From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty; Eamonn Kelly
It seems that JobPath will be wound down sooner rather than later.
The first signs of its demise began In December 2017 when a report indicated that JobPath was ineffective in its stated aim of creating employment.
Then in June 2018 the Department of Social Protection (DSP) announced via the minister that JobPath participants could now apply for Community Employment (CE) schemes.
Prior to this the JobPath rule said that CE schemes were not “real” jobs.
Whether this change was to include placements on CE as JobPath “successes” to massage the stats, or whether it was a winding down of the entire JobPath programme and the wider privatisation drive of welfare services was not yet clear.
But then in October 2018 it emerged that 11,000 people who had completed the JobPath programme were re-referred for another go. The figure was later revised up to 15,000.
Questions were raised. Did this mean that Seetec/Turas Nua would receive another payment for the same “customers”?
The Oireachtas public accounts committee looked into the matter and Yes, was the eventual confirmation. Seetec/Turas Nua would be paid twice for unsuccessfully “processing” the same individuals.
Then, in December 2018, that quiet time when everyone’s mind is on Christmas, the taoiseach said in an interview that JobPath may be wrapped up.
He claimed that it had done its job, that there was now almost full employment, full employment that is of people who can’t afford to rent rooms.
But it was clear that JobPath had not done its job. In November 2018 The Comptroller and Auditor General, Seamus McCarthy, told the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee that only 7% of jobseekers who found work while engaged with JobPath were still in employment after 12 months.
But even that measly success rate is open to question.
There are numerous anecdotal reports of people finding jobs without the aid of JobPath, whose employers are then contacted by Seetec/Turas Nua employees to claim credit for the creation of the job in order to charge a fee from the DSP.
The current minister for social protection Regina Doherty reiterated a claim to the public accounts committee that she routinely makes, saying that JobPath is, (or “JobsPath” as she calls it, revealing a perplexing apparent lack of familiarity with her own paperwork) the most successful job activation scheme in the history of the State.
What she fails to mention, and what no one ever pulls her up on, surprisingly, is that JobPath is, strictly speaking, the only Employment activation programme in the history of the state.
“Unlike most OECD countries, Ireland has not yet developed full labour activation policy, but is under increasing pressure to do so.”
So says a paper published in 2010, “The politics of Irish labour activation: 1980 to 2010” by Mary P. Murphy from the Department of Sociology, NUl Maynooth:
According to this paper, JobPath was one of three available models for employment activation in Ireland:
“The Danish model of flexicurity (derived from the two words flexibility and security) aims to enable flexible transitions between work and unemployment: periods of unemployment are cushioned by generous welfare schemes and workers, while unemployed, remain work-active by participating in ALMPs.
The mutual obligations model promoted by the OECD (Grubb et al., 2009) recommends intensification of benefit-control activity for the unemployed and other benefit-recipient groups in a more coercive approach where moderate benefits are used to support compulsory education, training or labour market participation; intrinsic to this model is the political message it sends about the obligations of the unemployed.
The third model, active inclusion for all, is promoted by the European Commission as a holistic strategy that stresses work for those who can work and inclusion for those who cannot work. This is less work focused and avoids punitive conditionality or a narrow focus on getting people off benefits.
Rather, its three pillars focus on adequate income support, inclusive labour markets and decent public services, which strive to provide personal pathways to employment and/or social participation…”
Well, it’s clear for anyone who had even the briefest brush with JobPath that we didn’t get the Danish model. Of the three available models, the more punitive one was chosen by the Fine Gael-led coalition.
It seemed that the intention was simply to dump people off welfare at whatever cost, encouraging a new wave of emigration from Ireland while forging ahead with a ruthless privatisation programme across all public services.
Also, as Leo Varadkar’s welfare cheats campaign demonstrated, there seemed to be a clear intention to divide workers from jobseekers and to arrange a situation where one group condemned the other as dead-weights on the “economy”, as the state has come to be regarded. This in a context where the banks and so on were getting all the breaks.
The model is not unlike neo-liberal models at play elsewhere. Put bluntly, as elsewhere, the approach is basically the legalised pillaging of state resources by an exploitative elite served by an obsequious political class, and usually at the expense of poorer people.
Maybe it’s because the companies who do “punitive”, like Seetec/Turas Nua (Working Links) who had already cut their teeth in Britain tormenting the lower classes, that our government decided to take that option.
Or maybe it’s darker than that. Maybe there is, like some claim, a hatred of the lower classes at work in all this. Whatever the reason, a minority were targeted to take the blame for austerity, and absolutely no one spoke in their defence, even those who are funded to do so.
No one would argue that the concept of employment activation, as it was delivered in the JobPath model, is on a par of seriousness with hospital waiting lists and homelessness. But there are shared injustices that connect all these issues, and all of them arise from a right-wing ideology of privatisation and government non-interference in social welfare.
The model for employment activation used here was similar to the one in Britain, whose ultimate goal is the dismantling of the NHS. And you have only to look at the social injustices of the United States to see what the endgame of this model is.
In Ireland the same right-wing model is delivering homelessness and hospital waiting lists, while low-wage earners can’t afford accommodation, though they are not, as yet, reliant on food banks, as low wage workers are in Britain.
This impoverishment is taking place in a system that is delivering wealth to landlords, businesses, corporations and so on.
While this agenda is characterised by neglect in health and housing, a hands-off approach that results in either running down the public systems to make an argument for privatisation, as appears to be the angle in health; or the deliberate avoidance of a social housing programme in order to create a demand which will ultimately benefit the business community.
in both cases there is an apparent indifference to the suffering of people on the waiting lists; to the plight of homeless people in hotel accommodation, and to the injustice of impoverished low-wage earners virtually being held to ransom by a system that, in seeking to remove welfare safety nets, is also cutting off the last possible line of retreat from a job market that is only a notch or two above outright enslavement to the market needs of employers.
It is as if the right-wing government believes that social “casualties” are a fair price to pay in pursuit of their privatisation goals and the elite’s profit margins.
The people at the receiving end of these quite cruel social policies are generally seen as “unfortunate”. Because their suffering is indirect, a consequence of policy neglect rather than directly imposed cruelty, it can be understood and excused as being due to oversights, mismanagement, unfortunate miscalculations and so on.
This is where the approach to labour activation is similar and yet different. Because with labour activation the cruelty was direct and seemed deliberately designed to humiliate.
These new institutionalised cruelties, forged in Britain in what seems like a top-down class war, do not stop short at the branding of jobseekers as “lazy” and “welfare cheats” and so on.
The labour activation system ropes in vast swaths of the arts and creative sector, including teachers and post-graduates, into a system that appears to be deliberately designed to intimidate, and to instil fear and psychological distress in the people delivered into it.
Furthermore, it also appears that people delivered into this system are not delivered “anonymously” or at random, as the official literature contends, but are often quietly targeted by officials as a “punishment” or a “lesson”, or perhaps, the system being what it is, simply to settle old personal scores.
It is a system that, in Ireland, may even be providing, particularly in the case of the creative sector, an official opportunity for certain petty types to exercise good old-fashioned Irish begrudgery.
With health waiting lists and housing there is always the excuse that “they” [the government] “are doing their best”; but that they are ineffectual. With employment activation and its wider intention of the removal of the social welfare safety net, which will result in putting low-paid workers at the mercy of unscrupulous employers, as private tenants are currently at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords, the destructive intent and the resulting institutionalised cruelty are unmistakable. And it seems too that there is an appetite in Ireland to oppress our own at any given opportunity, once we feel we have a good enough “excuse”. Leo Vardkar, with his welafre cheats campaign, helpfully provided that “excuse”.
What connects the people on hospital waiting lists, the homeless, the low-paid worker in precarious employment and the jobseekers being victimised by the two English companies, Seetec and Turas Nua (Working Links), is that all are deemed expendable and irrelevant to the requirements of broader right-wing privatisation goals.
What makes the approach to employment activation different is that it is naked, hands-on institutionalised cruelty against a sector that has been carefully framed as undeserving of dignity or respect.
What makes it cynical is that the welfare cheats campaign, launched by the present taoiseach as minister for social protection, was designed to split low-paid worker from jobseeker, to turn one against the other, even though both groups are made up of essentially the same cohort of people.
To arrange a distraction, a lower class squabble, while the privateers could steal away with public profits by turning public goods into private investments, including people; with each individual referred to JobPath worth €311 for their signature and €3,718 if they could find sustained employment for over 52 weeks. Sustained employment that is, that Seetec/Turas Nua could claim credit for.
As the cervical cancer scandal demonstrated, a privatisation model is not overly concerned with the fates of individuals; its main concern is overall costing and the replacement of government departments and public sector services with private contractors, many of whom, as is evidenced elsewhere, are often business cronies or supporters of those politicians pushing through the privatization policies.
According to a 2017 report, “JobPath Exposed”, by two Sinn Fein TDs, John Brady and Denise Mitchell, referrals to JobPath are not random, they are used as a weapon.
They are often expressions of alleged spite towards individuals by certain case officers within the DSP and its affiliates which, it has to be said, includes the Unemployed Centres and LESs, who were contracted on the eve of the JobPath rollout in 2015 as affiliates to the DSP, with some of their staff also working as case officers, enjoying powers of data access to individuals and the power to recommend individuals to JobPath.
A former employee of Turas Nua told Brady and Mitchell that…
“Individuals were being referred to JobPath sometimes as punishment because Case Officers do not like them or find them difficult to deal with…it is definitely not randomly selected. The referrals are the ones that are pissing [Case officers] off or are a nuisance…”
The former Turas Nua employee said that the “invitation” to attend JobPath was “more of a threat” adding:
“Huge emphasis was placed on ensuring clients signed [the] JobPath contract at first meeting:
“we were basically told not to let those people out of [the] building without signing a contract.”
The former employee once witnessed a “client” refusing to sign a contract.
“That client was called into a private room with a manager who sat with him over an hour until he signed the contract.”
The former employee of Turas Nua said that each signed contract was worth around €300 to Turas Nua/Seetec. This has since been confirmed by the comptroller’s audit of the JobPath programme, each signature being worth €311 to the private companies.
All of this was going on under the noses of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed (INOU) with barely a comment from that organisation, with the exception of very occasional remarks in their newsletter along the lines of the reportage of some distant but vague rumour.
An employee of one of the LESs told me that the new contract with the DSP amounted to a kind of gagging order on the centres and the LESs, to get them onside for the JobPath rollout.
However, the claim that the centres and the LES’s were “gagged”, was countered in my own experience when I happened to overhear an employee of one of the Dublin centres, in late 2014, gleefully exclaim, ‘We’re gonna root the lazy f**kers out of their beds’.
This stuck with me because I happened to have been a social welfare advisor in Ireland’s first unemployed centre in the 1980’s, Galway’s Peadar O’Donnell centre, whose activists had been the inspiration for all the other unemployed centres, including the INOU.
So, while the centres and the LES’s may have been “gagged”, as that LES worker claimed, the impression was that the “struggle” was not very protracted, and it seems clear that the unemployed centres and LESs knew in late 2014 what was coming down the line, and that some of them were quite looking forward to wielding state-sanctioned power over an identified sub-class of individuals, carefully framed and tarnished by the then minister for social protection, Leo Varadkar.
The INOU and the unemployed centres were originally established in the 1980’s to be a voice for the unemployed, as unions are a voice for workers. But the current incarnation of the INOU is extremely circumspect when it comes to criticising JobPath.
Fearful perhaps of losing their own publicly funded jobs and schemes, despite the fact that they must have realized that any privatisation of welfare services must inevitably be an eventual threat to their own jobs anyway.
So, while the bashing of the unemployed got underway, grinningly led by the then minster for social protection, the unemployed centres remained silent while the reports of alleged bullying, intimidation and shaming came flooding in from all over the country, a situation that was largely ignored by the mainstream media, giving the impression to those being targeted, that there was a deliberate information blackout taking place while Seetec/Turas Nua went to work on the “lazy” jobless.
While there is as yet no proof, and likely never will be, that acting case officers in the unemployed centres and the LESs, working on behalf of the DSP, may have fallen to the temptation of settling old scores by referring “clients” to JobPath, there is little doubt that the opportunity to do so existed in a largely unsupervised situation.
JobPath created the conditions for the exercise of a kind of institutionalised Irish begrudgery that impacted significantly and often spitefully on arts practitioners in particular.
The former employee of Turas Nua told Brady and Mitchell that she:
“witnessed at least one case where staff were directed to delete emails and files on one particular client who had raised issues with the Department of Social Protection and had written to the then Minister Leo Varadkar over her personal data in possession of Turas Nua. When management in the office was informed of this, they had all data referencing this individual removed.”
To be fair though, it seems that the unemployed centres were the first victims of the “compliance” rule that runs through JobPath like the legend in a stick of seaside rock.
The concept of compliance runs through JobPath from top to bottom and even informs the relationship between the DSP and the private companies, most noticeably in a quota system of referrals to JobPath.
It appears that the DSP is tied contractually to a quota of referrals, and if they fall short, Seetec/Turas Nua will be in a position to sue.
So, in order to meet these quotas, people who formerly may have gone onto CE schemes were instead diverted to JobPath, resulting in the gradual de-staffing of organisations in the so-called “poverty industry” such as the Simon Community and the Citizen’s Advice Centres, as well the unemployed centres. Whether or not this was deliberate policy to wither those organizations in favour of future private replacements is not clear.
The actual details of the contract between the DSP and Seetec/Turas Nua are kept private for commercially sensitive reasons, unlike say the private data of those referred to JobPath, whose data is as good as public and who become in the system little more than commodities of exchange between the state and the private companies.
The staff of Seetec/Turas Nua also have quotas which they are pressured to meet by management. Brady and Mitchell’s report cite a required quota of answered questions by the “client”. There are four sets of 90 questions in a year to be answered, each set is called a “catalyst”
. These answers must all be provided to higher management who likely use them as “proof” of activity to honour their contractual agreements with the DSP, in order to claim payments.
The former employee of Turas Nua said:
“If a customer had not done 4 Catalysts (90 questions) in their year on JobPath I witnessed PAs faking the Catalyst replies and entering in on the system that the customer had attended on a certain date and completed the Catalyst when in fact this did not occur, but it kept the PA in compliance, which was a big thing with senior management.”
Then, right at the bottom of this compliant system, are the actual Jobseekers who must also be in compliance with all requests made of them. If they fail to comply, then Seetec/Turas Nua will report them to the DSP, where a decision will be taken as to whether or not to impose sanctions.
However, according to the former employee, this too is a grey area. Some people are reported, some not. Some are sanctioned, some not.
The overall picture is of a loose and dysfunctional system with many pockets and hidey-holes for potential abuse.
A system that ultimately serves the interests of two main parties: the private companies themselves, who seem to profit no matter what they do, and the Fine-Gael led coalition whose privatization “ideology” progressively undermines the welfare state.
The news that CE schemes were now back in business was greeted with delight by the INOU in their newsletter. In a sense they had been under siege by the whole privatisation drive, but now it seemed that they and similar “poverty industry” bodies dependent on CE were to be spared. The siege had been lifted.
But a question is left hanging in the air. What are the unemployed centres actually for if they were not a voice for the unemployed at a time when the unemployed desperately needed a voice?
The answer is dismayingly simple: by their actions, or inactions, they are clearly and simply for themselves, as so many sectors and organisations are in Ireland in these austere times.
The INOU produces a booklet perpetuating the neo-liberal myth that there is decent work to be had if the will-power of the jobless is activated. Their mantra is working for work. An idea that is essentially a piece of neo-liberal propaganda for a world and an economy that no longer exists.
They choose the frictionless option of interrogating the victims of the system rather than interrogating the system itself, and in doing so, become champions of that system.
But the “jobs” in the centres and the LES’s, such as they are, real or unreal, are dependent for their existence on the false assumption that unemployment is caused by the laziness of the unemployed, as are all labour activation jobs, both private and public. It costs tens of millions a year of taxpayer’s money to perpetuate this myth.
But JobPath, with its dismal 7% return for all the investment and its arse-kicking philosophy, has proven that it is a myth. And for that we should be thankful.
The myth has been tested in the field, statistically measured from all angles and found to be false.
It will be interesting to see how the INOU and its nationwide network of centres regroup after having abandoned fundamental principles. Their silence, and the fact that they supplied “case officers” for the DSP, is akin to a union joining management to demonise the workers.
But you can commiserate. They were frightened of losing their jobs. They did what most people do when pressured. They got with the programme dictated by the powerful. It’s understandable, but not terribly commendable.
What is commendable, are the anonymous individuals all over the country who stood against this system and refused, under unfair and unjust pressure, to voluntarily sign themselves over as commodities to these private companies, at the risk of being left destitute in a world that scorned them, absurdly, as the cause of heavy taxation and the national debt.
Interestingly, Jobseekers who are supposedly in JobPath for “retraining”, as the taxpayer is told, receive, according to all reports, no retraining whatsoever.
They are simply held for periods of “detention” in the offices of Seetec/Turas Nua, these detention periods decided at the discretion and whim of employees of the private companies. “Problem” cases are often detained for longer periods as “punishment”.
No one in Ireland, as far as I am aware, in politics, in mainstream media, finds it remarkable that Irish citizens can be held for periods of detention by private English companies, both of whom began this practise in 2016, the centenary year of the 1916 rebellion, to put the poetic cap on it.
No one finds it odd that Irish citizens can be held against their will in the charge of the unaccountable employees of private companies, both of which incidentally have interests in private prison services from the UK to Saudi Arabia.
No one thinks it odd because, apparently, everyone thinks the unemployed “deserve” it for being “lazy”. This fact alone needs to be carefully digested by the culture. Because in this culture, jobseekers and social housing tenants and the homeless and the poor are seen as underserving not only of respect, but even, it is implied, undeserving of equality itself, for the “crime” or “sin” of not being money wealthy.
The Irish people themselves are quiet and obedient to a fault. An historically acquired national trait that Fintan O’Toole identified as an ability to simply hunker down under whatever regime is imposed, for hundreds of years if necessary, in order to simply survive.
But the result of this obedient deferring to authority is that it plays into the hands of those who would abuse such passivity, offering a relatively free unquestioned ride to do whatever they please. It is in a sense, appeasement, with all the perils that political appeasement cultivates and its effects are played out every day on the Irish news from hospital waiitng lists to thuggish evictions.
The consequence of this historically habitual passivity is that the republic is largely undefended by the people, to the extent that it is almost convenient for a government to forget that there even is a republic.
This then has the effect of splitting people into interest groups, with classes going along to get along, resulting in a class stratification more in keeping with the structures of the old imperial order than with the ideals of republican fraternity.
From a personal point of view, JobPath represented for me and for other arts practitioners, an assault on the creative sector. It was as if an official decree had been dispensed to government clerks and their affiliates to routinely mock creatives for, basically, having “arty notions”.
As if the programme itself was a concerted government effort to turn Ireland’s musicians, writers, actors, teachers, scientists and artists into amenable corporate worker drones, in the misguided belief that this would somehow improve the country and the culture. Old wives call that kind of thinking throwing out the baby with the bath water.
But this utilitarian assault on creativity goes deeper than mere personal hurt. It is an assault on one of humanity’s finer qualities, and, as history has shown, such assaults are often led by those who lack creativity. And if any one charge can be laid with any justification at the feet of Leo Varadkar and his minsters and his Fianna Fail supporters, it is that they lack creativity.
All their works are testament to this lack. They are like the functionaries who run established organisations by rote long after the creative founders have departed. Stuck in habitual ruts and unwilling or unable to exercise flexibility and innovation, they demonise rather than cultivate.
They destroy rather than build. They divide and provoke anger and injustice in order to stand in apparent control, overseeing and managing the resultant discord.
Creativity is a natural resource. It’s not a trick to win votes and political favour. It is not a slab of meat in the marketplace. Creativity has meaning beyond the strictly economically utilitarian, in contrast to what the present taoiseach and his team would have us believe.
But creativity is not the property only of “artists”. Creativity means new ideas, fresh ideas, taking cognisance of present realities and thinking anew. Creativity is as relevant to politics and business as it is to art and science. Creativity is thinking on your feet and going with the flow where necessary.
Creativity is not waste and regression and psychological violence, like that JobPath debacle.
Creativity is sensitive, progressive, enlightened, natural, hopeful and, given room to breathe, it cannot help but flourish.
Creativity is realizing that nature doesn’t need managerial intervention to ensure a spring flowering. Though creative managerial intervention is needed now to formulate effective approaches to dealing with impending climate catastrophe caused by runaway capitalism. In that direction may be found limitless useful “jobs”.
Creativity is realising that instead of investing in private companies to bully people into some vague authoritarian “compliance”, why not invest in the people themselves? Nurture the grassroots of the nation, that it may rebuild itself in ways other than the crude exploitation of neighbour against neighbour for short term financial gain that is the current disreputable model.
Eamonn Kelly is a freelance journalist, This is the first of a new monthly column.