Victoria White: Opposition has a grenade to throw when Covid-19 payment is tapered

Victoria White: Opposition has a grenade to throw when Covid-19 payment is tapered
Finance Minister Paschal Minister Donohoe will have a lot to explain when it comes to cutting the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment. Picture: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland/PA

No other country pays students nearly as much to stay home as to work 40 hours a day in the fields, writes Victoria White


HOW exactly do you “taper” a payment? Is that the same as cutting it? Is that what Paschal Donohoe is going to do to the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment after its run expires in mid-June? If so, how will he explain it to the people whose weekly payments are cut while they are still unemployed?

For them, nothing will have changed. In fact, things may have got worse, as big expenses like household repairs and replacement appliances will have accrued.

How will the Government rationalise the fact that on March 24, they thought €350 a week was a reasonable payment if the payment is heading back down towards the level of the usual jobseeker’s payment of €203?

Why did Paschal think €350 was an appropriate payment for people who lost their jobs due to Covid restrictions after March 19 but €203 was appropriate for people who lost their jobs for any other reason on any prior date? Why are there two different assessments of need?

Well, yes, said some of the people. People who lost their jobs because of Covid-19 couldn’t help it.

And they would have expenses which the others wouldn’t have because they would have the expectation of a decent wage.

Hello? So there are two different types of unemployed person, are there? Pre and post-Covid unemployed people, with quite different dietary requirements and predilections for heat and light or as my granny used to put it, the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor?

Victoria White: Opposition has a grenade to throw when Covid-19 payment is tapered
St Patrick’’s St in Cork lies empty and quiet.
Pic: Larry Cummins

Poor Paschal or his successor will have a lot of explaining to do.

He must bring his spending estimates to the Dáil when the equivalent of four-fifths of last year’s spending allocation are spent because this is the maximum that the Government can spend this year without Dáil approval.

The equivalent of four-fifths of the Department of Social Welfare’s budget for last year will be gone by mid-June.

So far, the Government has made a brilliant job of sounding calm and competent and that’s carried us through very well.

At some stage, we will have to face the fact, however, that they have made a dog’s breakfast of income support due to the Covid-19 crisis. The most generous payments in comparable countries are large percentages of the pre-lockdown wage, not a flat-rate payment.

In Ireland, the €350 a week payment to anyone who has lost even temporary or part-time work since the lockdown is now being paid to nearly 600,000 people and makes up most of the €4.5bn that Covid unemployment subsidies will have cost us by mid-June.

I know people are having a hard time trying to maintain families of kids on it in the rubble of lost businesses. I also have many young friends who are earning twice on the payment what they earned in their part-time jobs, students being the most obvious examples.

There are about a quarter of a million third level students in Ireland and research published in this newspaper suggests at least 68% of them would have been employed before the lockdown.

Many of them are now back living in the family home where breakfast, dinner and tea is being served up to them. Far from keeping money circulating in the economy, many of them only have spending opportunities online and much of this money leaves the country.

When I asked one of these, during the controversy over the Keelings delivery of Bulgarian fruit-pickers, if he would do such a job, he answered: “Not when I’m being paid €350 to stay home.”

While it has proved difficult to recruit domestic workers to pick fruit in most rich countries, most countries have succeeded better than we have because no other country pays students nearly as much to stay home as to work 40 hours a week in the fields.

Victoria White: Opposition has a grenade to throw when Covid-19 payment is tapered

Pic: Larry Cummins

In the UK, a charity called Concordia has a “Feed the Nation” campaign aimed at students and unemployed service and construction industry workers which has signed up 14,000 people and filled all its vacancies for April.

This is about the unemployed students as much as it is about the fruit. How can they respect manual work if they consider themselves above it? How can they respect the soil if they never work it?

How can they respect migrant workers if they consider themselves too good for the work they do? Wouldn’t they respect food better if some of them knew where it came from?

The pickers’ conditions are not good enough but the students’ conditions are not good for them, either. In France, an innovative solution involves paying students some unemployment assistance on top of fruit-picking wages to make up a living wage and save the harvest.

However France, like every other developed country I researched, pays its workers a percentage of the income lost in the lockdown, not a flat-rate payment which may be double an individual’s part-time wage: in France, it’s 84%, in the UK, it’s 80%, and in Denmark, it’s 75%.

And the dog’s breakfast looks messier still when you consider that mid-June, when the Covid unemployment 19 pandemic unemployment payment is “tapered”, is when many students would have been in full-time work, including about 3,500 who have seen their J1 visas to work in the US go up in smoke.

Some countries have planned financially for their students’ summer.

Canada has already put in place an emergency summer payment while Norway has offered an extra student loan of €2,304 and only agreed under pressure to convert about 40% of it to a grant.

How the Government is going to explain to our students the tapering” of their Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, if there are few domestic jobs, is an open question, particularly as many students are counting on their summer savings to get them through the next academic year.

THERE is currently a stunning silence on all this from both media and politicians.

Victoria White: Opposition has a grenade to throw when Covid-19 payment is tapered
Richard Boyd Barrett TD during a People Before Brofit press briefing  at Leinster House on Kildare Street Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

However, the Government has handed the Opposition a grenade to throw at the next one if they attempt to “taper” the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment.

Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit has it in hand already, calling for workers to get “the sort of bailout the banks got after 2008”.

The Labour Party this week took a more nuanced tack, asking how Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s “bold social democratic statement” can be afforded if taxes on higher earners are not raised, yet no spending cuts are admitted to?

Well that’s a thought, isn’t it?

Because the truth may have hit home that €203 is not enough for an adult to live on in this country.

That’s why Covid-19-related unemployment assistance was raised to €350, along with our expectations.

But you can’t have a new social democratic order if you can’t pay for it.

And just how does our severely indebted country with an unemployment rate of 22%, plan to do that?

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