Why we need an inclusive High Road Covid-Era Back to Work Strategy
Author: Dr Mary Murphy
In the space of just a few weeks, Covid-19 has fundamentally reconfigured the relationship between welfare and work in Ireland. In this blog post, Dr Mary Murphy, Senior Lecturer at Maynooth University, examines why we need an inclusive high road back to work strategy as we transition out of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The sectors most severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic are more likely to be populated by young, migrant, or women workers (including lone parents), many of whom are low skilled and precarious workers. Up to 40% of those who recently lost employment in the most severely impacted sectors are renting. Many were also previously in low pay jobs, and more likely to be in debt, often for basic utilities and small loans. Many now worry that, when the present moratorium on rent increases and evictions ends, they will face the reality of rent arrears, possible eviction and homelessness.
The sectors most severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic are more likely to be populated by young, migrant, or women workers (including lone parents), many of whom are low skilled and precarious workers.
While the issues facing these new jobless low paid workers are of course worthy of attention we need to also remember that pre Covid-19, there were already too many unemployed on the Live Register and that over half a million working age adults were depending on other inadequate income supports for their daily survival. While recent public commentary often refers only to the 1.2m on the Live Register, on Pandemic Unemployment Payments and on the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme, in fact Fig 1 shows that nearly 1.8m people or almost 60 percent of the labour force are depending on state income.
There is a sharp contrast between the weekly €203 social assistance payment that most pre Covid-19 welfare claimants try to survive on, and the more adequate €350 Pandemic Unemployment Payment that is in place for those newly unemployed. So too the new, more generous means test extended to new Rent Supplement claimants contrasts sharply with the pre Covid Rent Supplement means test which reduced people to a €171 after rent income (less than half the PUP).
To date there has been little discussion of the inequality involved in leaving people who were unfortunate enough to be unemployed, disabled or to have caring obligations before Covid-19 on €203, while paying €350 to those who lost their jobs due to the virus. Some have suggested this continues the sense of ‘new poor/old poor’ distinctions that were made during the global financial crisis, while others have called attention to how the poor law distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor can so easily resurface.
While no one questions the logic and efficiency government showed in delivering an income support quickly to a very large number of people, pre-Covid claimants, including many of the tenants in Focus Ireland accommodation, have good grounds to feel it is fundamentally unfair to demarcate two different welfare populations. While the focus now, understandably, is getting people back to work as quickly as possible we need to remember that many people are not job ready and require significant support to return to work. While also living in relative poverty, pre-Covid there were significant gaps in services to enable specific groups, including people experiencing homelessness, to re-enter the labour market.
In that context we need to avoid returning to a ‘normal’ that did not work for many people. Poorly designed activation programmes, which tend to over-rely on conditionality and sanctions, are harmful, but good quality well-designed and enabling supports can help people regain employment. We need active support to help people get back as quickly as possible to decent jobs. Active Labour Market Policies (ALMPs) (including public employment services, guidance, job and skill matching, short and long term training, job creation programmes, wage subsides and in-work benefits) are a necessary part of the Covid-19 response.
But we need also to meet people where they are. Many people are likely traumatised; sudden unemployment has psychological impacts, and renders our mental health more vulnerable. For people who have already been traumatised and suffered adverse life experiences, we must ensure that policies and practices to reduce unemployment do not further traumatise people, especially amidst legitimate fear about going back to work safely in the context of social distancing. We need a ‘High Road’ recovery that leaves no one behind.
The pre Covid 19 labour market was a ‘low road’ labour market for 23 per cent of Irish workers who were low paid in 2017, making the rate of low pay in Ireland one of the highest in the OECD, let alone the EU. 110,000 people in work were living below the poverty line of €264 per week for a single person household. A new activation strategy needs to be developed on a ‘decent work first’ basis, with attention paid to a goal of progression over time from low paid employment. Such a “High Road” strategy needs to target low skills sectors and upskill low paid workers. Digital exclusion is a reality for many. Digital skills will be an increasing necessity in a labour market characterised by new forms of remote working, but will also be necessary to access public services and social participation.
Too many were left behind in the previous crisis, following the financial crisis of 2008-2010 and related austerity. Fig 1 above shows ,in addition to those on the live register in 2018, 564,659 people were not on the live register but dependant on other working age payments (including lone parent, disability and carer’s payments). This includes for example people who are homeless, those who live with addiction, people with criminal records and others who face specific barriers to employment. We cannot afford to leave so many people behind again. Meaningful work-life activation is targeted, holistic and integrated, responding to local individual needs over a longer time frame, and includes in-work progression. A Public Employment Eco System (PEES) is needed where a facilitative state enables the available network of employment services to maximize sustainable employment for all.
Read the full report The ‘High Road’ Back to Work: Developing a Public Employment Eco System for a Covid Era Recovery, co-authored by Murphy et al 2020 here.
 Wilson, T. Cockett,J Papoutsaki Dafni and Takala H (2020) Getting Back to Work Dealing with the labour market impacts of the Covid-19 recession London Institute for Employment Studies (IES) https://www.employment-studies.co.uk/system/files/resources/files/547.pdf
 Social Justice Ireland (2020) Low Pay in Ireland is Still a Huge Issue. 20 March 2020. See: https://www.socialjustice.ie/content/policy-issues/low-pay-ireland-still-huge-issue.
 Murphy M.P. (2016) Low road or high road? The post-crisis trajectory of Irish activation, Critical Social Policy 36 (2) 1–21.