Ireland was among the European countries hit hardest by the financial crisis with unemployment soaring to 15 per cent. In the years following the crisis, Ireland’s economy has managed to rebound with its current unemployment rate down to 4.5 per cent. Despite this improvement there remains a group of people who have been left behind by the current labour market. The 4.5 per cent who remain unemployed is a different cohort of people than those the system has already helped. Those who remain unemployed in Ireland today are the people who are most at risk of poverty and need the most help, such as single parents, illiterate people, youth, and immigrants to name a few.
The proliferation of Precarious Work
These people have had to settle for precarious work, which can lead to a dangerous downward spiral. The first step the government can take to help those who settle for precarious work, especially given the current housing crisis, is to ensure that the minimum wage matches the Living Wage, but the main goal should be to help individuals find full-time employment. The Irish employment model that worked well for getting people back to work following the financial crisis needs to be modified and gaps in employment services need to be filled if the most disadvantaged individuals are to be helped to find steady and meaningful work rather than precarious work.
The three main challenges
During a conference at Maynooth University in June, Professor Sean O’Riain discussed the three main challenges that Ireland’s labour market faces in 2019.
- Almost two-thirds of people are students for a year or two after the leaving certification leading to a growing education gap that was not previously there
- The labour market is running away from those without higher education because the market favours those with higher education and has disadvantaged those with less education
- Employment at the “lower end” of the labour market offers a “low-learning trap,” meaning that employment at the lower end is dominated by “simple work”
These three challenges create a loop that makes it nearly impossible for those afflicted by one of these challenges to avoid the other two. This loop affects the disadvantaged and makes it difficult for them to be able to obtain full and meaningful employment. The issue of unemployment today is different from the issue of unemployment ten years ago, as ten years ago a plethora of people were out of work, today fewer are unemployed but the group that is unemployed is made up of those who younger, migrants, and other groups that are disadvantaged in today’s society. There needs to be a change in the current employment model to help reach those that have not yet been helped. Ireland would do well to keep the “capability approach” in mind when crafting a new employment model.
Enter the capability approach
The capability approach, as defined by Jean-Michel Bonvin, gives “real freedom to live a valuable life” and “real freedom to live a life that has reason and value.” The capability approach does the former by understanding that those disadvantaged need to receive more help (resources and guidance) and that the environment needs to be welcoming to them. For the latter, Bonvin is adamant that it cannot be just any job, it needs to a meaningful job but above all else, it is important that the vulnerable are listened to when dealing with the labour market. If the issue currently facing Ireland and employment is to help find long-term employment then the capability approach is well suited for this. By using the capability approach one is working to make space in the system for those on the outside and ultimately making the system more welcoming for them.
Those far away from the labour market face a different set of challenges ranging from lack of education and experience to lack of self-esteem and occupational knowledge that create different or larger gaps in the public employment services. The most prominent gaps today are information overload, gaps in training, and a lack of services to help support employment. At the conference, many of the participants believed that too much information was given to people all at once when they came to centres for help. Those working in the field see simplifying the information and giving multiple presentations, as a way to make it easier for clients to digest, as the best way to improve this specific gap. People simply do not know what they are entitled to. This lack of accessible public knowledge feeds into the loop mentioned earlier and helps lead to greater income inequality.
When looking at an issue like unemployment and trying to figure out how to solve gaps it is important to remember that equity is greater than equality. Not everything is one size fits all and programs and services need to reflect this to be able to reach everyone who needs help, especially when it pertains to those who are furthest from the labour market.
Nora Hassan is a research intern at TASC. She is currently a graduate student at North Carolina State University and is studying International Relations. She earned her BA in History, also from North Carolina State University, in 2017.