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Opinion: Schemes like Tús don't make a blind bit of difference to long-term unemployment

Have work schemes increased individuals’ “work readiness” or just exploited them?

Donal O'Keeffe

YOU’D HAVE TO wonder the point of the Government’s Tús Initiative. In the four years since the scheme’s inception, over 30,000 long-term unemployed people have been placed on Tús. If the point of Tús is, as stated by the Department of Social Protection, “to increase individuals’ work readiness”, then shouldn’t the Department be very interested in knowing if it is actually doing that?

When asked last week how many people coming off Tús go on to full-time employment, a spokesperson for the Department replied: “No stats are available. Tús (schemes) are considered ‘work progression schemes’; their object is to increase individuals’ work readiness, to improve their skill-set and to provide short-term quality and suitable working opportunities for people who are long-term unemployed.”

Launched in 2010, Tús’ stated aims are “to provide short-term, quality work opportunities for those who are unemployed and provide certain services of benefit to communities”. Long-term unemployed (12 months or more) are required to take up work opportunities such as the offer of a Tús work placement. If they refuse a work opportunity without good reason, they may have their social welfare payment “reduced or terminated”.

What are the implications? 

If you’re on a Tús scheme, you work 19.5 hours a week and are rewarded with €19 on top of your dole. At the end of the 12 month course, you go back on the Live Register.

Here’s my question: why wouldn’t the Department keep Tús statistics?

Could that be because Tús is actually something other than it claims to be on the tin? If that is the case, then what might it be?

Is it a sort of dole-shaming for the long-term unemployed? Is it targeted specifically at the fabled dole-cheats who, pub experts will tell you, have been playing the system for generations?

Is it workfare, a way for community and voluntary organisations (and private enterprises like sports clubs, too) to benefit from free labour?

Is it possibly even an unsubtle message to employees subsisting on minimum wage to not get too bolshy as they can always be replaced by the lads on the chain-gang?

Simply put, is Tús yet another kick against those who have suffered the most in the bust and benefited the least from the boom?

Or, and I’m not saying this suggestion negates any of those other possibilities, could it be Tús is a complete con-job, one of the many ways in which we adjust the Live Register figures to hide our true rate of unemployment?

Benefits of work schemes 

I met recently with ‘Liam’, a Tús supervisor, and asked whether he feels Tús drives down the value of work and undermines those at the lower end of the wage scale. He said no; he feels the primary concern should be whether being on Tús offers real benefits to the individual concerned and he feels strongly that for most people it does.

I asked whether Tús specifically targets those who are suspected of abusing the Social Protection system. Not so. The selection process is, according to Liam, completely random.

When I asked whether Liam agreed that Tús and related schemes exist mainly to massage the Live Register figures, he sighed. He took a moment and then said he reckons if you cut through the smoke and mirrors, our real rate of unemployment is not the 13% we’re telling the world, or even the 23% the OECD has claimed we’re hiding, but rather if you include everyone on Tús and all the other schemes and those signing part-time, it’s nearer to 27 or 28%.

If things really are that bad, I asked Liam, imagine you’re Joan Burton, given a blank chequebook and an army of eager officials. All the resources you need to fix this. Where do you begin?

“It’s not that simple. Where are the jobs going to come from? Where’s the infrastructure? We’ve given away our resources and decimated our native industries. We’ve built our economy on our corporation tax and bookkeeping tricks. What happens if that falls apart? We’ve used emigration as a pressure valve. What happens if the illegals are kicked out of the US and Australia?”

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‘Juking the stats’

I tell Liam that Tús and its related scams remind me of the premise of the TV series The Wire, a broken system self-perpetuating an unbreakable cycle, where even those with the best will in the world can only tinker around the edges; the notion that all human systems can be cheated, the parameters altered to adjust the result. On The Wire, they called it “juking the stats”.

He agrees with my suggestion but, despite everything, says he does see hope within Tús. He seems genuinely delighted at some of the successes he says he has had with people who were re-introduced into the workplace.

“You can say it’s only tinkering around the edges, but I’ve seen the faces of real people, people who had given up on themselves, who’ve got something from being on a Tús scheme. A sense of purpose, a sense of pride in yourself. If nothing else, giving someone a bit of hope. To my mind, that’s a real success story.”

I know it’s churlish to disagree with his very obvious decency, but I am struck that when those real people are back on the Live Register for six or 12 months, with absolutely no prospect of a proper job, then the small human victory of Liam’s real success stories will seem very small indeed.

After all, if the Department of Social Protection can’t even be bothered pretending that Tús makes a blind bit of difference to long-term unemployment, then what hope is there for someone settling back into life on the dole again?

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

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