As the mess that is the state’s employment strategy becomes clear James Redmond talks to the unions about the rot at the centre of the scheme.
The real lambs to the slaughter here are recent graduates. So where does the Union Of Students stand? They have a huge problem understanding themselves as workers, and with their membership of IBEC, we really weren’t expecting much from them. If you ever paid attention to this most spineless of organisations you won’t be surprised to hear it call the scheme “a very welcome development” before claiming credit for it. In truth, the wee political careerists did invent the damn thing. Check out their ‘Reigniting the Smart Economy’ document. A misery of failed imagination, that leaves expenses optional for employers, and trots out worn Thatcherite banalities about the ‘ethos of entrepreneurship’ as if we can all Del Boy our way out of this mess.
Irish unions aren’t known for their drive, so it was no surprise the vast majority of enquiries we made about the internship scheme went unanswered. From those we talked to, it was easy to see a consensus of concern. First up is the fear of displacement. As John Douglas of Mandate explained: “In the retail trade, the sector we deal in and there are other service sectors such as hotels, and restaurants, and cleaning where we would be extremely skeptical of where these back to work schemes are appropriate. Because when there was jobs available, there was no massive training or great input from the employer.”
He feels that many of the jobs advertised in his sector are glamorised with very little training involved. “The Superquinns and the Dunnes and Tescos of this world would train a shop assistant in 48 hours max. So there is no need for 6 months in an internship to learn how to put beans on a shelf or to hang clothes on a rack.”
The unions express a huge fear that there is no proper regulation. This was a major concern of Esther Lynch in ICTU who told me that congress has issued circulars to activists to keep an eye on employers using the schemes. She advises interns to get in touch at a workplace level with whatever union is in there if they are being mistreated. “Absolutely you can go to the union for advice with out necessarily having to be a member.” She went on to say ICTU has sought representation on the steering committee of the scheme at a national level, but so far this has been disgracefully refused by the state.
While the unions might adopt a rhetoric of offering protection to those on internships, the nature of the programme means that what happens a scheme participant when they enter a workplace might differ. As Douglas explains: “they are going to feel very isolated.” Lynch seemed to agree, she was hugely worried about the power imbalance implicit in the scheme:
“If you put into that mix someone who will also lose their job and their social welfare if they speak up, that is a recipe for abuse” Complaints are already mounting in, “lots. Loads. A Lot” as she put it to me over the phone. Both urged people to get in touch with the unions.
The scheme itself is hard to judge against its own criteria. Douglas felt this will only come at the end of the first cohort, if statistics are kept.
“That will give you a real indication if there are real jobs there and if it is a real training initiative, and is it a two way street with employers having a six month look at somebody with the real prospect of giving them a job or is it really just a way of churning numbers through a system and off the dole.” An interesting point made by Lynch was how these schemes are undermining existing career pathways: “If you are going to be a chef, there is already a scheme in place around how you progress in that career. Putting in 9 months unpaid internship into that is inappropriate.”
For Douglas there was a clear bigger picture too: “I don’t think you can take this whole internship issue and look at it in splendid isolation, I think it is a product of the mismanagement of the economy. its a product of a banking system and a capitalist system gone mad which has now imploded on itself and this is just one example of it trying to plug the many leaks in the dam.”