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13 July 2000 Edition

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Harney is wrong on jobless challenge


With Leinster House in mothballs for the summer and the long August break beckoning for the Dublin Government, what better to hype up than the latest unemployment figures. It helps detract from the tribunals, the negative poll coverage, and the ongoing attacks of foot and mouth afflicting various coalition members.

For the record, the amount of people receiving social welfare payments fell by 4,200 in June. The seasonally adjusted figure of unemployment fell to 156,753, which is an 18-year low.

Armed with such figures, Dermot Ahern, minister for Social Community and Family Affairs and Mary Harney, Enterprise Trade and Investment minister, went into self-congratulation mode.

Ahern was more circumspect, merely welcoming the figures and saying they were proof of the success of the Dublin Government's ``active labour market and education programmes''. Harney was more forthright. She described the figures as a ``remarkable performance''. The problem now, according to Harney, was to ensure ``an adequate supply of labour is available to meet the needs of an economy that is growing strongly''.

The Enterprise minister belongs to that growing list of people who are obsessing about labour shortages at a time when there are easily hundreds of thousands of people looking for work.

However, recent data produced both in Ireland and Britain shows that the problems facing the unemployed and ordinary workers are much more complex than Mary Harney is perhaps willing to admit.

Last week's report on child poverty is a good example of the issues that Harney is ignoring. The report shows that up to one third of children in poverty are living in families where the adults in the home are working. Worse still is the fact that the number of families in this situation has actually increased since 1994. The survey uses data from 1994 and 1997.

Child Poverty in Ireland shows that in 1994, 10% of children living in poverty were in households where at least one adult was working, but the family income was still less than 50% of the 26-County average. In 1997, nearly 18% of families in poverty had at least one adult working. So, falling unemployment had not necessarily meant a fall in poverty.

Research findings in Britain echo these findings. A report published this week at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society has found that unemployed workers who find a job are three times more likely to become unemployed than workers who actually move from one job to another.

The study also found that 20% of unemployed workers who got jobs returned to unemployment within a year of starting their job. This was partly because many of the new jobs being found by live register claimants were temporary and ended within a year. Many of the jobs that the unemployed were getting were disappearing because of new technologies.

One of the reports authors, Rene Boheim, said: ``Our research shows that during the 1990s a disturbing number of the unemployed boomeranged from work back to unemployment.'' Boheim believes that ``policy makers need to focus on helping individuals secure quality jobs with good prospects''.

One readily acknowledged route to such employment is found in the range of new computer technologies and internet-based jobs. Some in the media term these technology sectors as being part of the ``new economy''.

So what chance do the unemployed have of getting these ``new economy'' jobs. In Britain, a new survey by Which? Online shows that the ``digital divide'' between people with access to internet technology and those without is widening. The simple truth of the Which? survey is that the more wealthy a family is, the more likely they are to have access to the new technologies that are so important in securing employment today.

By the same logic those, who do not have access to this technology are being left behind not just in access to the internet but also in access to quality, well-paid employment.

In the Six Counties, unemployment also fell to a record low this week. However, as in the 26 Counties, there is still the same culture of low wages, low skills and long-term poverty.

Mary Harney is set, like many of her fellow ministers, to take a month off. Last year she went to a luxury villa in the south of France with Charlie McCreevy. Maybe if the two of them are planning to holiday together again this year they will take time out to truly consider the real nature of the unemployment problem in Ireland rather than mouth the usual meaningless platitudes when the next set of live register figures are published.

Maybe they could bring Six-County Enterprise Trade and Investment minister Reg Empey with them and come up with an all-Ireland strategy to tackle these problems. Now that would be novel.

An Phoblacht
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