The strong response to the superficial and poorly-informed comments about Travellers made by Peter Casey in the presidential election can be interpreted as both a warning of the emergence of divisive politics and a signal that existing Traveller policy needs to be reappraised.
Public policy in any area should be evidence-based and logical, and should aim for efficient use of resources. This applies to Traveller policy.
The most recent report on Traveller policy is The National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021, published by the Department of Justice and Equality in June 2017.
This document concludes that Travellers and Roma are “among the most disadvantaged and marginalised people in Ireland” and provides strong evidence for this conclusion, showing that more than 80 per cent of Travellers are unemployed, only 13 per cent of Traveller children complete second-level education and male Travellers are 11 times more likely to be in prison and have a suicide rate seven times the average rate.
The report then goes on to reject “integration” as a strategy in favour of “inclusion”. It does this without either providing any definition of integration or inclusion or evidence to support this choice. It says: “Discussion with Traveller and Roma representatives and other relevant stakeholders has resulted in a change of emphasis from integration to inclusion, which is seen as better capturing what we want to achieve for these communities in our society”.
The difference between integration and inclusion, as seen by the Government, would appear to be employment.
The Traveller strategy lists six “key initiatives and developments arising from the development of the inclusion strategy”. Three of these are focused on identity and culture involving: “State recognition of Travellers as an ethnic group”; promoting “knowledge of and pride in Traveller culture and heritage”; and developing “ethnic identifiers”. The other three initiatives cover education, health and feuding. None of these key initiatives address unemployment among Travellers.
In contrast, the Government’s policy in respect of migrants is one of integration and does address employment. The migrant integration strategy published just four months before the Traveller report sets out a long-term vision of an Ireland where “migrants are enabled and expected to participate in economic life – in employment and self-employment” and outlines steps to “ensure that migrant needs in relation to skills acquisition and labour market activation are addressed”.
The failure to prioritise employment in Traveller policy is nothing new. Over the last 30 years unemployment rates in the community have remained consistently above 80 per cent. The 1995 report of the task force on the Travelling community said there were “very limited employment opportunities for Travellers” because of the then high level of unemployment, but Traveller unemployment remained above 80 per cent even during the labour shortages of the Celtic Tiger boom and continue now when we are again facing labour shortages.
The disincentives to joining the workforce for low-skills workers that are built into the tax and welfare systems disproportionately affect Travellers
The Programme for Prosperity and Fairness published in 2000 committed the government to setting up a working group to discover the causes of high unemployment among Travellers despite labour shortages in the then booming economy. The departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Justice and Equality were both reluctant to take responsibility for the working group. In 2002 the Department of Enterprise reached an agreement with Pavee Point that the working group not be set up but no reasons were ever given for this decision.
The Traveller strategy explains the level of Traveller unemployment by referring to the “high level of discrimination faced by Travellers when seeking employment”. The strategy ignores two other factors that affect Traveller employment. These are the possible conflict between Traveller culture and employment and the taxation and welfare systems.
The conflict between the culture and identity of Travellers and employment was flagged 20 years ago and remains unresolved. In 1995 responsibility for providing training to Travellers was moved to the Department of Education because FÁS training, geared towards employment, was not “culturally appropriate”. The 2017 Traveller strategy says that many young Travellers feel that “the only way to get on and get jobs was to integrate, become like the settled population and deny one’s identity”.
The disincentives to joining the workforce for low-skills workers, particularly those with children, that are built into the tax and welfare systems disproportionately affect Travellers. They have low employment skills and the average Traveller family size is now five children.
If a Traveller (married with adult dependent and five children) worked as a building labourer at the registered employment agreement rate of €13.77 per hour, his take-home pay for working 39 hours a week for a year would be €25,594 – €806 less than the jobseekers’ allowance. Amazingly, the Traveller taking the building job would also lose the medical card for the family because the income limit for the medical card for a couple with five children is only €24,206. (The stupidity of our welfare system knows no bounds)
The Traveller would also be giving up the potential cash income from casual trading, recycling and the other activities referred to as the “Traveller economy”. It therefore does not make sense for Travellers, coming from a culture that is ambiguous towards paid employment, to work at the wage levels available to low-skills workers.
The high rate of unemployment among Travellers could be seen as a misuse of resources. Traveller energy and skills should be employed to meet the needs both of the Traveller community and the overall community. The challenges involved in achieving this should be addressed and not ignored as in the Traveller and Roma strategy.
Paraphrasing the migrant strategy, we should develop a vision for Ireland in 30 years as a society in which Travellers and those of Traveller origin play an active role in communities, workplaces and politics. The guiding principles for this Ireland of the future will be solidarity and shared identity as members of Irish society. Achieving this vision will require members of the settled community to include Travellers. Equally, Travellers will be expected to engage actively and to assume shared civic responsibilities for promoting the well-being of our society.
Felim O’Rourke is an economist