burning jobbridges

Ireland has many good bridges, but the National Internship Scheme is not one of them.
Ireland has many good bridges, but the National Internship Scheme is not one of them. source

This is a longer and substantially less polite version of an article I wrote for an internal publication in a labour rights organisation (not in Ireland), where I am currently (lol) an intern (but a paid one!) But also not lol, because JobBridge is a trainwreck and needs to be scrapped immediately.

What is this bridge you speak of?

JobBridge is a national internship scheme set up by the Irish government, in response to high levels of unemployment caused by the spectacular crash of the Celtic Tiger economy in 2009. To qualify for the scheme, you must have been unemployed and receiving state welfare benefits for at least three months. If you secure an internship, you will be paid an extra fifty euro per week on top of your current benefits. The employer pays nothing, and may even be eligible for financial incentives. The total time you could potentially spend on the scheme is 18 months, divided over two or three internships. Which seems like an awfully long time considering that internships, by their nature, are intended to be temporary learning experiences that aid transition into real work.

The scandal train chugs on

Since its inception, JobBridge has ricocheted from one scandal to another. In 2011, enormously profitable supermarket chain Tesco was forced to pull ads for 145 “shelf-stacker” interns posted on the JobBridge website. Last year 58 teaching positions were advertised on JobBridge, asking for fully-qualified primary school teachers to work for welfare payments while their colleagues in the next classroom perform an identical job for a full salary.

There was also controversy in 2013 when the Irish government did not offer paid employment to a single one of its 228 JobBridge interns, despite Joan Burton – Minister for Social Affairs and obnoxiously staunch JobBridge advocate – stating that she hoped placements would act as “a job interview for a longer period of employment.” The four year recruitment freeze in the Irish public sector has only started to thaw in recent months, so obviously unpaid interns were an excellent way to fill the labour gaps left by cutbacks. JobBridge started 2014 off in style by allowing two different companies to advertise for extremely highly qualified “interns”. How highly qualified? A PhD in synthetic chemistry is a “base requirement”.

These are only the highly-publicized cases. The underbelly of the internet – blogs, Twitter feeds, comment threads, forums – reveals that the JobBridge website frequently posts advertisements for internships in menial unskilled labour, for everything from dishwashers and car valets, to groundskeepers and wait staff. The JobBridge to Nowhere tumblr has a collection of screenshots showing some of the most egregious examples, and Trinity News just started a new JobBridge feature, rounding up the worst of the worst every week. Similarly, ScamBridge publishes stories from interns who have ended up used, abused and just as unemployed as they were before entering the scheme. Participants who signed on with smaller companies reported that their “internship” often involved working as a one-person department with no training and no supervisor, never mind the elusive mentor promised in every single advertisement on the site. One “intern” reports being handed a mobile phone and told that she was expected to be available to take calls any hour of the morning or night, seven days a week.

Internships are generally rubbish, but they don’t have to be

As a feature of labour markets, it seems that internships are here to stay, replacing the entry-level job as a necessary (and expensive) period of purgatory in most professional fields. A government-regulated internship scheme had the potential to go a long way towards improving conditions for interns, by formalising their position in the workforce and defining their rights as employees. The scheme could have set out clear rules, measurable requirements and accountability mechanisms to guarantee that unpaid interns receive, at the very least, a valuable learning experience in exchange for their time and energy. The Irish government had an opportunity to set a precedent of good practice for other European countries where the culture of unpaid internships has taken root.

In stark contrast to this ideal, JobBridge takes all the worst abuses of internship culture and combines them in a government-backed scheme that was never about creating opportunities, but keeping up appearances in the face of dire unemployment. The problem in Ireland is not a lack of highly-qualified graduates. The problem is not a workforce that lacks experience, expertise, or a willingness to work.  The problem is that there are more people than jobs. Even a well-planned and conscientiously implemented internship scheme would not fix this problem, but JobBridge is, if anything, exacerbating the situation. As it stands, the Irish government has neither the resources nor the scruples to enforce its vague guidelines across the approximately 11,500 companies who have hired interns to date.

Shocker: culture of free labour hurts everyone

There is no doubt that JobBridge is a lazy, exploitative, underhand scheme. There is no doubt that the unemployed of Ireland are being sold a colossal crock of shit every time Minister Burton opens her mouth to tell them how successful the whole charade has been. But more crucially, it has not just hurt a substantial portion of the 20,000+ interns who their sacrificed time, energy and dignity to participate. JobBridge hurts the Irish labour market and it hurts our chances of economic recovery, because the government has effectively handed potential employers a mandate saying “Hello! No need to create any new jobs! Instead, please enjoy some high-quality free labour courtesy of the most vulnerable and desperate members of our society!”

By setting a precedent of working for free and pressuring people (specifically young people) to play along, the government is devaluing labour across the board. There is already substantial evidence to show that JobBridge internships are being used to replace actual jobs, therefore actively keeping people out of real work. Employers have also been hit by the recession and hard times erode integrity; more ludicrously exploitative “opportunities” appear on the JobBridge website every week as companies realise that they can avoid the expense and commitment of hiring a full employee and risk nothing more than a slap on the wrist if they are caught. Only forty companies have been disqualified for abuse so far.

A bridge out of Ireland

Recent years have seen substantial spikes in emigration rates and a sharp decline in the twenty-something population as Ireland’s best and brightest seek better situations abroad – a phenomenon that has been nicknamed the “brain drain”.  Meanwhile, Minister Burton has stated that there is no problem with companies advertising for interns with PhDs, because people can choose whether they apply or not. And she’s not wrong. We can choose. But when that choice consists of a) emigrate or b) stick around to participate in your own exploitation, it’s not hard to see why JobBridge is considered a national embarrassment. The Irish government has successfully driven away the smart and ambitious young workers the country so desperately needs to get back on its feet.

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