Seville Youth Bear Brunt of Economic Collapse

A middle-aged man with a Che Guevara beard and a black and white keffiyeh smiles down from an election poster attached to a lamppost in Gines, a middle class suburb on the outskirts of Seville. Below the photograph a single word instruction emblazoned in bright red ink: ‘Rebelate’. But there is little sign of rebellion on the neat, tidy streets of Gines, just a weary fatalism about the prospects for Seville, and for Spain.

The main road into Gines is pockmarked with empty office blocks and faded signs advertising housing developments that never materialised, victims of the Spanish construction bubble that popped four years ago. ‘Since the 80s, all the business here was building, but now that’s finished and politicians have done nothing to help the situation,’ says local resident.

Opinion polls suggest voters in today’s election to the regional Andalusian parliament are unlikely to heed the (largely former Communist) United Left’s calls to rebel. Indeed after more than 30 years of continuous power in the sunny southern region, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) are set to lose control of Andalusia to the conservative People’s Party (PP), previously a marginal concern in an area with a long history of left-wing activism and support.

‘I don’t think PP are any better than PSOE but after all these years Andalusia needs a change,’ says Solina, who has seen many of her friends immigrate to Germany, France and even Brazil and India in recent years. Defeat for PSOE in Spain’s most populous autonomous community would leave conservatives in control of every regional administration. This comes on the back of PP president Mariano Rajoy’s crushing victory over the ruling Socialist government in national elections in November.

Although a weary electorate endorsed Mr Rajoy’s manifesto of austerity and budget cuts last winter, jobs remain the most important issue for most Spanish voters. According to figures released by the Spanish Ministry for Employment last month, the country’s unemployment rate stands at 22.9 per cent, the highest in the euro zone. Among 18-25 age group, work is even scarcer: over 40 per cent are not in education and without work.

Of Spain’s regions, Andalusia has been hardest hit by the downturn. Historically an economically deprived area, official unemployment now stands at a vertiginous 31 per cent. Julio is typical of many in the picturesque regional capital, Seville. The 34-year-old studied music at university before gaining a scholarship to study at a famous conservatory in Colombia. On returning to Spain he completed another degree, in history and science of music.

‘When I was finished the only job I could get was in a supermarket, stacking shelves,’ says Julio, who now ekes out a living teaching music in Seville. ‘I have three degrees and a scholarship paid for by the state. I passed five civil service exams but I didn’t get a public job because there isn’t any anymore.’

Diego Beas, a Spanish policy analyst and journalist based in Washington, describes youth unemployment as ‘the biggest problem facing the next generation’. ‘Spain’s is a very structural unemployment that isn’t going to just go away with an upturn in the world economy.’

Mr Rajoy’s proposed labour reforms – which will make it easier for employers to hire and fire workers – are strongly opposed by trade unions. A nationwide general strike has been called for Thursday. Meanwhile, Mr Rajoy has asked the European Union for more flexibility on Spain’s deficit-cutting commitments: it is estimated that the deficit will be 5.8 per cent of total economic output in 2012, higher than the agreed target of 4.4 per cent. The Spanish economy contracted by 0.3 per cent in the last quarter of 2011.

In January, Mr Rajoy outlined €8.9bn in new budget cuts, as well as tax increases designed to raise €6.3bn. Such austerity proposals are unpopular with many young, unemployed Sevillians. ‘Politicians here try to look at the Irish model – but after four years of cuts we are worse than at the beginning. (The new measures) look like they will make things even worse,’ says Francisco Jurado Gilabert, a bright, articulate 29-year-old studying for a PhD in the University of Seville.

‘We are fighting with each other for internships earning €400 or €500 a month. It’s impossible to think of the future, of having your own house with a wife and children. It’s very difficult to think in a stable way about the future anymore.’

Gilabert is a leading member of Real Democracy Now (DYR), a public platform against corruption in politics and unemployment that played a pivotal role in a wave massive demonstrations and occupations across Spain on May 15. The 15M movement – named after the protests’ hashtag on Twitter – has garnered strong support among the young and unemployed, the vast majority of whom are deeply disillusioned with mainstream politics.

‘We are not happy with the political system in Spain,’ says Gilabert. ‘Voting every four years is like giving a free cheque for four years. The two big parties (PSOE and PP) are the same, it doesn’t matter who wins. Most people don’t vote or only vote because they feel they should. They don’t believe in politicians.’

Real Democracy Now is not running in the Andalusian elections, or any other for that matter. ‘We don’t want to run for election, that is the first step to joining the system. We don’t want to have any structure. We are a network only, without leaders, without public speakers,’ Gilabert says of a movement that became known around the world as ‘the Indignados’, inspiring Occupy protests from Nigeria to New York, via Dame Street and London.

Diego Beas says that the scale of the May 15 demonstrations, which saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets of cities and towns across Spain, was a ‘complete surprise’. ‘It created a sense in which young people could participate in the political process in a way that was completely unheard of before May 15,’ says Beas.

If Mr Rajoy’s government is unable quickly to provide jobs and opportunities for the next generation he could feel the wrath of this new, still inchoate political voice. ‘Unemployment needs to come down significantly within the next year. If it doesn’t start dropping, that could cause huge problems for the current government,’ Beas remarks.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 25 March.

Solving Ireland’s Youth Unemployment Crisis

A recently published survey of students should make sobering reading for Ireland’s politicians. The poll, conducted by international research firm Trendence, asked 6,000 students in Irish universities if they intend to leave the country after graduation to secure a job in their chosen field. 27 per cent answered ‘yes’. In comparison, just 19 per cent of British students surveyed expect to emigrate for their first job.

That Irish students are willing to migrate for work is hardly a new phenomenon, but it does reflect a lack of job opportunities at home that is fast reaching chronic levels. According to the latest available data from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics office, around one in three of under-25s in Ireland are out of education and without a job.

The situation in Ireland is, unfortunately, anything but unique. The unemployment rate among Spain’s under-25s rose to 50.5pc in January. The youth unemployment situation in Greece is just as bad. Across the rest of Europe’s so-called periphery the situation is scarcely better.

In his 2010 book, The Culture of the New Capitalism, sociologist Richard Sennett talks of a ‘spectre of uselessness’ that haunts workers, particularly in the west. ‘A defining image of the Great Depression in the 1930s,’ Sennett writes, ‘shows men clustered outside the gates of a shuttered factory, waiting for work, despite the evidence of there own eyes. The image still disturbs because the spectre of uselessness has not ended.’

To visit to any one of the lengthening dole queues across Ireland is to see this uselessness in action, or, more correctly, inaction. As I discovered recently on a visit to my local social welfare office in the Midlands, the lines of the unemployed in Ireland are packed with intelligent young people. Many have college educations. Some lost their jobs in the downturn, but more still have never had a job, they emerged from university into a country without work. All are waiting for their benefits or to apply for jobs that simply do not exist.

Official unemployment in Ireland has been hovering around 15 per cent for a couple of years now. Without emigration it would doubtless be higher – especially among young people.

It is a dereliction of duty among Ireland’s political classes to rely on London, Sydney and Toronto to solve the nation’s unemployment problem – just as it was for Michael Noonan, earlier this year, to describe the decision to leave the country as ‘a lifestyle’.

The European Union has, for once, been relatively quick to appreciate the scale of the unfolding crisis. The Commission, under the “Youth Opportunities Initiative”, is proposing to redirect €30 billion of uncommitted European Social Fund money to help develop the employability of young people across the region.

Following a European Council meeting in January, EU President Barroso wrote to the eight member states with youth unemployment levels significantly above the EU average: Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Lithuania, Italy, Portugal, Latvia and Ireland. In his letter President Barroso wrote that, ‘We need to make a special effort to boost growth and tackle the problem of youth unemployment.’ Barroso went on to say that Ireland should set up an action team to come up with a strategy for getting young people back to work.

Speaking in the Dail during a visit from Commission officials in February, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, as expected, praised the President’s initiative but stopped short of committing funds to new youth unemployment strategies. ‘We will, in the first instance, be looking at whether employment programmes might be re-focused to better effect,’ Kenny told the house.

In truth, it should not take a letter from the European President for Irish politicians to realise the breath of the problem. Last year, the National Youth Council of Ireland published a report entitled ‘Youth Unemployment in Ireland: A Forgotten Generation’. Its findings make for grim reading: 90 per cent of respondents said that being unemployed had negatively effected their sense of well-being; more than half said the quality of jobs information provided at social welfare offices was ‘unsatisfactory’ or ‘poor’; and seven in ten said they were likely to emigrate in the following twelve months.

When it comes to youth unemployment, identifying the problem is likely to prove much easier than solving it. This is, in part, an effect of what the Harvard economist Richard Freeman calls ‘the Great Doubling’: in the two decades after 1989 the world’s labour force grew from 1.5 billion to 3 billion people. As the amount of labour doubled, its value was reduced, and continues to be reduced. In the US real wages have not grown since the late 1970s, while in the UK (if not Ireland) wages have been stagnated for a number of years too.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) puts youth unemployment at 74.6 million people across the world. Before our eyes we are witnessing the emergence of what Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason calls ‘a new sociological type: the graduate with no future’.

Next month the ILO will host hundreds of young people for a forum in Geneva on youth unemployment. Answers to the problem won’t come easy. The historic level of debt in the global economy is not simply going to disappear – but there may be creative solutions that small countries such as Ireland could experiment with, including the introduction of shorter working weeks and increased job sharing.

Last month I gave a presentation on the subject of unemployment to a group of students at NUIM Maynooth. After spending an hour comparing and contrasting the situation facing young people in Europe and Africa, I asked the audience how confident they themselves felt about getting a job. Most were silent, but those that did speak said they expected never to use the degrees they would graduate in. If this does come to pass, we could be looking at the largest ‘lost generation’ in living memory.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Post, April 2012.

 

Irish emigrants deserve a vote

This piece on why Irish emigrants deserve to vote first appeared in the Guardian’s Comment is Free on 22/01/2011. The debate then moved to the Irish Times, where I also wrote a piece, and I appeared on Today FM’s The Last Word talking about the need for Irish emigrants to be allowed to vote on 24/01/2011

At about 1.40pm on Thursday afternoon, the Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, reluctantly made the announcement the country has been waiting months to hear: Ireland’s next general election will take place on 11 March. Within seconds Twitter was abuzz with Irish expats’ excited chatter. “I’m booking my flight home right now,” chirped one youthful tweeter. “Can’t wait to go back to vote them [Fianna Fáil] out,” chimed another.

It is refreshing to see such enthusiasm for representative democracy – which only makes it doubly sad that few, if any, of these politically engaged emigrants will be legally allowed to vote if they do turn up at an Irish polling station in seven weeks’ time.

Under Irish electoral law, unless you are “ordinarily resident” in the country (that is living in Ireland on 1 September in the year before the voting register comes into force) you cannot cast a ballot in elections. To live outside the Republic of Ireland and attempt to vote constitutes electoral fraud and carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison.

The contrast with UK passport holders could not be starker. As the Electoral Commission says on its website: “Yorkshire puddings, pubs, and having a good debate over a decent cup of tea with an old friend are just a few things you may miss while you’re overseas. But living abroad doesn’t stop you having your say back home.”

If you’re Irish, it does.

More than 110 countries allow passport holders living abroad to vote. Ireland, with its long history of emigration, is not among of them. Unlike citizens of, say, Ghana, Mexico or the Dominican Republic, Irish people living outside the republic are barred from directly participating in the electoral process. Greece, the only other EU member with a similar policy, is in the process of amending its legislation following a successful appeal by two Greek nationals living in France that the law breached the European convention on human rights.

Emigrant voting rights have been on the political agenda in Ireland before, most recently in the 1990s when proposals were put forward to elect representatives of the diaspora to Ireland’s second house, the Seanad. Although these comparatively piecemeal suggestions came to naught, the Irish abroad’s clamour for greater involvement in political life back home now seems set to intensify.

After a hiatus during the Celtic Tiger days, emigration is once again a reality for hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women. According to the Central Statistics Office in Dublin, between 2006 and 2010 emigration reached a level not seen since the late 1980s. The Economic and Social Research Institute says that about 1,000 people are leaving Ireland every week, a trend that is expected to continue well into 2012.

Just how many of the Irish people moving to the US, Australia, Canada, the UK and other places around the world realise that they lose their vote when they leave is unclear. That they are being disenfranchised is beyond doubt.

As Noreen Bowden, editor of GlobalIrishVote.com, has pointed out, denying emigrants their right to vote has long suited Irish political elites: “Ireland’s refusal to allow emigrants voting rights is a tremendous advantage for the insiders of the political establishment, ensuring that a big proportion of those most affected by the economic downturn won’t be around to cast their verdict.”

However, many in Ireland remain opposed to any extension of the franchise to include emigrants. A popular argument for maintaining the electoral status quo is that with 70 million people of Irish descent living across the globe, the numbers of overseas voters would dwarf the Irish electorate.

As ever, the reality is at odds with the rhetoric. That 70 million figure represents the Irish diaspora in its broadest sense, not Irish passport holders living abroad. According to the Irish department of foreign affairs, there are about 3 million in the latter category.

For a population of less than 4.5 million, 3 million is still a significant number. But based on the figures for expatriate voting from the UK (where you retain your voting rights for 15 years after you leave) and elsewhere, only a small proportion of Irish passport holders abroad would be expected to actually vote – if they were allowed to make that choice.

Instead, as Ireland gears itself up for arguably the most important election since the foundation of the state, the voices of countless Irish emigrants will not be heard.

Ireland deserves change. Allowing those who have left, many forced out by the current government’s disastrous economic mismanagement, a fair say in the country’s future would be a step in the right direction.