Harney is wrong on jobless challenge
BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN
With Leinster House in mothballs for the summer and the long
August break beckoning for the Dublin Government, what better to
hype up than the latest unemployment figures. It helps detract
from the tribunals, the negative poll coverage, and the ongoing
attacks of foot and mouth afflicting various coalition members.
For the record, the amount of people receiving social welfare
payments fell by 4,200 in June. The seasonally adjusted figure of
unemployment fell to 156,753, which is an 18-year low.
Armed with such figures, Dermot Ahern, minister for Social
Community and Family Affairs and Mary Harney, Enterprise Trade
and Investment minister, went into self-congratulation mode.
Ahern was more circumspect, merely welcoming the figures and
saying they were proof of the success of the Dublin Government's
``active labour market and education programmes''. Harney was more
forthright. She described the figures as a ``remarkable
performance''. The problem now, according to Harney, was to ensure
``an adequate supply of labour is available to meet the needs of
an economy that is growing strongly''.
The Enterprise minister belongs to that growing list of people
who are obsessing about labour shortages at a time when there are
easily hundreds of thousands of people looking for work.
However, recent data produced both in Ireland and Britain shows
that the problems facing the unemployed and ordinary workers are
much more complex than Mary Harney is perhaps willing to admit.
Last week's report on child poverty is a good example of the
issues that Harney is ignoring. The report shows that up to one
third of children in poverty are living in families where the
adults in the home are working. Worse still is the fact that the
number of families in this situation has actually increased since
1994. The survey uses data from 1994 and 1997.
Child Poverty in Ireland shows that in 1994, 10% of children
living in poverty were in households where at least one adult was
working, but the family income was still less than 50% of the
26-County average. In 1997, nearly 18% of families in poverty had
at least one adult working. So, falling unemployment had not
necessarily meant a fall in poverty.
Research findings in Britain echo these findings. A report
published this week at the annual conference of the Royal
Economic Society has found that unemployed workers who find a job
are three times more likely to become unemployed than workers who
actually move from one job to another.
The study also found that 20% of unemployed workers who got jobs
returned to unemployment within a year of starting their job.
This was partly because many of the new jobs being found by live
register claimants were temporary and ended within a year. Many
of the jobs that the unemployed were getting were disappearing
because of new technologies.
One of the reports authors, Rene Boheim, said: ``Our research
shows that during the 1990s a disturbing number of the unemployed
boomeranged from work back to unemployment.'' Boheim believes that
``policy makers need to focus on helping individuals secure
quality jobs with good prospects''.
One readily acknowledged route to such employment is found in the
range of new computer technologies and internet-based jobs. Some
in the media term these technology sectors as being part of the
So what chance do the unemployed have of getting these ``new
economy'' jobs. In Britain, a new survey by Which? Online shows
that the ``digital divide'' between people with access to internet
technology and those without is widening. The simple truth of the
Which? survey is that the more wealthy a family is, the more
likely they are to have access to the new technologies that are
so important in securing employment today.
By the same logic those, who do not have access to this
technology are being left behind not just in access to the
internet but also in access to quality, well-paid employment.
In the Six Counties, unemployment also fell to a record low this
week. However, as in the 26 Counties, there is still the same
culture of low wages, low skills and long-term poverty.
Mary Harney is set, like many of her fellow ministers, to take a
month off. Last year she went to a luxury villa in the south of
France with Charlie McCreevy. Maybe if the two of them are
planning to holiday together again this year they will take time
out to truly consider the real nature of the unemployment problem
in Ireland rather than mouth the usual meaningless platitudes
when the next set of live register figures are published.
Maybe they could bring Six-County Enterprise Trade and Investment
minister Reg Empey with them and come up with an all-Ireland
strategy to tackle these problems. Now that would be novel.