The social ‘protection’ racket.

By Tom Boland.

Protection’ can sometimes be a euphemism for threats. A classic mafia racket is to ask businesses for money in exchange for ‘protection’, which is actually a threat of violence for non-payment. However, the extortion is dressed up as a community service.
Recently, social welfare in Ireland has turned into a ‘protection’ racket. While officially called the ‘Department of Social Protection’, its protection comes with threats attached. Unlike the mafia, these are not even thinly-veiled threats. Unemployed people with no other means are monitored, assessed and ordered around under the threat of having their welfare payments reduced by 1144 or suspended for up to nine weeks. Almost every single communication carries a threat, for instance:
“If you fail to attend, your jobseeker’s payment may be reduced or stopped completely. Your payment may also be reduced or stopped completely if you refuse to co-operate with Employment Services in its efforts to arrange employment, training or education opportunities for you”.
Like the mafia, this new ‘protection’ racket is in the business of making people offers they can’t refuse.
Of course, those on social welfare receive money from the Department of Social Protection. If they didn’t, they would be completely destitute. Therefore, the threats to reduce or rescind welfare entitlement are threats to expose people to hunger, cold and homelessness. It is not a humane policy, even if it is dressed up as “helping people to return to work”.
Jobseekers were always obliged to look for work, but since 2012 Pathways to Work has given power to social welfare offices to oblige clients to attend meetings, seek work, take internships, join schemes, acquire work experience and accept job offers, no matter how unsuitable. Of course, many officers apply the policies sensibly and humanely, but this October the Taoiseach and Tánaiste announced that the long-term unemployed would now be the target of intensified intervention. 100,000 people will be assessed by case-officers, directed to re-training and generally cajoled and coerced into taking whatever work is available. Furthermore, the business of ‘returning people to work’ will be out-sourced to private companies, which will be rewarded as people take up and retain posts.
Does Pathways to Work really work? Even the government hedges its bets, by stating that positive trends in employment growth “…are arguably due, at least in part, to the programme of work mandated by Government under Pathways to Work and the Action Plan for Jobs”. To analyse ‘the precise impact’ a systematic study will be initiated.
It is disappointing that no analysis of the impact of a pilot or trial run of these policies was made, as was done in the UK. Instead, these policies are nationwide and pervasive, for good or for ill.
So, is an increase in employment due to Pathways? Here we must be wary of ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ arguments: that is, the presumption that something which precedes something causes it. According to the Quarterly National Household Survey, the most reliable figures on employment and unemployment, in 2012 employment grew by 20,000, and in 2013 by 35,000. In 2014, the figure will probably be between the two. This is not an accelerating growth in jobs; in fact, since the population is expanding and emigration decreasing, growth in employment is scarcely keeping pace with demography.
However, the main point is that in 2012, jobs were created, despite the fact that there were only a handful of social welfare offices operating the Pathways programme of monitoring and sanctions. These Intreo offices in Sligo, Arklow, Tallaght, and Dublin’s King’s Inns Street were opened in October, and surely cannot be the cause of 20,000 new jobs. So, jobs in 2012 would have happened anyway. 2013 saw the ‘roll-out’ of dozens of Intreo offices across the state, and coincided with an increase in jobs growth. Yet, this jobs growth has flat-lined even though the ‘roll-out’ continued through 2014. So there is not even a clear correlation between the nationwide implementation of Pathways and growth in jobs, much less causality.
Yet it is still quite possible that Pathways does make people work. It mightn’t actually create jobs, unless one counts shifting people onto CE and Tús schemes or JobBridge and Gateway internships; but this is more like free labour for employers or public bodies. However, what it may do is place such pressure on people that they are willing to travel abroad or to cities in order to find work. It could also ensure that people must either take a job or become destitute, so that night-work, poorly remunerated strenuous manual labour, unpredictable ‘zero-hour contracts’ or sales-on-commission jobs become compulsory.
Simultaneously, Joan Burton has aspirations for the creation of a ‘living-wage’ sufficient for a decent standard of living in Ireland, yet the Pathways system in reality means that jobseekers must accept any job at the minimum wage, which is scarcely enough.
Without having access to the case files of hundreds of thousands of job-seekers, we cannot be sure if Pathways has really made a difference for individuals actually securing a job, nor can we know how many people have accepted work – or internships – only because of the threat of sanction. But overall, it is clear that Pathways pressurises the unemployed and guarantees a steady stream of applicants to any job, no matter how difficult or unappealing. The overall effect may actually be the reduction of the Live Register by forcing thousands of people to take on and repeatedly quit dead-end jobs that are monotonous, unfulfilling and poorly remunerated.
Research carried out recently at Waterford Institute of Technology with long-term unemployed people showed several problems with Pathways. Firstly, they are quite aware that they are being coerced to seek work, regardless of whether it is suitable in the long term; for instance, one man was told to attend an interview or lose his benefits, despite having no experience or interest in the job – and little to no chance of succeeding in the interview. Another described the panic and desperation of “frantically seeking work”, under increased pressure from the dole office. Others pointed out that they were being shifted from category to category just to move them off the Live Registrar figures. A sense of being under suspicion by the officers who supposedly served them as ‘clients’ was clear. For instance one man wished to work as a volunteer, but was treated as though he was attempting to defraud the office. Many spoke of unemployment as depressing; some older workers said they were “on the scrapheap”, others said their life was on hold, and many that they felt “worthless”. The question that we can’t quite answer is whether they would feel the same if there was less pressure from the social welfare office.
A final consequence, found in dozens of interviews is that the pressure from the welfare office tended to make people revise downwards their ambition as to what kind of work they would accept; as one woman said, “you’d do anything, bar prostitution…cleaning toilets, whatever”. It is only in this sense that Pathways creates jobs – by making unemployment so unpleasant that people are willing to do any job whatsoever.
Many issues cloud the question of social welfare policy. Commentators and ordinary people are worried about the economy, the national debt, increased tax bills, the social housing crisis, water charges and so forth. Comparisons to other countries are complex. How to reduce unemployment is a vexing question. Political parties have different positions and agendas.
However, beyond all of these technical questions and agendas, there are ethical questions. Should the state threaten its own citizens? Should the state coerce citizens to engage with the labour market? There are no clear rights to social welfare benefits enshrined in the constitution or in law. Ireland is slowly following the example of the US, Australia and UK, where unemployed people are increasingly coerced or abandoned.
The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights maintains the right of all human beings to food, clothing and shelter and also “the right to work and to free choice of employment”. If people are entitled to basic sustenance from the state, the question is whether they have the right to refuse offers of employment which do not appeal to them. Clearly, our current government does not believe so, and will coerce them to apply for jobs and re-train regardless of their ideals.
If people are permitted to choose subsisting on €188 a week rather than taking up unattractive employment, then taxpayers must support them. This is socially beneficial because it allows people the freedom to shape their own lives. The labour market is not a ‘free market’ unless people can choose not to accept work. Freedom depends on unconditionality. Indeed, people make their most productive contribution to society where their work is chosen and meaningful. In the rare situation that employers cannot get workers, they need to offer greater pay, greater ‘compensation’, because clearly the work is so unpleasant it demands it.
Beyond ‘fixing’ the economy, the social-welfare system is an expression of the kind of society we value.
If we really value individual liberty, whatever about equality or fairness, then coercion is out. If we are really humane, then we redistribute our wealth not just in order to facilitate ‘getting people back to work’, but to provide for people in need no matter what choices they make.
If we really believed in equality, we’d raise the level of social welfare – especially for younger citizens, whose welfare entitlements have been decreased as though they were less worthy. If we really believed in inclusivity, we’d extend welfare payments and the right to work, to asylum-seekers.
Social welfare exists to protect the vulnerable from the choice between work and hunger; it is the difference between a civilised state and a protection racket. •

Tom Boland lectures in Sociology at Waterford Institute of Technology. He is co-editor and author with Ray Griffin of ‘The Sociology of Unemployment’, forthcoming in 2015 with Manchester University Press; and co-ordinator of the Economy and Society Summer School.