I thank the Chair for the invitation to address the committee. As the Chair said, SIPTU and Fórsa represent over 350 workers employed in local employment services, LES, and jobs clubs throughout the country. Our members have provided a professional service to some of the most marginalised people in the State over the last quarter of a century.
The current model has served communities and jobseekers extremely well since it was established in 1995, building relationships with local employers and tailoring its operations to local circumstances. It is our strong belief that the tendering process which has now been embarked upon by the Department of Social Protection is deeply flawed, will ultimately lead to an inferior service being provided and will result in job losses for our members employed through the current processes. We note the committee’s position as outlined in its pre-budget submission and that is very much to be welcomed.
I will summarise the advantages of the current model, outline our concerns regarding what is being proposed via Request for Tender 2, RFT 2, and what we have learned from phase 1, summarise our engagement with the Department to date and put a number of requests to the committee.
Ireland has a mixed economy when it comes to public employment services. Some services, for example, Intreo, are delivered directly by the State. Others, including jobs clubs, employability and local employment services, are delivered by community organisations on a cost-met basis, while JobPath and others are operated by private agencies under payment-by-results contracts. The premise on which the current service provided by community, cost-met providers is based is the belief that unemployed people need help to get back into work and largely would like to work but that they have various barriers in their way to fulfilling their potential via work. The service has assisted many people to enhance their life outcomes and progress to employment and enterprise through person-centred guidance.
There are significant differences between the public employment services procured from private agencies via the market and those delivered by community organisations. JobPath staff are more likely to attribute being on welfare to jobseekers’ lack of effort, whereas LES and jobs clubs staff are more likely to say that it has to do with circumstances beyond people’s control. In other words, the JobPath view of the world is one where the emphasis on motivating the unemployed to move from welfare to work should be through threats of sanctions and other behavioural policy tools. That is not me saying that; it is the finding of an attitudinal study done by Maynooth college earlier this year.
The commissioning of JobPath was one of the first times public employment services had been commissioned in Ireland through competitive tendering for payment-by-results contracts. The Department of Social Protection's decision to procure regional employment services, RES, in a similar fashion is indicative of what is to come via RFT 2. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, both in Dáil debates and in responses to many parliamentary questions, has stated her Department would take learnings from RFT 1. This first phase was for four new proposed regional employment services. What we have learned is that some of the existing community-based organisations did not believe it was tenable for them to bid for the contract, due primarily to the financial risk that would result to the organisations. That came to pass particularly in the case of Laois-Offaly. Our members employed in these organisations now face being made redundant at the end of the year.
The position of jobs clubs, especially independent ones, is very precarious. That is an issue we can expand upon in our discussion.
The Minister and Department have stressed that there has been significant engagement with the sector to date. It must be noted that the Department only formally met the trade unions, along with the ILDN, on 17 September. We had been advised by Department officials that any engagement offered before this date with the trade unions would be by means of briefings. Although we do not claim to speak for the employers in the sector, we have been informed that this has largely been their experience also. While the Department will point to numerous meetings, the ability to alter and influence direction of policy formation and implementation up to the tripartite meeting held on 17 September has been negligible. At that meeting, the Department officials advised us and the ILDN that the principal reason the Department had embarked on the public tendering process was the necessity to comply with EU law in respect of public procurement. When we asked if this advice would be shared with us the officials informed us that the advice was not shareable. We have not been informed as to what principles of law, EU directives, Acts, sections, paragraphs of said directives or Acts the tendering process is being designed to address. We have merely been told that the Department has received "strong" advice from the Attorney General and Chief State Solicitor that the course of action it has undertaken was necessary in order to comply with EU law.
This has left the union side in an impossible position. We have not had sight of the legal opinion. We are not, therefore, in an informed position to rebut the legal argument. We strongly argue that the legal issues need to be shared, discussed and interrogated. A defence for such a radical marketised approach to public employment services based on meeting EU requirements is, we believe, a dangerous position to adopt. The consequences of such an approach, in other words, laying the blame on the EU for policy formation and implementation, played out to deadly effect in the Brexit referendum. It is not a politically sound approach to public policy formation and implementation in the long run.
I will set out our asks to the committee. We are looking for a stakeholder forum. The trade unions and the ILDN have stated on numerous occasions that they are not against change in the current structure of public employment services. However, it is imperative there is buy-in from all the stakeholders concerned. In recent years, our democracy has become more dynamic and participative. We are a more inclusive republic because of these developments. Citizens' assemblies, plebiscites on establishing elected mayors and various commissions on pensions and tax reform have all been important experiments in deepening participative democracy. We also note the commitment in the programme for Government to develop "sectoral social dialogue". Where better to commit to a process of sectoral social dialogue than in the community sector?
We need to build consensus around the future provision of public employment services. Marketisation of this essential social service does not have popular support, either among the public or their elected representatives. It is necessary to halt the tendering process and commence a wider debate about future provision. We are proposing a stakeholders' forum, comprising community-based organisations, service users, elected representatives, workers’ representatives and academics. The composition and structure of such a forum would ultimately rest with the Government but it needs to be inclusive and comprised of representatives of legitimate interests in the future evolution of public employment services.
On workers’ welfare, SIPTU and Fórsa are the two principal unions which organise in the community sector. Together, we represent in excess of 10,000 workers across the entire sector. Regrettably, although many of these workers are in employments which are, in the main, funded by public moneys, their conditions of employment are typically precarious and they are often poorly paid. We have been engaged in some interminable disputes across the sector. Restoration of pay in section 39 employments is ongoing, pension provision for community employment supervisors arising from the non-implementation of a Labour Court recommendation, which has been outstanding since 2008, is still ongoing, and we have the current dispute involving local employment services and jobs clubs employees.
Our members across the community sector have not received any pay increases over the past 12 years. Many have experienced pay cuts. Few have pensions. Many are on temporary or fixed-term ones. The only viable resolution for endemic precarious employment in the sector is the establishment of a collective bargaining forum with State participation to resolve industrial relations disputes which has the capacity to address terms and conditions of employment in the sector. If the current tendering process proceeds, it will lead to further downward pressure on terms and conditions. That applies even if community-based organisations were to win the contract, such is the precarious nature of the tender being offered. We want to have this structural change and stakeholder forum.
On the reform of the current tendering process, we have outlined our principal objections, the necessity to halt the current tendering process and the need to put in place a stakeholders' forum. However, it is necessary to outline the specific failings from RFT 1 which must be addressed in RFT 2. These issues include the upfront payments to mitigate financial risk, referral numbers, including a mechanism to deal with self-referrals, a dialogue process and time-lines. Members will have seen the lengthier submission we made so I will conclude at this point.