Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has said he is “very concerned” the Oireachtas has engaged young people with disabilities as unpaid internees, a scheme he says is feeding into “inequality”.
The Oireachtas confirmed there are 10 people with intellectual disabilities carrying out unpaid work in Leinster House, for nine months, who receive daily lunch vouchers.
Officials strongly defended the scheme, insisting the value of the placement was the experience workers will get in a high profile institution as well as a special qualification.
Nonetheless, Mr Flanagan, who oversees equality, told the Irish Examiner he would raise his objections with the Houses of the Oireachtas.
“I am very concerned about it. Nobody should be expected to work for nothing either in the public sector or the private sector.
I am concerned that the Houses of the Oireachtas should operate schemes involving unpaid work.
“In defence, it has been said that it is good training and a good opportunity. But I am very concerned at the long-standing departure from a long-standing principle where money or monies worth would be given to individuals for their labour. And I intend to bring up the issue with the Houses of the Oireachtas.”
Under the Oireachtas Work and Learn (OWl) scheme, the interns work around six hours a day, five days a week. It is understood they are engaged in work in the bills office, facilitating visits to the Houses of the Oireachtas and assisting with computer work.
Inclusion Ireland, the association for people with intellectual disabilities, has said it is disappointed participants are not paid.
But the Oireachtas insisted it had received no complaints and other parents have inquired about the scheme. It said the work programme was established in September after an approach from KARE and WALK, support groups for people with disabilities.
“The goal of the programme is for the participants to eventually achieve paid employment in the open labour market. Participants spend a substantial amount of their time in Leinster House undertaking QQI training,” a statement said.
Both KARE and Walk said the placements for young people involved were “life-changing”. Nonetheless, government policy says there are no exemptions from obligations to pay the minimum hourly rate of pay for placements and internships, except with relatives.
The justice minister said he was against unpaid placements in any workplace:
I am against them in the private sector as they can give rise to certain exploitation, but they also favour the wealthy, they also favour those who can afford to go to work who can afford to do without a wage. And I think that is very unfair and it feeds into inequality.