The Dignity Of Work

I have recently spent more time than is healthy flicking through the suggestions proposed to Your Country, Your Call, Ireland’s latest doomed exercise in Magical Thinking. They are hilarious, of course, but there’s a desperate edge to much of my laughter. Because the ideas are not just stupid. They are often illegal, and sometimes dangerous.

One of the most common suggestions has been that the unemployed be made to work, in various ways, for the benefit of the nation. The top two suggestions, last I checked, were variations on this theme. The idea is very much in the air these days, being regularly aired on current affairs and discussion programs as a way of killing two birds with one stone – getting people back to work, and putting all hands to the pump in the cause of saving the nation’s economy. It is so current, that I think it needs to be pointed out that it cannot bear scrutiny for more than a number of seconds without its hopelessly impractical and socially and economically damaging nature becoming apparent.

The notion of forcing people to work for their social welfare payments is not new, and is known as “workfare”. It has been tried in some countries, with limited success. But whereas the old call was for this work to be of a socially useful nature, it is more often suggested now that this be for the good of “the economy”, in other words, that private, for-profit businesses receive the benefit of forced labour, paid for by the state. It was probably inevitable that after years of taking credit for apparently selflessly “creating jobs”, the private sector would come to regard itself as primarily charitable in nature. The proposition is simple: Companies are having a hard time meeting costs, and people are having a hard time finding jobs. Make people work for free and both problems are solved.

The primary obstacle to this is that it is, in all likelihood, illegal under EU law. It is State Aid, the subsidisation by the state of private industry, and contrary to competition laws in that it gives Irish business an unfair advantage over businesses in other member states. But even if it were not illegal, such a scheme would be profoundly damaging to the economy. It cannot, even in the short term, be economically wise to prop up unprofitable companies on such a scale. With “wages” so low, demand for the products and services provided by these business will also be low, at exactly the same time as they go into overproduction due to their extra new staff. The glut of products on the market will drive prices down, furthering the cycle of deflation. Further, prices and wages will stay low, because the entire economy will have been artificially stabilised.

Further again, how long is such a scheme proposed to last? Even if it did succeed in bringing companies back into profitability, at what time is it proposed that the social welfare recipients thus employed will take the step up to full employment? Why, and when, would a company who are getting staff for free suddenly decide to start paying one of them? And if they did, which of their previously unpaid workers would get the real job?

So much for the private sector. Public or community-based work, though not blocked by the same European Law problems as private sector work, is not without it’s drawbacks. Firstly, it is of no direct benefit to the economy. It might be nice, socially and aesthetically, to have litter-free streets, or well pruned hedgerows, but sending the unemployed to do such work has no bearing on the economy. Indeed, in the case of any serious work, it denies the private sector a possible contract, thus putting pressure on companies previously reliant on such work, perhaps ultimately putting them out of business.

As with the private sector version, there arises the question of demand. How much of the work to which people will be put is actually necessary? There’s only so much litter to pick up, so many hedges to trim. In any case, all but the most basic of tasks will require equipment and supervision. Even with free labour, this scheme would constitute a massive increase in public sector spending, at a time when the common view is that a reduction in same is required.

Demand, in fact, is the key here. The economy is not in trouble because labour cost too much. If demand is sufficiently high, it will be worthwhile for businesses to pay whatever the market demands that labour should cost. An artificial reduction (or in fact abolition) of wages does not solve the demand problem, indeed it worsens it. But that is not the real motivation of the scheme. The real motivation is the same as that which was behind the Victorian Poor Law. It is the furious certainty that somewhere out there, people are getting something for nothing. Being on Social Welfare must then be made so unpleasant that recipients finally decide they’d rather work. This, of course, assumes that there are jobs to be had.

There will always be people who are eaten up by the idea that money is being given away for nothing. These are the people who propose stringent and thorough means tests for all state benefits. Tell them that means testing often costs so much to perform that it makes the programs more expensive, and they will reply that a principle is at stake. They would rather cost the state more than give anything to people they consider layabouts.

This is the primary philosophical objection to workfare: it assumes everyone is abusing the system. If the primary purpose of unemployment benefit is to keep people going while they search for work, then workfare is of no use. It deprives people of the time needed to search for employment, and where necessary to retrain.

A few years ago, Ireland was as close to full employment as it is possible to get. At one point, in Dublin, less than 1% were in receipt of Unemployment Benefit. Indeed, we had a labour shortage (demand, you see) that we filled with migrant workers. Now, unemployment is, according to the latest figures, at 12.6%. Perhaps the extra unemployed, previously in gainful employement, all decided to become lazy leeches off state largesse. But it seems like a remarkable coincidence that they did so at exactly the same time as the economy contracted. Maybe, just maybe, they’re not working because the jobs aren’t there.

Finally, (and I leave this point to last, because, though I believe it wholeheartedly, it is the sort of thing that sounds hopelessly quaint these days), there is such a thing as the dignity of work. Many of those unemployed worked in areas in which there is simply no work now. Having them out tending flower beds outside the local parish church, for payment that barely covers the essentials, is detrimental to the morale, the spirit we are repeatedly told is needed to overcome our current economic problems. Camus wrote that “there is dignity in work only if it is work freely accepted”. If it came to it, many would rather tend a bar in Australia by choice than be forced to work against their will in Ireland. If they left, they might think themselves betrayed by their country. They would be right.


  • I’d like a robust discussion that takes on board your points while also analysing your perspective of the German example of mandatory social service and the historical case of the Work Progress Admininstration during the Depression in the USA.

  • Fergal Crehan says:

    I don’t think either of those programs are a like-with-like comparison, Bernie. The WPA paid wages according to skill level, at the prevailing wage rate in the region in question. It was actual employment, rather than workfare. It lacked most of the objectionable elements of workfare, but I’m not sure if huge inflation in public employment is politically or financially possible in Ireland.

    As to the German program, it is, as I understand it (correct me if I’m wrong) an alternative to military service. It is not conceived as an economic solution, but comes from a notion of service owed to the State which is not part of the the tradition of this country. It may or may not be a good idea, but it’s not really the same thing as what this post is about.

  • steve white says:

    perhaps you could post a summary of this on ycyc in the link you gave, he’s not exactly proposing workfare and people have made your point on the page, but if you feel strongly that a lot of these proposals are being made on ycyc post it there

  • Antoin says:

    First, employers are not calling for workfare as you imply. Conscripted workforceS are not as practical and cost effective as you might think, for the same reason that mass conscription is not something that modern armies get involved in. I think ibec and the generals would be on the same page as Camus regarding this. I fear you are building a human shaped entity intended to scare off birds here, however unintentionally.

    You do make a good case for dropping the minimum wage a bit in response to falling Global demand although that was not your intention. I am sure you would agree that it is an affront to human dignity to forbid a mature, experienced from working in a cafe because they are only paid 9.19 an hour.

    Your remarks about demand are textbook but wrong in the Irish context. They would make great sense in brazil or Spain but they are not relevant to Ireland. The reason is that Ireland is a small open economy, with no energy or mineral resources, dependent entirely on international demand for labour intensive products and services.

    Because we live in a service economy, not manufacturing or extraction, there is value to anything which increases quality of life like having clean streets. I am simply stating that, not advocating compulsory cleaning rotas.

    It is strictly speaking forbidden to go on a training course whilst on the dole. You have to be available for work.

  • Simon McGarr says:

    I await a YCYC proposal to pay Orson Welles to present avant-garde theatre around the nation at public expense.

  • Fergal Crehan says:


    I’m not implying that employers are making this case. It is mostly being made by people who know nothing about running a business.

    My point about demand is that there simply isn’t enough work for people to do. What is a cafe supposed to do with a half dozen unpaid waitresses and no customers? The motivation behind workfare is to find something, anything, for the unemployed to do. Clean streets have value, as you say. But there is a limit to how clean they can be before you run out of streets on which to employ cleaners.

    As to training, the dole is only one of a number of schemes, some of which have different requirements regarding availability for work.

    Also, I don’t think conscripted workforces are practical or cost-effective. That was a significant part of my argument.

  • Fergal Crehan says:


    I should say that I wasn’t deliberately implying that employers were calling for conscripted workforce. On re-reading, I now see that I was clumsy in stating that employers see themselves as charities. Though I would maintain that some of them do, placing the statement in the particular place I did imply that employers were making this argument. This was not my intention.

    Also, on the training point, I note that I referred specifically to unemployment benefit (the dole) rather than to benefits more generally. Your point regarding availibility for work is therefore a valid correction.

  • Padraig McKeon says:

    Now we are getting to substance

    Recent readers of this blog will know where I stand on / in YCYC and in that context I disagree utterly with the first two points that you make;

    – I don’t buy into this “Ireland’s latest doomed exercise” and

    – I don’t find many of the entries to date on YCYC in any way amusing, much less hilarious.

    Thereafter I found myself engaged to the end and it is encouraging to see a meaningful discussion evolve which frankly is exactly the type of engagement YCYC wants and needs.

  • Antoin says:

    International competitiveness is the issue you are not considering.

    There is work to do for sure. A hotel or cafe might be viable and attractive to tourists if it were legal to employ people for 50c per hour less. less expensive services would make all wages go further and increase the standard of living. Foreign banks might transfer part of their operations here if costs were lower. high calibre individuals might find Ireland a more attractive place to live if prices were lower and the standard of living for a given wage were higher. If lower costs and a higher standard if living were available, intel might build another fab here. This is how excess labour supply can lead to greater competitiveness.

  • Kate Bopp says:

    Those who put forward the most offensive suggestion “let them work for their welfare” really need to inform themselves. The potential negative impact of this kind of removal of personal freedom is hard to quantify. Erosion of dignity being the first step of a descent into unimaginable woes. Great post Fergal.

  • Maire says:

    Excellent analysis – thoughtful, considered and honest. And non PC – such a relief! It is sad that the notion of the dignity of work is, as you say, quaint: taking pride in what you do matters both on a personal and a professional level: the professional because it means you do your job well, to your own material benefit and to the employers, and on a personal because feeling good about ourselves and who we are is intrinsically linked to what we do, which nowadays is too often considered to be ‘what we are’. I have always instinctively thought that the notion of having unemployed people doing such social work was somehow patronising and demoralising, but never fully considered why, so thank you for articulating it as well as you did.

  • Evert Bopp says:

    Fergal, while your arguments above are indeed valid and apparently necessary to be made publicly it also needs to be clear how this whole “Your Country Your Call” initiative is deeply flawed and hypocritical.

    First of all it starts from the pre-conception that there is someone out there with a brilliant idea that will in some shape or form counter this global recession. Let’s just assume that this person is out there, why would he/she need a this false appeal to national pride to actually spur them into action. Surely they are not wandering the roads of this green isle wondering what in gods name they can do with this superb idea? Surely the ingenuity to actually come up with this idea would also enable them to find the means and/or support to apply it in a practical manner? Also why should this person surrender all IP in relation to this idea in exchange for 100,000 euro?

    Furthermore the public image of the YCYC initiative smacks of insincerity. If this is such a selfless “call to arms” to save a drowning Ireland why don’t the great minds behind this noble campaign not commit to donating the profits that will be generated out of the winning idea shall be gifted to cause that has some kind of public interest? How about donating the profits to such causes as education, health care etc. on an annual basis? Now *that* would really benefit the country.

    This is nothing but a talent harvesting effort plain and simple. The organizers are looking for good ideas that can lead to a successful & profitable business venture. Statements in the FAQ such as “in a huge demonstration of social responsibility.” are disingenuous in the extreme. I have no issue with a competition for a brilliant idea with a 100k 1st prize but please do not market it as something that is for the greater good.

  • Very, very good post indeed. Perhaps one of the most noxious things about this trend is that it formalises an abdication of our own social responsibilities.

    The most succinct comment I heard on this was at a Mark Thomas gig in Dublin recently. Someone suggested (rather unwisely, given who he’d come to seee) that we should “make unemployed people clean the streets.”

    Thomas’ reply? “We already have people whose job it is to clean the streets. So you take their job off them, then make them do it again for nothing.”

    I love it as a metaphor; the great and good would be able to blithely dump all their crap on the pavement, and expect the most vulnerable to clean it up for them.

    It’s a pretty ugly vision of society, isn’t it? Shame it’s more or less government policy.

    I admire people who are angry by YCYC. I’m vaguely aware that I should be angered, but I find it all too stupid to take remotely seriously.

  • Padraig McKeon says:

    Evert’s assesment of the intent of the promoters of YCYC presupposes a great many things for which there is simply no evidence. The conspiracy theory that those behind YCYC are hatching a great plan for self enrichment supported by 30 odd companies and organisations and every media organisation in the country is just cliched, lazy thinking that adds nothing to anything other than the egos of conspiracy theorists.

    The irony here is of accusors who are themselves unwilling to contemplate entering a process for a potential national benefit unless they can see potential for much greater personal enrichement than what is on offer and thus being unable to appreciate and understand that not everybody looks at the world through such a narrow lenses. Is that the legacy of the ‘tiger’ era of inflated everything?

    As a general point perhaps the bigger learnings so far though are the limitations which some very bright people are placing on their own capability and imagination.

    How narrow does one’s view of what is possible have to be to believe that there are not a whole raft of ideas for progress out there untapped and unresearched? How limited is the thinking that insists that all the solutions are tif we just deal with [insert the personal bug bear issue] of the [Celtic tiger era]? Moreover it is clear that some folk have not yet copped it that the days of money chasing ideas are over, for now at least. We all have to work a lot harder for less and are entitled to little until we prove our worth.

    It is revealing that a great many people (in colleges, workplaces, families) don’t see YCYC as limited, stupid etc… that there are people that are prepared to engage in good faith without pre-conditions and guarantees and that people of that ilk represent the great majority of those engaging with YCYC While we have to acknowledge and respect contrary views, we cannot be run by them.

  • The biggest problem with #YCYC as far as I can see is that very very little research seems to have been put in to ANY of the proposals.

    Furthermore what if no idea is a viable option, as it seems likely at the moment will the two least worst ideas still win €100k??

  • Evert Bopp says:

    Padraig, excuse me but for someone working in the communications industry you are making a balls of communicating here.
    Leaving the veiled personal jibes for what they are don’t you think that one of the main reasons for all the flak directed at YCYC is that it’s reasoning, purpose and aim is not communicated very well? It took a lot of blogposts, newspaper articles and other forms of public questioning before there was even the slightest form of clarity about who was behind YCYC.
    Isn’t the first rule of communicating that the recipient “gets the message”?

    I would like to ask you something; if YCYC is purely for the greater good of the Irish nation then why are people asked to transfer their IP? How will this benefit the Irish people & assist the recovery? There are lots of other ways of doing this that would not require this.
    Really, I have no issue with the concept behind YCYC, it’s just all the false rhetoric that it’s wrapped in that galls me…

  • Sean says:

    To me this blogpost and some of the comments smack of typical Irish bedrudgery. Let’s shoot down anyone who has an idea before they can get off the ground, first we’ll start with people who submit ideas to YCYC and then we’ll move on to YCYC itself as an initiative. Personally, I welcome YCYC and I think Evert’s assumption that someone with an idea that could change the future of Ireland would act on their own initiative rather than needing a competition like this is complete bullshit! What about the guy who has a decent job and a family and his no.1 priority is on keeping a roof over his kids heads, do you think he’s going to risk that to try and develop an idea at the expense of his family? Not many would, especially in this economy.

    In relation to the ideas which Fergal considers to be such an assault on human dignity, the ones I have seen revolve more around a voluntary arrangement where people who are out of work and have certain skills that could add value to SME’s, that need them, are willing to work for those SME’s in order to a) Keep them active and sane (you can’t job hunt 9-5 everyday or the dignity you speak so highly of is completely eroded) b) to keep their skills and knowledge of their industry up to date and c) because they may effectively create the need for their job full-time and hopefully get hired themselves.

    Personally, if I was hiring for a job and I had 2 CV’s in, one of which was for a person who was simply jobhunting for 6 months after being laid off and one of which was for a person who was job hunting but also volunteering in a relevant role for a SME during those 6 months I’d have a pretty strong prejudice towards the person who showed ambition, drive and a distinct interest in the industry.

    Fergal, since you’re so omniscient about all the effects that an idea can have on all elements of the human psyche and the economy as a whole you might be the perfect person for YCYC, or would you worry too much about people laughing and ridiculing your ideas too?

  • Fergal Crehan says:


    There’s already nothing to stop people volunteering to work for free.Funny how few people are actually doing it.

  • Pádraig,

    “…there are people that are prepared to engage in good faith without pre-conditions and guarantees and that people of that ilk represent the great majority of those engaging with YCYC…”

    I would have thought that, by definition, these people comprise 100% of those “engaging” with YCYC.

    Your reference to people “who are themselves unwilling to contemplate entering a process for a potential national benefit unless they can see potential for much greater personal enrichement” is beyond disingenuous. I am sure many people would have no difficulty in surrendering IP for a nation-benefiting idea (although I find this notion of some brilliant one-sentence panacea for a nation’s society to be quite childish, frankly). The issue is that they are being asked to surrender it to private individuals or companies (in spite of the pictures of Mary McAleese YCYC are so happy to use), whose identity remains uncertain, and have no worthwhile guarantee whatsoever that this will be used for public good.

  • Padraig McKeon says:

    Evert, No offence taken but really, apart from a few people who simply refuse to believe what they see and hear, I don’t think there has been too much doubt for most people about ‘who was behind YCYC’ or what it is about since the day it was launched.

    To your second point…you ask “if YCYC is purely for the greater good of the Irish nation then why are people asked to transfer their IP?” Hmmm, let me see. If we let a winner keep the IP, what control over the benefit to the nation will that give us. What’s to stop a winner using the 100k to promote the proposal to the highest bidder elsewhere if there is nobody else that has a beneficial interest in the proposal – think that there would be more to be critical of were that to happen…?

  • Padraig McKeon says:

    Nyder, We’ll have to agree to differ as to the motivation of some people but there is no “private individuals or companies whose identity remains uncertain”. YCYC is run by a registered company An Smaoineanh Mor which has been granted charitable status by the Revenue Commisioners. Its Directors have been named here and elsewhere (and I have acknowledged that was not done clearly enough at the outset). It is working on the basis of contributions (cash, in kind services or people seconded) from over 30 organisations and individuals, none of whose interest gives it an opportunity to control the project and none of which gets any benefit from their involvement even to the point at the outset where the intention was that they wouldn’t get public reference to their being involved. Bottom line it’s all out there – you have to make up your own mind.

  • Evert Bopp says:

    @Padraic: “What’s to stop a winner using the 100k to promote the proposal to the highest bidder elsewhere if there is nobody else that has a beneficial interest in the proposal”

    And why should we trust the people behind YCYC to do so? How about you let the winner keep their IP and take an equity share for the 100k instead?

    Also I still do not see how this whole effort would lead to improving the economy past hopefully creating a successful enterprise. I mean there is no quick-fix solution. We need a seismic shift in private & public sector thinking and that’s something that even 100k and a room full of the brightest people will need time to accomplish.

  • Padraig McKeon says:

    Evert, There are no doubt other ‘structures’ for IP management other than the one that we have and indeed other than the one that you have suggested and each would have their advocates. As has been said a number of time salso it is the expectaion of YCYC that there won’t be any substantive, if any, IP in the the type of proposals most likely to suceed.

    It is reasonable of you to ask ‘why trust’. I know them and their motivation and I do and for those that don’t they are entitled to (and will see I believe) governance to a high standarad that will ally any concerns.

    In terms of improving the economy, no one is really suggesting that this one initiative will of itself fix all our problems, but if it is a stimulus, if it gets people talking, if it gets people thinking and if it opens out some opportunities or possibilities that require change and doing some things differently to be delivered, then it will have a value.

  • Allie says:

    With reference to what Padraig says above, I don’t think it’s fair to assume that criticism of YCYC comes just from begrudgers. I think that in essence the idea is a terrific one, but there are big problems with how it’s being worked out. When reading about the IP problem, the first person who springs to my mind is Tim Berners-Lee. He had a great idea, but if he had won such a competition as YCYC what would have happened to it? No doubt it would be tied up now in all kinds of legality and only a privileged few would be benefiting. I don’t see why a great idea can’t win the competition and be given the money (and help necessary to make it become reality) without the organisers laying claim to the IP.

  • CP says:

    This chap Fergal Crehan has so terribly missed the simplicity to which workfare can succeed, lends one to assume when he looks back at the questions he asked himself as a method of criticising the model that he must feel very shallow. Fergal, your out of depth if you can not see beyond your own negativity.

  • Simon McGarr says:

    I beg of you CP. Never write anything down again if that’s what you do to words.

  • […] a more elegant job than I could in examining the various merits and drawbacks. Fergal Crehan, in a perceptive essay written almost six months ago, covered the social angle on… Firstly, it is of no direct benefit to the economy. It might be nice, […]

  • Barry says:

    A very well written post. I agree with the well formulated analysis. Hopelessly impractical indeed.

  • rob says:

    YCYC probably came up with a few good suggestions. Unfortunately they are not displayed in the finalist proposals, as all good ideas with merit are always sidelined in favour of spin and more idiotic phraseology. I have never heard such absolute bullshit, in so few lines, as what is contained in those ideas. Ireland as a food and tourist “brand”. Who are the geniuses that pick idiotic ideas like this? It is simply unbelievable. If this is what was chosen, then God help us.
    Knowledge economy and digital hubs? How stupid do you have to be to not know that we are no longer considered the geniuses of the world. The handling of our economy has shown that quite plainly, our service levels are shit, our prices are among the highest in Europe. Why would a multinational CEO want to pay a million euros for a shoebox in Dublin so he can relocate here? Who would want to come here for the new food brand and pay through their arse for the pleasure?
    We are seriously doomed.
    O`Cuiv`s brainwave for indentured labour is doomed to failure like everything else FF does. No thought, no planning and absolutely no consideration for those who will be discriminated against. What a bunch of total wankers! Roll on the next election!

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