By Fiachra Ó CionnaithIrish Examiner Political Correspondent
With JobBridge facing review, Fiachra Ó Cionnaith asks if this is a cynical ploy ahead of the election or simply an acceptance of a changed workplace
As if there are not enough battlegrounds for the upcoming general election, the Government this week voluntarily opened up yet another. And while it may not be top of party strategists’ agenda right now, how it is spun will be crucial in framing the Coalition’s time in power as either a period of economic recovery or four years of cynically using vulnerable people to stabilise a sinking ship.
On Tuesday, Tánaiste and Labour leader Joan Burton’s Department of Social Protection confirmed a Government-backed independent review into the divisive JobBridge scheme will take place to examine if it is fit for purpose.
A department spokesperson said the investigation — due to conclude by early 2016 — will focus specifically on “hiring practices, displacement, job creation, and any perceived differential treatment” of interns.
While stressing the department’s desire to address any perceived problems with the current scheme, she made it clear why, in the Government’s view, the review is now taking place.
“JobBridge was introduced at a time of great economic uncertainty as an extraordinary and temporary response to the sharp increase in unemployment, emigration, and negative growth resulting from the unprecedented collapse in the economy,” Ms Burton said.
“The economic environment today is very different. Real jobs are being created and unemployment has consistently fallen. The department is eager to review and revise the scheme to take account of the changed economic circumstances and operational experience.”
While problems with how some interns are treated exist and questions remain over whether companies use JobBridge to create stepping stones to employment or simply seek cheap throwaway labour, the Government message is clear.
Improvements need to be made, but according to the Coalition, the reason JobBridge is being reviewed just in time for the general election and may be scrapped entirely is because of the Coalition’s success in stabilising a broken economy.
The narrative is something people can expect to hear over the coming months as the threat of another ballot box revolt draws closer.
However, with groups like scambridge.ie set up to highlight perceived issues with the scheme it is likely to be met with counter claims that JobBridge has damaged the rights of graduates and workers.
Both arguments have an array of facts to back them up and link to a wider disagreement over what exactly the last four years has meant for the public, meaning how they are spun could prove crucial as the general election nears.
Speaking at the weekend, Kevin Humphreys, the junior social protection minister, was keen to stress the positives, saying “you have to review schemes there when 450,000 people were unemployed, when now it’s down to 360,000”.
Arguing for a then-unannounced review to ensure programmes “are fit for purpose”, the Labour TD said Government must not repeat the mistakes of Fás which, he said, spent €1bn a year at a time of full employment.
The view fits the Government narrative, which also notes how youth unemployment — a key reason for Job Bridge’s existence — is now at 20.2% compared to 33% in 2011, and that while 43,000 people have used the system, there are currently just 5,100 internships.
However, for opposition parties the scheme’s problems are why JobBridge is really facing the axe.
Socialist TD and scambridge.ie founder Paul Murphy said the review is a “pre-election attempt to move away from the more odious policies of Government” which include the “exploitative” system.
He said despite Coalition spin, “the problem for Government is a lot of people have done these placements and the sentiment out there is really anti-JobBridge”, meaning Fine Gael and Labour now have to be “seen to be doing something”.
He said JobBridge scheme has been used to “massage” unemployment figures and “normalise a level of exploitation” which has seen fully qualified teachers, solicitors, and medics asked to work for free.
While accepting the need for “structured” internships, Mr Murphy said any system with a high-profile reputation for allowing payless training in sandwich-making for a food chainat Subway and forecourt stewarding at a petrol station is a problem. “I’ve even seen one for potato picking,” he said.
Sinn Féin’s social protection spokesman, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, was equally insistent Job Bridge,said he wants the scheme to be replaced with properly paid apprenticeships as the current scheme “displaces jobs and is open to abuse”.
While a 2013 review found 97% of internships were satisfactory and most interns gain employment, the National Youth Council of Ireland disputed this in February, with its own report saying just 27% gain full-time employment and 44% feel JobBridge gives companies “free labour”.
In an election race where everything remains up for grabs, a less than clear-cut emotive debate connecting directly to tens of thousands of voters is the last thing the Coalition needs.
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