Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Demonising the downtrodden

It is not nice to be unemployed or trying to set up a new business from scratch in a country in which a senior Government Minister can get away with claiming that some people are “allergic to work”.
Neither is it any fun to go through the daily grind of trawling through jobs websites to see if any companies have vacancies which match your skills, full of urgency and anxiety while friends and family tell you how important it is to be patient – that the right job will eventually come your way.

No doubt, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan has not experienced the despair of spending two or three days online without finding any opening to suit his skills. He does not know the frustration of seeing another weekend arrive and not a sign of a new job on the horizon.

The “guilt” of going to the soccer match on a Friday night, knowing that others have done a full week’s work and all your efforts have been in vain.

And, of course, even if he was turfed out of office tomorrow Minister Noonan would still land himself a handsome pension which would see him live in comfort until the end of his days.

I know that he was not generalising about all unemployed people, but his comments were shocking all the same.

Has he ever had the indignity of queuing for two hours to see someone behind a hatch in the Department of Social Protection? Perhaps just to report that, hey presto, he’d managed to get one day’s work this week.

Or wondered what it’s like to feel stigmatised while collecting the weekly payment from the local post master, no matter how genuinely friendly she is as she hands over the small allowance on a Wednesday morning.

I know a neighbour who collects his Jobseekers Benefit at 9am in the hope that he won’t bump into anyone who might recognise him. No matter that he held down a job for over 20 years. Tell him there’s no stigma attached to being on the dole.

How handy too that people at the lowest rung of society are being demonised again, in the week in which lone parents have had their allowances slashed and local authority tenants have had their private details forwarded to Irish Water.

It is no wonder that people feel there are “two Irelands” now. One for the rich elite who have their debts written off, and a parallel universe for those who face losing their homes due to pressure from the banks, or trying to make ends meet on vastly reduced payments for single parent families.

In my experience, Minister Noonan is completely off the mark.

Over the past three months I undertook a Build Your Own Online Business course with ten classmates who were all in their 30s or 40s. Most were changing careers and had been out of work for weeks or months.

The mix of skills and life experiences in the room was incredible. The way we “buzzed” off each other meant that I sometimes learned more about digital marketing from my fellow students than the tutors.

We built our own websites, we shared ideas and advice, and the energy in the room was a joy to behold. Each and every person in the room was mad keen to either set up on their own or to get back to work.

Not one of them enjoyed the weekly ritual of calling into the unemployment office or post office to collect a meagre amount of cash, far less than they would live on if they were lucky enough to have a job.

One of the people on the course has been out of work for five years. It was heartbreaking to hear him describe how many jobs he has applied for and how many courses he has undertaken to improve his graphic design skills.

We have been told that Ireland will have full employment within a couple of years, which is fantastic after seven years of austerity, emigration and pain.

But try trawling through the websites and finding that so many vacancies are “internships” or JobBridge schemes.

A few weeks ago I noticed that one of the richest businessmen in Ireland, who also happens to be a tax exile, was offering an “internship” for a garage forecourt attendant at one of his large chain of petrol stations. 

Just imagine how many new skills a young person would learn during a nine month “internship” filling petrol.
Try telling someone in their 40s that they should work a full week for an employer for their social welfare, plus €50.

I learned a lot about digital marketing from my course.

But I learned an even more valuable lesson over the 12 weeks – there are immensely talented people all around us who have an awful lot to offer and are genuinely anxious to find employment again.

I know Minister Noonan was not talking about all of us, but it was quite insulting to say that people like them are “allergic” to work.

Because there is nothing immoral about being “allergic” to rip-off schemes which allow employers to take advantage of the current jobs market by hiring people to work in garages for €50 a week.

If anything the Minister’s comments are offensive to people who are struggling to make ends meet and mind their mental health in parts of the country which have not been touched by the latest “boom”.

Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned emigration, with so many young Irish people now living in Canada and Australia. Imagine how high the jobless rate would be if Ireland did not have that safety net?

The real scandals in this country relate to dodgy deals done in the corridors of power, lengthy hospital waiting lists, and the preferential treatment of the rich in writing off bank debt. 

Not the small minority of unemployed people who have no interest in ever getting a job.

If Minister Noonan tried to spend six months or a year living on less than €200 a week, he’d soon realise that there are thousands of people all around the country desperately searching for work. Despite all the hype from his Government about the wonderful "recovery" which is now well underway. At least over in that parallel universe of his!

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