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Column Unpaid internships, low wages, zero hour contracts – this is life without job security

The lack of proper jobs will ultimately cause our economy to stagnate – but employers can’t seem to resist the almost-endless supply of cheap labour.

FOR A WHILE now I’ve been looking at the jobs market, trying to find a vacancy for which I could at least apply. Occasionally one may pop up from the many job websites checked or those aggregate emails I get daily. Most days I find a job to send off my CV for … but rarely do I get a reply.

This, I’ve been told, is because companies are getting too many applications; over 200 on average per vacancy advertised, apparently.

But how many jobs are of value, giving a living wage and a real prospect of long-term employment? I would venture not too many – the sheer number of internships doesn’t inspire confidence. What is stopping companies offering genuine employment situations? Why not invest in the long-term, grow a well-trained (maybe even a happy) workforce that could only benefit a business? The downturn has allowed companies to only offer internships, minimum wage contracts and zero hours contracts to get cheap labour. After all, if you don’t like the conditions there are 400,000 just like you waiting in the wings.

Low wages and high living costs

A lot has been made of the living wage idea both here and abroad. The theory, that employers should pay a wage that allows staff to meet the costs of living shouldn’t be that radical. For as long as employers have employed, employees have sold their labour in order to meet living costs. This idea of wages meeting the cost of living used to be acceptable and was seen as crucial in growing western economies.

But neo-liberal thinking reckoned the free market would solve all problems and now we have very low wages combined with very high living costs. The famous 1 per cent are living well while the 99 per cent struggle and no one benefits in the long-term. Yet statistics show that when western economies grow it is with a correlation in employment growth.

Nearly every job of interest is an internship. Recently I saw one for an off-licence, another for a deli counter at a service station, and even one as a general labourer. What could take you nine months to learn in those jobs? Why not a three month scheme? That would give employers a chance to train and vet a potential employee without wasting each other’s time. I saw a brilliant position recently … but it was an internship. And living for nine months in Dublin on very little just isn’t feasible.

How could I afford to live?

If I qualified, how could I run a family, pay the bills and possibly live away from home for nine months without pay? Sure, you get an extra €50 per week on top of any social welfare payment but those allowances have been cut in real terms. There isn’t any job security and, in effect, you are putting yourself at a company’s disposal with very little chance of employment upon completion.

Coming from a position of being self-employed for many years, this is all new to me. In fact, when I closed my business the last thing I wanted to be was self-employed ever again. Despite that, right now it seems that becoming freelance or self-employed will be the only way back into the world of full-time work. I don’t mind being my own boss, and my home life would suit my being flexible, but it’s a very insecure way of making a living.

Justifying investment in staff

The truth, maybe, is that companies are finding it difficult to invest in staff. The work is obviously there but the cost of employment and subsequent training, I presume, must be very high to justify investment.

This isn’t a problem for larger corporations who can budget for, and know the value of, investing in employment. That is the side of the economy the government has identified, ‘the smart economy’ and the tax breaks offered to these large businesses are well known. If breaks can be found for these employers why not find it for the smaller ones too?

Perhaps SMEs of a certain turnover could be allowed write off some of new employee costs against VAT?  Just a thought, not knowing the minutiae of VAT law, but I did recently find one of my VAT bills for when I was running my business: €4,688 for a three month period and I was the sole employee. With a certifiable method of investing that sort of money in employment the long-term benefit to the economy could outstrip the initial forgoing of the revenue.

Employment is the key to long-term growth

The 2008 economic crash made many people unemployed. The rate of unemployment seems to have levelled out but the overall figure is still very high. The Government has looked to emigration and figure manipulation to ease the problem, but we now have a golden chance to rebuild the economy ourselves. The Troika showed the way in tackling waste and inefficiencies; they identified the costs in allowing closed practises and helped with managing our debts.

Ultimately, however, employment is the key to long-term growth – consumers can only purchase when they have the income to do so. One of the fixed laws of economics states ‘one man’s income is another man’s expenditure.’ If people aren’t employed and generating income, then an economy – quite simply – cannot survive as comfortably as we would like.

Yes, it’s a fact that employees can be any firm’s biggest cost. But they should also be its biggest asset.

John Verling is a father of three children and is from County Cork. He writes a blog called Verlingsweek. To read more from John for click here.

Follow Opinion & Insight on Twitter: @TJ_Opinions

Read: Under-25s who fail to accept some JobBridge internships could face dole cut

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