A bridge too far?

Intern 2
Scrutiny of the Government’s JobBridge scheme has continued with the release of a new study.

Impact, the largest public sector trade union, has published a report on the JobBridge programme amid increasing concern among its members that it is being used inappropriately. JobBridge was initially introduced in 2011 as a temporary emergency response to high levels of unemployment and subsequent mass emigration. However, a series of problems have been identified within the scheme’s current format.

‘JobBridge: time to start again?’, commissioned by Impact and produced by NUI Maynooth’s Mary Murphy, has called for the “one size fits all” scheme to be “fully dissolved”. Instead, she calls for efforts to be refocused upon a new series of bespoke programmes.

Deputy General Secretary of Impact Kevin Callinan remarked: “Even those who welcomed the introduction of JobBridge in 2011 have been surely troubled by the reports of abuse and exploitation which have dogged its reputation and greatly undermined its positive outcomes.” In order to avoid the erosion of long-standing labour market standards, the report calls for more regulation for all internships through a national framework.
The study has produced 19 recommendations for the future of any internship programme. These include:

• new targeted programmes to meet the needs of distinct groups e.g. early school leavers, graduates and the long-term unemployed;
• financially compensating interns at the trainee rate of minimum wage;
• the duration of state-funded internships should be decided on a case-by-case basis;
• the volume of active labour market internships should be capped at
5 per cent of total active labour market interventions;
• internships should be banned in low value added private sector employment and postponed in the public sector until the recruitment moratorium is lifted;
• access to schemes should be facilitated through regional internship strategies (similar to the Action Plan for Jobs); and
• the remit of the Low Pay Commission should be expanded to include regulation of all internships and encouraging professional associations to develop ethical internship schemes.

The report was welcomed by the Department of Social Protection. Minister of State Kevin Humphreys stated: “Now that we are in a very different place to where we were four years ago when JobBridge was launched, it is only right that the scheme should be reviewed and revised to take account of changed economic circumstances and operational experience.”

At the same time, the department has defended the programme and pointed to the conclusions of a 2013 Indecon Economic Consultants report which found that 96 per cent of host organisers would recommend the JobBridge scheme to other employers, while 89 per cent of interns agreed that they had learned new skills through the programme.
However, the focus of Murphy’s report extends beyond JobBridge and contends: “It is clear that even if JobBridge is closed tomorrow, the use of unpaid internships has replaced many traditional entry routes in the Irish labour market. A culture of unpaid internships is now a cultural norm.”

Though accepting that the use of internships has increased on a global scale, Murphy also highlights the successful legal challenges made against the non-payment of interns in the US and UK in 2011. She emphasises that increased monitoring and regulation can prevent abuses. The report outlines six criteria laid down by the US Supreme Court which define an internship, and distinguish between these and jobs which require at least a minimum wage.

Conversely, the department maintains that all six of these measures already apply to JobBridge and that, where feasible, host businesses are directed to fill positions on the national minimum wage, rather than through internships.

Overall, the scheme has continued to attract widespread criticism and there is a perception that some employers continue to abuse it by employing interns to complete work that would otherwise require a salary. Likewise, at the conclusion of these internships, it is often the case that interns will fail to secure a permanent contract. The Indecon report indicates that only 19.5 per cent of interns gain employment with their host organisation, while another 16.8 per cent obtain employment within another organisation.

Similarly, a National Youth Council report published in February found that 44 per cent of young people who undertook a JobBridge scheme agree that their internship was used for the free labour. The council’s Deputy Director, James Doorley, stated: “JobBridge is providing valuable work experience for some and supporting others into employment. Overall, however, the scheme is lacking in quality. As the scheme is being operated by the State and funded by the taxpayer to the tune of €85 million a year, we should demand and expect much higher standards and much better results.”

Mary Murphy’s report indicates that JobBridge is “clouding” the need for new posts within the public sector and replacing entry-level jobs elsewhere – 30 per cent of employers would have hired new employees even in the absence of the programme.

The overarching objective of the report is to create a reformed national internship programme which helps groups with distinct needs to enter the labour market and provides protection for interns.
Kevin Callinan commented: “With strong economic growth now returning and increasing employment levels, we need our labour activation measures to adapt to reflect these changing realities.”

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