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20 May 1999 Edition

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Workers in struggle: Oranges and Apples - Labour market's strange fruit

BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN

     
The fact that there is a glaring discrepancy between the 106,000 people declared unemployed by the CSO in their Labour Force Survey and the 200,000 people measured by them as being in receipt of social welfare allowances was glossed over
A record low of unemployment -106,000, a record fall in joblessness - 65,000, an unemployment rate of 6.4%, a record number of people at work - over 1.5 million people. These were just some of the figures released to the press by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) last week.

The press briefing organised by the CSO was a relatively muted affair. One of the office's directors Gerry O'Hanlon sat flanked on either side by two researchers. As he went through the main points of the latest good news from the `Tiger' economy, an RTE camera man ambled nonchalantly through his shots and close ups. Only the occasional mobile phone interrupted the briefing and the gentle questioning that followed.

The worries of the journalists, employers representatives and other media commentators present was that we will actually run out of workers if the 26-County economy keeps growing at its current rate. There was, according to the CSO, ``increasing evidence'' of shortages in the supply of labour.

The fact that there is a glaring discrepancy between the 106,000 people declared unemployed by the CSO in their Labour Force Survey and the 200,000 people measured by them as being in receipt of social welfare allowances was glossed over.

It was fitting that the press conference took place in Government Buildings as the RTE camera crew also found its way to Bertie Ahern's office. Later, on that day's evening news, a serious but contented Bertie told George Lee how happy he was at the figures especially the coalition's record on job creation.

An Phoblacht asked the CSO would they not consider putting questions in their survey as to what wage rate all these new workers entered the work force at. Then we could find out whether the wages were above or below the incoming minimum wage, as well as ending the poverty trap myth that the unemployed are benefit dependent.

Gerry O'Hanlon replied there was absolutely no prospect of those being surveyed asked such questions. In a subsequent interview we again put the question of why are the wages of these new workers not being monitored as well as asking about the issue of discrepancies between the unemployment figures produced by the quarterly Labour Force Survey (LFS) and the monthly live register figures.

Gerry O'Hanlon told An Phoblacht that the LFS's is a type of survey that did not ask questions about money because it would increase ``non response levels'' in the survey and ``slow the process''.

     
We must know what quality of life these 1.5 million workers have, especially the new entrants
The LFS survey creates a snapshot of the state's labour market by surveying 3,000 households each week, building up to 39,000 in a quarterly survey.

Adding questions about wages would be a ``crude measure'' according to O'Hanlon. One interesting point about how the CSO actually measures wages is that it gets the data from the payroll systems of businesses. This is the only way wages are measured across the state, though unemployment is measured by surveys with at least two measures, as well as the monthly figures on live register and seasonal unemployment. It seems that one end of the labour market gets a lot more attention than another.

O'Hanlon gave what he termed ``varied reasons'' for why the different measures of unemployment produce such widely different figures, over 90,000 in a difference according to last weeks statistical release. He said that there were part-time workers and casual workers who appearing a s working in the LFS survey yet still sign on. There were people signing on for the continuity of contributions and for welfare credits who were not actually getting a payment and would not show up in the LFS survey as being unemployed.

There were said O'Hanlon a ``sizeable amount of people on the Liver register who have stopped looking for work''. Then there were other people not on the live register like spouses who wish to return to work and are unemployed but do not show up on any figures. ``You cannot get a full reconciliation, because you are comparing Oranges and Apples'' said O'Hanlon.

Sinn Féin's EU candidate in the Dublin area, Seán Crowe, responding to the figures said: ``The breaching of the psychological barrier of having 1.5 million people at work is an important achievement for the economy. However we must know what quality of life these 1.5 million workers have, especially the new entrants.

``We need to know how many can afford to house themselves and pay for other vital services? How many are earning adequate wages and are employed in proper working conditions? How many workers have actually entered dead end jobs with only the prospect of low wages and long hours until retirement?

``These are vital elements of any labour market survey and the CSO figures only give us half the picture''.

An Phoblacht
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