Friday, October 17, 2003

The Great CES Scheme Scam finally sees the end of the day . . .

Back in my college days, a great scam was thought up by the government in order to provide vitally needed job placements for long term unemployed people. The CES/Fas scheme gave people 20 hours per week work at a better rate than the then enumployment payment would have gived them, while allowing them to keep the side benefits of being unemployed ("discretionary" payments such as rent allowance).

This was back in the days when like many graduates, I worked a string of part time jobs, with an income that amounted to less than 60% of the "average" in order to make ends meet. It was back in the bad old days of creches than paid a miserly £1.50 per hour and cafes that paid £2.50 per hour - and remember that this was still taxable! At the time, I remember seeing job advertisements seeking people with between 5 and 10 years experience for relatively modest roles. Graduate unemployment was huge - it took me 6 years between graduation in 1994 and 2000 to get a full time permanent position. Exploitation was rife.

At the time, the intention of this scheme was highly regarded as it gave people with no experience experience. And as they didn't lose their benefits, it allowed people to keep a finger in the world of work.

This was the theory. The reality was starkly different.

The reality, rarely mentioned in the lamenting of this scheme was a litany of exploitation and abuse as employers, many of them voluntary and state subsidised organisations, abused the scheme in order to get "free" employees.

For example, I remember quite a few friends who got "jobs" on FAS schemes that were fifth rate community theatres. Not one of them since has continued with an acting career. This was clearly a way for getting state funding for a concept that clearly did not deserve it.

Likewise a relation got a job as "security" for a voluntary institution that shall remain nameless. He ended up being managed, interestingly, by an old college friend. After almost a year of basically being a general dogsbody around the place, my relation applied for a permanent job which had come up. He was told by another manager "We couldn't offer the job to somebody from the FAS scheme", a clear indication of how the institution regarded the scheme to which they were quite happy to take "free" man power.

The worst abuse I saw was in schools, were the system was used to provide secretaries, caretakers, librarians and classroom assistants. The worst cases I saw were in well heeled middle class Dublin 6 national schools where parents were making large "voluntary contributions" in order to pay private music teachers, daram teachers, sports coaches and various other staff. Many of them also had to do supervision - for which teachers now get €37 per hour - as part of the job. It seems a bit rich that the teachers who demanded such a huge pay hike in order to do these jobs were quite happy to see non-teachers doing it for little or nothing. One school used to use the FAS employeed secretary to do the parish newsletter (and this was a Church of Ireland school!) A clear case of exploitation. I remember in another school how badly the classroom assistant was treated - as if she was just disposable.

And of course, these were disposable employees, who worked only for 12 months before the next victim was engaged.

The reaction of people on these courses has been very interesting. Nobody has celebrated the passing of this dirty scheme, yet statistics show that a staggering 80% of "graduates" of these schemes did not move into regular employment. Since the minimum wage was introduced, the pay rate for these schemes has fallen in real terms far beneath even the most "menial" of jobs - yet nobody has shouted for more. Why, then, has those on the course been so upset by the beignning of the end for the scheme?

The answer is that the scheme has been widely used as a "safety net" similar to the sheltered workshops for those with disabilities. One that doesn't even reward participants for the true value of their work. Many of those involved in the scheme have no intention of returning to work full time. Many are "serial benefit recipients" who expect to spend a long time on benefits (if not the rest of their lives). So they are not using the scheme in the way in which it was intended - to gain experience in order to get a permanent full time job.

Another reason why the scheme is so beloved of the professional benefit recipient is because these can continue with other payments on a sliding scale for some time - a few years, I believe. Also remember that the scheme was extended to other benefit recipients. Providing a nice scheme of entertainment for those on long term benefits.

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