The modern State is a hybrid, an extraordinarily complex machine. Beyond the well-established remit of setting laws, collecting taxes and managing international relations, the Irish State has been involved in incarcerating women and children, commemorating the past and exploring outer space.
Often, the State is idealised as a sort of referee who sets and implements rules for society, although this occurs through the highly emotional process of politics. Separate from the State there is the ‘economy’ and its ‘markets’, collections of individual actors who seek out their own profit and desire. This separation is imaginary.
Arguably the welfare system is the greatest creation of the State, alleviating the vicissitudes of life whether age, health or employment status, by social solidarity. However, recent years have seen the transformation of the welfare office into a State-wide Human Resources department.
Nationwide, the ‘dole office’ is now a contact point for employers who want workers. Within these offices, jobseekers are instructed to apply for certain posts, accept certain offers and take training courses. From simply providing citizens with their entitlements, the State has now become the hand-maiden of the labour market, a match-maker who can provide any employer with labour power, anywhere, for any job. So, Ireland is rapidly developing a low-wage economy.
Obviously, a human resources department is a reasonable thing within a large firm which matches skills with tasks, managing the talents of a diverse work force who voluntarily have contracts with management. It is unreasonable when the State replaces the social safety net with a human resources department, so there is no way out of the company, bar emigration.
Perhaps this seems like a radical critique, but really, this is government policy, announced in Pathways to Work from 2012 to the end of the FG/Labour coalition. Furthermore, it is reflected in the jargon of economists and the ESRI who stress the ‘supply side’ of labour, and the importance of ‘upskilling’, making people ‘work-ready’ or ‘maximising labour market participation’, which basically translates into making jobseekers take any job they are offered and giving them compulsory courses, often of dubious benefit.
Refusal results in sanctions, the reduction or suspension of welfare entitlements, which means hunger, cold, debt and potentially homelessness. Despite the falling unemployment rate, the numbers of people sanctioned continues to grow. What are the consequences?
Firstly, the State facilitates exploitative employers. Short term, part-time, insecure and high pressure ‘precarious’ work become compulsory. ‘Zero-hour contracts’ or ‘if-and-when contracts’ are an offer that jobseekers can’t refuse, even if it is only a few hours a week, without guaranteed times.
At Waterford Institute of Technology, an ongoing research project examines the experiences of jobseekers. This year, in addition to pressure from the welfare office, many reported being forced to accept poor-quality employment. Of course, not all employers are exploitative, but clearly employment law is not yet stringent enough to prevent these kinds of abuses.
Several respondents described how they were forced to accept unskilled work with no security after spending years gaining qualifications. While work was available, many reported hopelessness or despair about ever getting a full-time job with a living wage. The new ‘normal’ was shuttling between unemployment and poor-quality work: “It’s kind of like a revolving door, because one person is gone and another person is put in their place”.
Secondly, hybrid mixtures of ‘work-experience’ and social service emerge. Those on social welfare can be compelled to join up to schemes which have little justification in terms of building skills beyond keeping them ‘work-ready’. Within these schemes, paid their basic entitlement and a negligible top-up, jobseekers perform work for the public good, like gardening, landscaping and cleaning public areas. This used to be the preserve of FÁS and now is contracted out to a host of organisations.
This is publicly beneficial and necessary work, but the State doesn’t pay the minimum wage for it, much less offer full-time contracts. The taxpayer gets an unfairly good bargain, because the ‘human resources department’ has extraordinary control over jobseekers. These are not the ‘scroungers’ envisaged by tabloid newspapers, but workers who support the State. Indeed, to reverse the usual stereotype, it is now the State that ‘sponges’ off the hard work of jobseekers!
Thirdly, there are long-term consequences. In Ireland welfare entitlements have been repositioned as ‘benefits’ only given to those who fulfil their ‘contractual’ obligations, to seek work, accept any offer and comply with the requirements of the State-run human resources department. This involves scrutiny, pressure and threats, and occasionally harmful sanctions. All of this assails the well-being of jobseekers, with mental-health implications.
The State is inevitably involved in the labour market, but should protect the common good rather than being a human resources department for all employers. Jobseekers should not be used as a reserve army of cheap labour for public projects. Up-skilling and education should be voluntary and high quality, rather than compulsory dead-end courses. Those who have qualifications should be given supported opportunities, rather than faced with an offer they can’t refuse.
Tom Boland and Ray Griffin lecture at Waterford Institute of Technology and are the authors of ‘The Sociology of Unemployment’