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‘I remember feeling washed up and fearing I would never work again’

It’s time to change our attitude toward unemployed people, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

Donal O'Keeffe

“NOW WE ALL know there are some people who will never work,” Finance Minister Michael Noonan told Kilkenny Chamber of Commerce earlier this year. “They’re allergic to work.”

I don’t know about you, but to me that statement spoke to an attitude toward unemployed people which is especially common among the well-off and those who have never known unemployment.

Michael Noonan has been in the Dáil since 1981 and currently earns – excluding expenses – €3,029 per week. I know he was speaking to his own people (a bit like when Enda goes abroad and says things he assumes will never be heard over here) but with all due respect to Michael Noonan, he’s talking through his hat.

I’ve been unemployed. I’ve done the perp walk into the dole office, the eyes-down march of shame to sign my name to what felt like my own utter failure. The €188 a week I got on the dole didn’t make me feel too allergic to work.

Feeling washed up

Sending out CVs and never even getting back an acknowledgment. The fear that you’re
completely washed-up and will never work again. The conviction you’re just too old to bounce back that one last time.

Trying not to lose heart. Losing heart. The lack of structure and the loneliness of not talking to anyone for days at a time. Walking around Lidl trying to figure out how to afford a daily allotment of food. Filling the time. Getting out of bed. Going to bed.

The flat, grey days that stretch out into weeks. Funnily enough, none of those made me allergic to work.

Phoning the ESB to ask them about spreading out payments. (Most utility providers are happy to work out a payment schedule: the important thing is to get in touch with them before things get out of hand.)

Begging the bank to hold off on loan repayments and falling into arrears when they wouldn’t. (It’s a pity ordinary citizens have no hold over the banks. I mean, it’s not like we ever bankrupted the country to bail them out or anything, is it?)

Phoning the Money Advice Bureau (MABS). I’m not claiming I had things especially bad – I’m a single man in relatively good health and there are better people far worse-off than I was. My point is, I am not allergic to work and I don’t know too many people who are.

Working minimum wage

I’ve always subscribed to James Taylor’s line that workin’s no crime. I’m not fussy. I’ve worked minimum wage, I’ve worked zero-hours. I’ve worked truly horrible jobs when the
alternative was not working. I’ve fished innumerable soiled undergarments from pub cisterns. I’ve trudged from door to door in solid rain trying to sell the unsellable.

I’ve cleaned plenty of excrement from carpets and upholstery. I’ve been spat at, kicked and – on one memorable occasion – I caught in mid-air a pint bottle on a collision course with my skull.

I’m nobody special. I’m just another person who was out of work. That doesn’t mean I’m
allergic to work, any more than anyone else is.

The idea that a rising tide raises all boats is surely an article of faith to a centre-right party like Fine Gael. There are numerous arguments against that notion, but it is worth
remembering that during the boom, unemployment rates fluctuated around 4%, with long-term unemployment between 1.2% and 1.9%.

Bearing in mind many Irish people have never got a look-in at all, living instead in an often-generational cycle of exclusion and deprivation, that tiny percentage puts the lie to the notion of “allergic to work”.

The live register

In 2011, we had 19% unemployment. Now it’s 10%. Things are better, but not exclusively
better. I would question the manipulation of the live register using various “work activation” schemes and I would also suggest that such schemes are part of a deliberate agenda to drive down the value of work. JobBridge earns the lion’s share of negative attention, but schemes such as Tús, which provides free labour to community and voluntary organisations – and private enterprises like sports clubs – are little better than workfare.

The average industrial wage is €32,000 per annum. 30% of workers earn less than €20,000 and, according to no less an authority than Enda Kenny, 9% of workers are living in actual, consistent poverty – something he calls “morally unacceptable”.

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And yet the Small Firms Association condemned the Budget 2016 minimum wage increase (an extra 50c an hour) and predicted darkly a “negative impact”. You know something? If you can’t afford to pay your employees not even a tenner an hour, perhaps business isn’t the career for you.

For unemployed people, one recurring problem has always been that taking short-term,
seasonal work has the immediate effect of ending your claim to social protection and – when that work finishes – you get kicked back to the start of the queue, a process which can take up to six weeks.

Christmas work

It’ll be Christmas soon. Imagine if it was possible to suspend your jobseeker’s allowance claim while you took a temporary job. Imagine then, when the job ended, you had the
immediate safety net of going back to social protection without any delay.

Okay. Go to www.welfare.ie. Click “Jobseekers”. Click “Income Supports”. Click “Jobseeker’s Allowance”. Click “Frequently Asked Questions”. Scroll down to Question 20.

Now, if there’s a short-term, seasonal job of up to 12 weeks in length you can take it, Happy Christmas.

I think this is a fantastic innovation and I confess I’d never have heard of it unless I rang the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed the other day. I genuinely don’t understand why the Department of Social Protection isn’t shouting it from the rooftops. You’d wonder, sometimes.

When there’s work going, literally 99% of us will work. The remaining 1% needs help rather than condemnation. Writing any one of us off as “allergic to work” says a lot more about those doing so than those of us temporarily in need of assistance.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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