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I, Dónal Blake?

Ireland quietly subscribes to voguish Thatcherite programmes to get people back to work

Our new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD makes sure he gets out once a week, often to see a movie. Last year he went to see the English movie ‘I Daniel Blake’ directed by Mike Leigh. Discussing the movie at a Pobal conference he showed little sympathy for the plight of Daniel who, having suffered a heart attack at work, was forced to reply on job seekers payments while attempting to appeal a decision not to allow him  a disability payment.  Nor did he appear significantly moved by single mother Katie and her children (Daisy and Dylan). Katie, having moved to Newcastle from a London homeless persons’ hostel, and increasingly desperate to survive, resorted to  food banks, shoplifting, and work in a brothel.

Indeed he has since gone out of his way to affirm his belief in the heavy-handed ‘work-first’ policy message at the heart of UK welfare reform. Through a rhetoric of ‘welfare cheats’ and an election campaign that spoke to the “coping classes”, the “people who get up in the morning” he has consciously sought to replicate an anti-welfare rhetoric in Irish political discourse.  The question we must now ask is whether, under his new emboldened leadership, the bleak lives of Daniel and Katie, dominated by a hostile welfare state, could happen here.  Are we seeing conditions emerge for ‘I, Dónal Blake?.

The Irish welfare state has recently played catch-up to new forms of globalisation,  privatisation, marketisation and voguish new public management (NPM) and has, championed by both international and domestic actors,  moved towards work-first activation  which is  a more active use of income support to promote participation in paid employment.  It is a mixture of enabling, compensation and regulatory regimes, but the general international trend has been  for policy, and managerial, reforms to undermine potentially enabling elements and intensify its regulatory and punitive elements. 

Pathways to Work (PTW),  Ireland’s activation policy,  has fundamentally restructured Ireland’s activation institutions and programmes,  rolling back old institutions like FÁS and rolling out new institutions like Intreo, the pay-by-results private-sector Job Path, and the Social Inclusion Community Activation Programme which has reoriented local community-development work towards supporting job readiness.  New penalties have been introduced and, while the incidence of sanctions is still comparatively low,  the unemployed have heard the message clearly. There is a new regime in town which must be engaged.

Activation is often associated with recommodification of labour and mobilisation of a new form of ‘floating’, or more available and flexible employee,  where claimants are gauged by their ‘standby-ability’ and live in a condition of flex-insecurity. We can best understand what activation is for by asking activation ‘into what’. The crisis also saw increased incidences of low pay and more precarious working conditions.  Low pay is an increasing feature of the Irish labour market, with up to 30% of Irish workers low-paid according to the OECD definition of two thirds the industrial wage. Some groups of people are more likely to be low-paid, with women, young people and migrants not only more likely to be in low-paid work but also to work involuntarily part-time, to be underemployed or to  be in precarious forms of employment. The Irish state spends over €1bn  in in-work benefits to support low-paid workers and their families,  compensation mechanisms that supports participation in low paid employment ultimately act as forms of corporate welfare, supporting not only low-paid workers but ultimately making such low-paid work viable.

Taken together then, recent Irish changes point to a work-first policy strategy with a greater use of privatised actors working in  a more managerial culture and using more  regulatory sanctions to pressurise working-aged claimants into low-paid and precarious employment.  That this work is often only viable through compensation in the form of in-work and employer subsidies raises questions about the quality of employment people can aspire to and whether in fact paid employment offers a sustainable route out of poverty.  There is an alternative and it includes  longer-term ‘preventative’ measures including properly accredited and quality education and training and regulating for decent jobs and living wages. One desirable recent change is the inclusion of Employment in the remit of the old Department of Social Protection.  We need to judge success not by movement from welfare into work, but movement into lasting, sustainable and decent employment.  If the new Taoiseach wishes to avoid a dystopian future or ‘I Dónal Blake’ situation  he might look to addressing low pay as a significant Irish labour market phenomenon and introduce policy initiatives that counter a ‘low hours’ employment culture.  People want jobs and to ‘get up in the morning’ but need a combination of institutional and income support responses to unemployment that reverse the emerging reality where approximately 30 percent of Irish workers experience not only low pay but also low hours of work, part-time work, temporary contracts and precarious working conditions. 


By Micheál Collins and Mary Murphy