The Sociology of Unemployment: A choice between hard labour or destitution?

 The ‘back to work’ mantra is used to force people, despite their skills and training, into precarious work, offering the choice between hard labour and destitution, say Tom Boland and Ray Griffin 

If the welfare office can guarantee a steady supply of workers for any job, there is no upward pressure on wages and employers do not have to offer good conditions, training, or opportunities for promotion.

Since 2012, social welfare in Ireland has been radically reformed in ways that are not widely known or understood.

The Government’s Pathways to Work policy has been consistently linked to the Action Plan for Jobs. Yet the relationship between welfare and the economy, and the consequences of welfare reform for individual lives, has been subject to very little scrutiny.

The most unassailable political mantra is ‘getting people back to work’.

However, what sort of work, and how we should ‘get’ people to do it is rarely asked. We like to assume this phrase means helping people find work, offering them training or education if necessary, and that the outcome will be decent jobs for decent pay in decent conditions.

Pathways to Work was introduced in 2012, and trumpeted as a radical shake-up by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton. It introduced welfare reforms required by the memorandum of understanding with the Troika, which have been rolled out nationwide and are now being increasingly applied to lone parents.

The new welfare reforms are ‘active labour-market policies’ (ALMPs). The point of these is to support people in finding new work, rather than just giving them something to live on while they have no job, which is ‘passive’ labour-market policy.

The trouble with this distinction is that under the heading of ‘active’ are supports such as jobsearch guidance, re-education, training, and so forth, and a range of measures known as ‘benefit conditionality’.

Benefit conditionality means that the €188 jobseeker’s payment is not really an entitlement, but a reward for compliance with the social welfare office. Individuals are threatened with a sanction — a cut of €44 or a cessation for up to nine weeks — if they fail to comply with the dictates of the welfare officer. Claimants can be directed to take training courses, to apply for and accept job-offers of any sort, take JobBridge or Gateway internships, or face destitution. Even the smallest communication from the office to the claimant can be accompanied by the threat of a cut or suspension of payment for refusal to ‘sufficiently’ engage.

Sanctions have increased strikingly year on year, despite the decline in the actual numbers of people unemployed. It is notable that sanctions decrease around Christmas, which demonstrates that sanctions occur at the discretion of social-welfare officials, who do not impose them so readily at that time of year.

What are the consequences? This harsher system of welfare does not root out ‘scroungers’ — a largely mythical group. In 2014, the ESRI demonstrated that the vast majority of the unemployed would prefer work to welfare, even if they were financially no better off. During the Celtic Tiger, only a few thousand people were long-term unemployed. The highest estimates of fraudulent claims in social welfare are only a fraction of unclaimed entitlements every year.

Instead, what the new welfare policies do is pressurise thousands of genuine jobseekers to compete more fiercely with each other for the small numbers of jobs actually created. It is already well known that the unemployed are significantly more likely to suffer from poverty, debt, poor diet, health problems, mental illness, and suicide.

We conducted dozens of interviews with the unemployed, and found that this experience was intensified by pressure from the new social welfare policies. These were some of the responses we received:

  • Before I got my first payment the last time, I received a letter off them wanting to know why I was not looking for work, and I had to show them proof.
  • I had to go for an interview and be examined... because I challenged the refusal, and I won that, but that is kind of stressful. When you are worrying and have nothing and going proving yourself.
  • I have skills, you know, but they’d rather I didn’t use my skills, they’d rather I went and picked rubbish off the streets for €20 a week.

Rather feeling trusted or supported, people felt worse:

  • Before, I felt like I was just looking for a job, but now I feel like I’m working for the social welfare officer.
  • It made me feel more depressed. I kinda lost hope in the whole situation. Jobseeking became a frustrating experience of constant failure. There’s always a job to suit you, but when you apply for it you never get it.
  • I didn’t even get a reply. They look at your CV now and it goes straight in the bin.
  • Mass searching... looking for a job, but it comes back with nothing all the time.

These individuals, and hundreds of thousands of others, will be subjected to the pressures of Pathways, in some cases for years. Is it worth it?

Detailed statistics in Switzerland demonstrate that those who suffer sanctions tend to have reduced future earnings and worse health than their peers. In the UK, the model Ireland followed most closely, welfare reform is under inquiry by a House of Commons committee and subject to the multi- university Welfare Conditionality investigation, which is concerned with the experience of jobseekers.

In the longer term, the health implications of pressurising jobseekers will cost the state more than can be saved in reduced welfare payments in the short term.

If Pathways to Work is to succeed — and that is still unproven — it may well do so by making people accept any job whatsoever, thereby fuelling the growth in low-paid, temporary, part-time, insecure, zero-hours jobs, known generally as ‘precarious work’.

If the welfare office can guarantee a steady supply of workers for any job, there is no upward pressure on wages, and employers do not have to offer good conditions, training, or opportunities for promotion.

Altogether, this leads to a growth in a low-pay economy with a revolving door between work and welfare, which feeds into higher levels of inequality.

What should be done? Most welfare payments are automatic entitlements. At present, pensions, child benefit, disability/illness and carer’s benefits amount to around 66% of all expenditure at the Department of Social Protection.

All of these are automatic payments; if you are over 65, have a child, or are otherwise in need of support, this support is given to you by the State without conditions or pressure of any sort.

Our recommendation is that all payments to the unemployed should be made automatic entitlements.

Citizens should be trusted to seek work as they see fit. They should be given the freedom to make their own choices, and avail of training, education or internships only as options.

There is no place for sanctions in a civilised state, as effectively they offer citizens a choice between hard labour and destitution; otherwise it is the Department of ‘social protection’ in name only.

The Sociology of Unemployment 2015 by Tom Boland and Ray Griffin will be published in September.

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