Vittorio Bufacchi: People in direct provision could be the key to housing crisis

We need people living abroad to build our houses, but they cannot move here as there aren’t enough houses for them to live in, writes Vittorio Bufacchi.

Vittorio Bufacchi: People in direct provision could be the key to housing crisis

We need people living abroad to build our houses, but they cannot move here as there aren’t enough houses for them to live in, writes Vittorio Bufacchi

Not Brexit, nor hospital trolleys, not even climate change: This was the housing-crisis election.

The first item on many party leaflets dropped in the nation’s post-boxes, the first question on televised leaders’ debates, the first issue to be addressed on the doorsteps by canvassing candidates, the housing crisis was the outstanding political issue of the 2020 general election.

Predictably, all the parties were promising to build more houses. Lots of them.

Fine Gael’s target of 60,000 new homes, built at a rate of 12,000 per year for the next five years, was outflanked by Fianna Fáil’s promise to build 50,000 affordable homes and 50,000 new social housing units, which was out-manoeuvred by Labour’s target of building a minimum of 80,000 units of housing to be delivered in a five-year period, which in turn was gazumped by Sinn Féin’s target of 100,000 units.

In what is beginning to look like a desperate game of Monopoly, every political party wants to build many houses, and a few hotels to boot.

However, building houses is easier said than done. The chronic shortage of skilled workers is a well-documented, widely known, but universally ignored major stumbling block.

According to the Construction Industry Federation, nine out of 10 building companies in Ireland are currently facing difficulties recruiting qualified, experienced, and even entry-level workers across most disciplines. There are of course many Irish and European workers living outside of Ireland who could come to our rescue, but they will not relocate to Ireland, even if guaranteed a job, due to the high cost of living and shortage of housing.

The irony facing Ireland today is unmistakable: We need people living abroad to build our houses, but they cannot move to Ireland because there aren’t enough houses for them to live in.

There is, however, a solution to this conundrum. The housing crisis could be alleviated by matching the present demand for labourers with an existing supply of able and willing workers already living in Ireland: Migrants and refugees currently living in direct provision. They should be offered the opportunity to work in the building trade, and those who accept should be given the necessary training and means of transportation. Of course there should be no obligation for them to accept, nor consequences if they decline, but at least the offer should be made. This could be an obvious solution to a pressing problem, and yet no political party has entertained it.

In May 2017, the blanket ban which prevented asylum seekers from working was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and subsequently the Government put into effect the EU Reception Conditions directive which gives asylum seekers the right to work while their claim is being processed. But more could be done to incentivise those living in direct provision to learn a skill which would enable them to work in the building trade. All it takes is the political will.

According to Nasc Ireland, the migrant and refugee rights centre, there are 38 direct provision centres across the country housing 6,300 asylum seekers. There are an additional 37 emergency accommodation centres housing around 1,500 people. The vast majority of them want to work, because they want to make a valuable contribution to their new society and community.

Work is essential to human existence. Karl Marx was adamant that work is necessary for self-realisation, for the objectification of the subject, and for the attainment of real freedom.

Or, as fellow philosopher Hannah Arendt rightly says, work is intrinsic to the human condition.

For those living in direct provision, work is a necessary condition for realising full integration within Irish society, and for attaining autonomy. The importance of work for a person’s sense of identity and dignity is one of the reasons why Article 23.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

The election has come and gone, but the housing crisis persists. While the three major political parties start the long process of finding an adequate dance partner, there are families still living in precarious conditions in inadequate dwellings.

This country needs a government,it also needs action and not just promises.

People living in direct provision should be given the opportunity to train and work in the building trade, if they wish to do so.

We should be grateful that there are thousands of migrants and refugees already living with us, because right now we desperately need them.

Vittorio Bufacchi is senior lecturer in philosophy at University College Cork, and author of Social Injustice (Palgrave).

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