Impact has commissioned a report by Dr Mary Murphy of NUI Maynooth on the functioning of the JobBridge internship scheme. This report has to be welcomed as it is the only funded public policy analysis on JobBridge since the deeply flawed Indecon Report of 2013 (see previous blog: Jobbridge Whitewash). It includes many admirable recommendations on issues like compulsion, social insurance contribution and the privatization of job search support. However, it also raises some serious concerns for those of us opposed to both JobBridge and the growth of internship culture in general.
Murphy agrees that with the bulk of the academic literature which stresses that a labour activation process like JobBridge must be targeted to the specific needs of the individual. A one size fits all approach only leads to processes being put in place that predominantly benefit those best able to help themselves. Therefore she recommends that a specific scheme be targeted at unemployed graduates, which will be run by the Higher Education Authority.
Unfortunately the report explicitly accepts how unpaid internships have become a normal rite of passage in many middle class professions; such as the media, law, publishing, advertising and almost all of the “creative” industries (Murphy 2015, 33). This is indicative of how the JobBridge internship scheme has actually been of serious benefit to the middle class families of young adults who wish to pursue careers in these areas. The costs of supporting them while doing their unpaid internship has passed from the family to the state, the industries themselves will still not pick up the tab. Under Murphy’s recommendations this bias towards aspiring middle class professionals will continue and, if anything, will become better funded and more targeted to their needs. And considering that the current one size fits all model of JobBridge has deadweight figures (this is the number of young people in the scheme who would have found paid employment without it) of up to 64.8% it is likely that any specific graduate programme would have even higher levels of abuse.
Early School Leaver Internships
On the other side of the educational divide, the report recommends that specific internship schemes be targeted at early school leavers and the long term unemployed. They are supposed to be of shorter duration to the JobBridge programme and aim to focus on a rather vague objective of “soft skills” for the unemployed. The concern is that the term of “soft skills” represents academic code for the business orientated jargon of “time management” and “customer service”. Which could still lead to a scenario where middle class interns end up in state funded positions in the IFSC, while their working class counterparts are learning how to show up on time in order to run a till in their local corner shop.
Who is going to pay?
The report recommends that interns receive at least minimum wage for their work, which would equate to €330 for a 39 hour week, much more than the €50 top up on welfare they currently qualify for. It also recommends that employers make some contribution to the cost of the internship. On the face of it this seems like a welcome recommendation but the employer’s contribution is only to include training, mentoring and social insurance costs. We have already seen how ridiculous the training aspect of JobBridge has been and Ireland has very low employer PRSI contribution rates. This recommendation will still lead to a policy outcome in which the state funds the near total costs of entry level positions in the private sector, with the employer only making a token payment in PRSI. This means that our state will still subsidise the wage bills of private sector employers with no care for the impact that this has on the wider labour market and no regard to the unfair competitive advantage gained by companies who utilise this free labour scheme.
Abolition not Reform
The most disappointing element of the report is how it nearly unconsciously accepts the neoliberal narrative on unemployment and internships. So the issues that are highlighted as being contributing factors to youth unemployment are low education, little work experience and lack of self-esteem (Murphy 2015, 33). Obviously this is a factor for a tiny minority of disadvantaged youth, but the main reasons for high youth unemployment levels are the impact of the Great Recession, the failure of society to cater to their basic needs and the structural role that unemployment has taken in the economies of the Global North. By placing the blame for unemployment on the perceived failings of unemployed youth, the report contributes to a neoliberal discourse that emphasises the individual’s responsibility for issues which were once seen as a problem for society. Therefore the unemployed are portrayed as being the main culprits behind their joblessness, not the system that created the lack of jobs.
The report takes a similar view on internship culture which it views as something that needs to be regulated and reformed, rather than eliminated. The report goes so far as listing six qualifying criteria for unpaid internships which the state should regulate; as if unpaid interning is not a direct attack on those in work and those unable to find work (Murphy 2015, 33). This represents a strategic difference within the Left and the trade union movement in general; between those advocating harm reduction and those advocating resistance to internships on principle. Unemployed youth working for nothing (even in prestigious professions) is surely anathema to everything organised labour stands for, if this is accepted as a cultural norm by the trade union movement it will represent another instance of an aging membership ignoring the needs of future workers. Instead of reform, the Left should organise for legislation making unpaid internships illegal and to push for state led job creation programmes through the provision of social housing or even through the expansion of the socially necessary Community Employment Schemes. In order to become a part of the growing resistance to JobBridge and the culture of internships, join the #WorkMustPay campaign.