BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN
The elimination of long-term unemployment is now in sight, according to Enterprise and Employment minister Mary Harney. The minister was commenting on the latest Quarterly National Household Survey figures that showed over 1.6 million people working in the 26 Counties at the end of 1999, up over 100,000 on 1998.
The number of unemployed has fallen to 88,700, according to the survey. However, last Friday, Live Register figures for people without work signing on for social welfare payments in February came to 170,100. By any measure, unemployment is falling and this trend has been welcomed, but there is still a six-figure number of people without work.
52,000 people are working part-time in jobs where either the rate of pay or the number of hours worked are so low that the worker still qualifies for welfare payments
Surprisingly, the Dublin government recognises the scope of the problems facing thousands of Irish families today, despite its self-congratulatory hype on the falling jobless figures. The Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Dermot Ahern, has accepted that it is not just a case of finding a job but there is also the need to achieve ``employment that is well paid and sustainable''.
Ahern is also commissioning an employability study to see how the employment problems of people still on the register can be tackled. Of the current 170,100 people still signing on, 118,000 were signing on for the full week. The other 52,000 people are working part-time in jobs where either the rate of pay or the number of hours worked are so low that the worker still qualifies for welfare payments.
There is also the question of another 40,000 plus people on schemes. Account must also be taken of the number of women who want to re-enter the labour force but are not actually counted in any of the differing measures of unemployment. Female participation rates in the 26-County economy are coming close to EU levels but are still much lower than those achieved in Britain or northern European states.
There is a serious danger that in tackling the unemployment problem, the 26-County economy is creating a low wage ghetto economy at the same time. Alongside the February Live Register figures last week was new data on tax revenue for the first two months of the year. This data showed that tax revenues are up 18.5% on 1999.
This shows that the Dublin government still has swelling coffers and there is still a pressing need to invest this money in facilities and resources for the low paid. They need houses, they need access to education for themselves and their children. The first easy step is to take these workers out of the tax net. For now, the Dublin government seems content just to count up the money. This short-sightedness will cost us all in the long run.