Thursday, 15 July 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
We are back to facing a significant crisis of unemployment continuing into next year. The Government’s response is to roll out the old hits and the same old strategies. I am expecting the slogan, "Welfare cheats cheat us all", to be brought out and the individualisation of the problem of unemployment. An important part of that is the work placement experience programme. This is a new free labour scheme for bosses on which workers will get less than the pandemic unemployment payment and are expected to live below the poverty line while working. It is JobBridge 2.0 and I am confident that it will be widely known as such.
Workers on the scheme will get an extra €3.43 an hour for working 30 hours a week for six months without even a guaranteed job at the end of it. Employers will be able to employ up to ten workers on the scheme at the same time without having to pay a single penny for them. This actively discourages the creation of jobs. It is JobBridge all over again, except participants will receive €100 extra instead of €50 extra per week, work 30 hours instead of 40 hours a week and spend six months instead of nine months on the scheme. In every other respect, it is JobBridge all over again.
We need to go back and look at the record and experience of JobBridge. I was the organiser of a campaign known as ScamBridge which did exposés of the kind of gross exploitation that was happening with JobBridge. Some of the examples were renowned. We had people were being trained as sandwich artists working for nine months. We had multiple delicatessen assistants working for free for nine months. We had a national chain of garages which attempted to take on almost 40 JobBridge interns at the same time, saving itself €500,000 in wages.
The results of JobBridge were strikingly negative. The Government will argue that one in five of the people who did a JobBridge internship ended up working for the employer with which he or she did JobBridge. What it does not say, however, is that just over one in five employers who used JobBridge said that if JobBridge had not existed, they would have actually just employed somebody. We had real job displacement taking place. There was depression of wages because employers could ask why they would pay a person more wages if they could get somebody to work literally for free. There was a massaging of the unemployment figures because anyone on JobBridge or the work placement experience programme will not be counted as being on the live register. There was also the use of JobBridge to intimidate people who were unemployed.
When JobBridge came to an end, the scheme was widely discredited and hated. An internal audit came out and the Government commissioned a report from Indecon. It received a number of reports from the company but at the end of the scheme, the Government asked Indecon for a report on what it could do to make the scheme better and avoid the kind of deadweight that existed in it. Indecon gave the Government a report in which it stated that if the Government was to do another scheme, it would need to take on board the report's ten recommendations. Five or six years later, the Government has taken on board three of these recommendations and ignored the other seven.
One of the crucial recommendations was that employers should have to pay and should not be able to access free labour. The Government has simply ignored this. I do not know why the Government bothers commissioning these reports.
The new work placement experience programme is a key measure in our economic recovery plan and in the Government’s new employment services strategy, Pathways to Work. Launched on Monday, the programme provides tangible evidence of the Government's strong commitment to providing quality work experience and training opportunities for jobseekers, in particular, those whose jobs were permanently lost due to the pandemic.
The Government is putting in place a wide range of measures to support people whose jobs will not return after Covid-19 to help them find new jobs in new sectors of the economy. This work placement experience programme is such one such measure.
Apprenticeships and work placement programmes are proven and recognised internationally to be very effective in providing an opportunity for unemployed people to get on-the-job experience, improve their employment prospects and to get new jobs. Such approaches are supported by the EU under its recommendation on post-Covid labour market recovery and its effective active support to employment, EASE, and by our labour market advisory council. These programmes give relevant on-the-job experience and the confidence to find future employment.
The work placement experience programme is an entirely new scheme and is much different from schemes which went before it. The focus of this programme is on quality placements, accredited training and development and a higher payment rate than previous schemes, at €10.20 per hour for 30 hours work per week. Importantly, participation in the scheme will be completely voluntary. The payment rate of €306 per week is equivalent to open labour market rates and will provide six months' work experience with in-built training opportunities to 10,000 people. Training opportunities will comprise 60 hours per placement and 20 of those hours will be accredited. Persons who have been unemployed for six months, including time spent on the pandemic unemployment payment, will be eligible to participate in this programme.
The personal weekly rate will make the offering very attractive for young people, for whom some 4,000 places have been ring-fenced. Many young people whose employment has been especially adversely affected by Covid-19 will see this new programme as an excellent opportunity to improve their skills, get on-the-job experience and give them the confidence to find new employment opportunities.
Stringent safeguards are being introduced with this programme to guard against any abuses. Each participant will have a case officer assigned to him or her. There will monthly compliance checks and two review visits during the course of each placement. All roles will be quality-checked in advance to ensure there is a training and development aspect to the role. The work placement experience programme is a very positive initiative and I encourage jobseekers and businesses to engage with it.
I thank the Minister for her answer, which is kind of funny. The funny bit is the claim that it is an entirely new scheme. It is as if the Government knows that the old JobBridge scheme was so widely hated and discredited that it is practically telling us not to worry because it is not JobBridge. If the Government knows how hated and rotten that scheme was, why did it not take on board the consultants' recommendations? Why did it ignore the vast majority of the recommendations made in the report it commissioned?
The Minister of State referred to the amount of training participants will receive. Twenty hours will be accredited for sector-specific training. This means that the person has to work for 780 hours, of which 20 hours will be accredited training. This does not fill me with any hope.
In the Pathways to Work document, there is a clear reference to increased outsourcing of so-called case workers. This will mean a greater involvement of companies such as Seetec, Turas Nua and other companies that are currently involved in JobPath. This is a dangerous road to go down from the point of view of the public sector and jobseekers.
There is an alternative to these kinds of free labour schemes that displace existing jobs and undermine wages and conditions for all. The alternative is to invest in real educational apprenticeship schemes where people end up with a qualification at the end of them. Instead of being able to put on a CV that they worked for free for six months, they would then receive a qualification that they could take with them. Most important is actually creating jobs.
People will be paid an extra €3.50 per hour to go work for free for a private employer or, as happened with JobBridge, a public sector employer. Why do we not actually create some of the thousands of quality green, low-carbon jobs people need in bog rewetting, afforestation, home retrofitting, care, healthcare, nursing and education?
This strategy aims to get people back to work as the economy and the labour market recover from Covid-19. Pathways to Work 2021-2025 is a strategy that sets out 83 whole-of-government commitments aimed at reducing unemployment to or below pre-pandemic 2019 levels.
A key commitment under the strategy is the new work placement experience programme. This active labour market programme provides quality training and work experience opportunities for jobseekers out of work for six months or more to learn new skills in the workplace and to help them find new jobs. I have already outlined - I will do so again - that this work placement experience programme is different from earlier versions. It is positive that we can always strive to improve schemes and programmes. These will be quality placements involving accredited training and development and a higher payment rate than previous schemes of €10.20 per hour for 30 hours per week. Importantly, participation in the scheme will be completely voluntary and that point is very important. Nobody has to participate in this scheme. If you do not want to participate and decide not to do so, there will be no impact on your social welfare payments. I believe, however, that the programme will prove very attractive to many people. The payment rate of €306 per week is equivalent to open labour market rates. It equates to €10.20 per hour. The programme will provide six months' work experience with in-built training opportunities for 10,000 people. The training opportunities comprise 60 hours per placement, of which 20 hours will be accredited. Of course, there need to be appropriate safeguards such as stringent measures in place to include advance checks on placements, confirmation of training plans, monthly compliance checks and case officer engagement with the host and with the jobseeker over the six-month period. It is really important to say that apprenticeship programmes are proven internationally to be effective at helping people to get their foot in the door, to get on-the-job experience, to develop skill sets and, ultimately, to improve their chances of securing employment.