development & equality coordinator with Pobal, an organisation that manages social inclusion and equality programmes on behalf of Government and the European Union. He has been involved in a range of community development, local development and regeneration initiatives in Ireland and Europe.

It was reported over the weekend that the Minister for Social Protection, Eamon O’Cuiv intends to direct his Department to expand and develop existing work schemes as Activation measures that will link income supports and unemployment schemes. The existing schemes referred to are the Community Support Programme (CSP) and the Rural Social Scheme (RSS). Both of these schemes are presently implemented through Pobal by the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs. Both schemes will be transferred to the Department of Social Protection as part of the reorganisation of departments announced earlier this year.

The Community Support Programme (CSP) has been around for quite some time, albeit under various headings and government departments. It started out as the Social Economy Programme and was intended to fund third sector activity. Unfortunately, it was implemented rather badly and was subsequently transferred from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, where it was moulded into a community services initiative.

In his announcement, Minister O’Cuiv also confirmed that the employment services and community employment programmes of FAS will also transfer from the Department of Education and Skills to the Department of Social Protection. This indicates that FAS will be broken up and dispersed across a number of departments and agencies. This has significant implications for the community development sector who presently implement the relevant schemes (Community Employment and Jobs Initiative) and for local development companies who are formally contracted to deliver the Local Employment Service (LES).

Whatever about impending concerns for community and local development organisations, the greatest impact will be felt by unemployed people. Minister O’Cuiv’s initiative suggests that some welfare recipients will be subject to the condition that they may have to work for their welfare payment. Minister O’Cuiv’s announcement points to a particular interpretation of the concept of Activation, a somewhat ambiguous term that describes the linking of unemployment supports, training measures and active labour market policies. The idea of Activation is that individuals are socially supported (through welfare payments), retrained or up-skilled and then reintegrated into the workforce. Interpretations of Activation measures vary widely within Europe. Depending on one’s value perspective Activation can be viewed as ‘workfare’ – a belief that people should work for their welfare payment – or ‘flexicurity’ – a framework of measures that maintains income while retraining/redirecting the individual. In Sweden for example, levels of unemployment benefit are linked to previous salary levels with the proviso that this will only be maintained if the individual is active in seeking appropriate training and/or employment. The Swedes invest heavily in quality training and guidance to support these measures. The Swedes also actively manage their economy to bring about a social, as well as an economic benefit, so policies and objectives that support job creation are prioritised.

Minister O’Cuiv aims to use these schemes to provide unemployed people with short-term work activity, to up-skill them and ‘get them back into the mainstream workforce as speedily as possible’. He further contends that ‘maintaining people’s employability through regular work activity will be important for getting people back into the competitive economy’. This stance is revealing and is indicative of government thinking in terms of job creation for unemployed people. It would appear that the decision has already been made that any recovery will be dependent on a general improvement in the global economy and that the immediate priority is to manage matters until this recovery comes about.

Minister O’Cuiv’s interpretation of Activation thus appears to sit on the ‘workfare’ end of the continuum. Since the schemes outlined will only provide people with short-term ‘work’, have no meaningful training element and are focused on areas of activity (after-schools, environmental, child/elder care services, sports etc,) around which there is no economic support framework it is reasonable to assume that these schemes will be used as a mechanism to ‘park’ the unemployed until the global economy picks up.

That is not to say that schemes that promote useful activity in the community are without merit. There is some benefit to these schemes in preventing people sliding into long-term unemployment, as happened in the 1980s, but the kind of scheme suggested by Minister O’Cuiv is unimaginative and is likely to do a disservice to unemployed people without having a positive impact on the economy or job creation. It is also likely to maintain people in poverty or close to poverty, to undermine their confidence and to suppress their potential. Measures that promote, encourage and facilitate voluntary and community activity – particularly where skills are matched to need – would certainly receive a broad welcome from the community and voluntary sector, but to suggest that mandatory work in exchange for a liveable income will have a positive impact on anyone’s sense of ‘dignity’ is erroneous and deeply offensive to the 400,000 people who are languishing on the live register.

Work that helps to achieve social objectives should be valued and encouraged, there is much that needs to be done within communities to improve services and develop local infrastructure, but this should be undertaken as part of an economic strategy to develop these into viable economic sectors capable of creating new employment markets. This is precisely where an economic stimulus should be focused – on strengthening and developing the indigenous economy to lessen the dependence on multinationals to provide employment.

The Minister’s proposal also brings into question the very concept of work and the important psychological and material part it plays in people’s lives. From the beginning of time people have interacted with their environment through work; it is a natural inclination and does not fundamentally require coercion or incentivisation. It does, however, need to be meaningful, fulfilling and rewarding. In the context of modern industrial society, that reward or wage is the means whereby people support themselves and their families and enable their broader development and participation in the community.

Ideas to address unemployment are therefore useless unless they are linked to creative economic strategies. To put it bluntly, people should only be enticed to participate in measures that lead to jobs. If those jobs are not there, which they are currently not, then they need to be created. Unemployment is not the fault of the unemployed. It is a traumatic situation to bear, difficult for individuals and families to manage and should not be made any more difficult through the implementation of incomplete and regressive policies.

Update: Nat O’Connor has written a very interesting post, also criticising the proposals on the Progressive Economy site.  Mike Allen from the Poor Can’t Pay has also started a discussion on their facebook page.

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