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Paul Murphy: 'The answer to the unemployment crisis isn't JobBridge 2.0'

The Work Placement Experience Programme is bad for all workers , writes Paul Murphy TD.

Paul Murphy

“THE NAME WAS was toxic because the behaviour associated with it was toxic.”

This wasn’t the opinion of a left-wing TD or trade unionist, instead it was former Fine Gael TD Noel Rock’s comments on the JobBridge scheme when it was finally scrapped in 2016. It shows why the government has been so vigorous in their efforts to disassociate their new labour activation measure – the Work Placement Experience Programme (WPEP) – from JobBridge.

Despite the clunky new name and government denials, when you look at the workings of the scheme it becomes increasingly obvious that this is a reheated and repacked JobBridge 2.0.

‘Scambridge’

The original JobBridge scheme was launched in 2011 in the face of high unemployment and mass youth unemployment in particular. The ideology behind the scheme appeared to be that young unemployed people were lazy and didn’t want to work, with then Labour leader and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore telling the Dáil “[t]he place for any young person is not permanently in front of a flat screen television,” while he defended cutting the dole for those under 26.

Participants were forced onto ‘internships’ or faced having their payments cut. They would receive a €50 top-up to their welfare in return for working 40 hours a week for nine months. The employer would contribute nothing towards this and there was no guarantee of a job at the end of the internship.

In 2012, I launched the Scambridge campaign to oppose the scheme. We highlighted and picketed employers who were using the scheme for nothing more than free labour. These jobs included some such as sandwich artists in Subway, retail and hotel staff, forecourt attendants, and infamously the case of Advance Pitstop who attempted to hire almost 30 interns to work across its network of garages which would have saved them almost €400,000 in wages.

The scheme was an abject failure from the point of view of the interns, with 44% of them saying the employer was using it for free labour. Alongside the horror stories from participants, the scheme didn’t create new jobs, in fact, it acted to displace job creation and depress wages creation.

Under 20% of participants got a full time job with the employer they did the internship with. But almost 30% of JobBridge employers said if the scheme didn’t exist they would have been ‘highly’ or ‘fairly’ likely to have simply employed someone properly! JobBridge simply forced people into working nine months for free.

€3.43 an hour – JobBridge 2.0

Faced with a new unemployment crisis, the government has relaunched JobBridge in the guise of WPEP. With the scheme only up and running a couple of weeks we already have many examples of employers intending to use it to access free labour rather than creating a job and employing someone.

Positions working in delis, petrol stations, sports shops, child care and IT have appeared since the scheme launched. These are jobs which if this new scheme didn’t exist employers would likely have to pay someone to do.

For participants the deal hasn’t gotten much better. Instead of working for 40 hours a week for nine months, you will only be working 30 hours a week for six months. To take the sting out of this scheme, the government is trying to say that participants will be paid the minimum wage – a weekly sum of €306. It is even less than the €350 which the Pandemic Unemployment Payment was set at.

I believe this is just a cynical attempt to fiddle the numbers. The weekly payment is made up of the normal dole payment of €203, with a top-up of €103. This means that for their 30 hours of work participants will be paid the princely sum of €3.43 an hour. Overall you’d likely be losing money if you were tempted to buy luxuries such as lunch or a coffee, as well as paying for travel costs.

Designed to be abused

By design the scheme is set up to potentially exploit the unemployed and workers generally, but to benefit bosses and the government. The government will get the immediate boost of being able to remove people on the scheme from the Live Register and to massage the numbers to say they are tackling unemployment.

The real benefit will be for employers – the government’s own report evaluating JobBridge 1 had recommended that employers should pay interns in certain circumstances. Like another six of the 10 recommendations, this has simply been ignored in the design of the new scheme. Instead, employers will be able to access a pool of free labour to do jobs that they otherwise would have paid someone to do. They won’t have to contribute one cent towards the worker, but reap all the benefits.

By normalising free labour, this scheme is bad for all workers. If an employee is thinking of asking for a pay increase or extra shifts or hours, the boss can turn around and say ‘why would I pay you more when I can get someone to do it for free?’

The answer to the unemployment crisis isn’t JobBridge 2.0 or any other Welfare to Work scheme, it is in public investment in education and job creation. We need genuinely free third level education, and investment in quality apprenticeships. The government also needs to create tens of thousands of Green and Care Jobs to ensure a rapid and just transition to a zero carbon economy – building and retrofitting homes, rewetting bogs, planting forests, teaching children and caring for patients.

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In the meantime, Scambridge has been relaunched. Employers seeking to access free labour should beware – we’ll be exposing them on social media and protesting at their premises.

Paul Murphy is People Before Profit spokesperson on Employment Rights and a TD for Dublin South West. 

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