Latest figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) show that 571,000 workers in the South, almost 1 in 4, are now unemployed. The main cause of these massive numbers, the highest ever, is the ongoing COVID catastrophe. Over 440,000 workers are unemployed as a direct result of the shutdowns arising from the pandemic. These workers are in receipt of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) which ranges from €203 per week to €350 per week at the top rate. This PUP is less than the statutory minimum wage of €10.10 per hour, and far less than the recommended living wage of €12.30 per hour.
Fast food boss Pat McDonagh claimed last year that the PUP was the equivalent of workers ‘winning the lottery’. A revealing comment from a capitalist whose wealth is based on ruthlessly exploiting minimum wage workers. The truth is that the PUP is barely enough to keep workers above water during the present crisis. After a full year of COVID the cost of living remains high with prices for food, utilities, insurance and, above all else, housing still weighing heavily.
The pandemic forced the capitalist establishment into doing something it would have much preferred not to do: that is provide an economic lifeline to hundreds of thousands of workers who lost their jobs. This goes against everything they believe in but it was a political necessity for them at the time, as they sought to defend their system at a time of potentially extreme threat.
We all know they will attempt to recover this money by a massive campaign of austerity. Although they won’t call it ‘austerity’ this time. As soon as the crisis has ended they will bring in budgets that will attempt to gouge back the cost of the PUP.
But workers need to be clear that the PUP can be afforded by the State and is a fraction of the cost of the 2008-2010 bank bailouts. At that time the State lashed out €64 billion to bail out banks which were criminally run during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period’. Some of this money was eventually recovered but in 2018 we found out that the State lost a total €46 billion. We all know who paid for that! Workers did through the vicious austerity of 2011-16 and which continues to this day through permanently reduced social welfare and healthcare spending.
The annual cost of the PUP for 600,000 workers would be around €10 billion per year: less than a quarter of the cost of the bank bailout! The PUP is keeping hundreds of thousands of homes above water during a pandemic; the bank bailout funds went exclusively to already mega rich bondholders. The PUP could continue for 4.5 years before it cost the same as the bank bailout. It also supports jobs as it is nearly all spent in local economies and not hidden away in off-shore bank accounts, where the bank bailout money ended up.
Once this is all over there will be a massive offensive in the media against the PUP. This has already begun. Workers need to remember that the PUP will not bankrupt the State. The State currently holds €22.8 billion in cash reserves (enough to fund over two years of the PUP) and the so-called ‘Rainy Day Fund’ holds at least €1.5 billion. The PUP is workers’ own money supporting other workers who have lost their jobs. It represents basic social solidarity at a time of extreme crisis. We should resist every attempt to use the cost of the PUP as an excuse to launch attacks on other social welfare payments or to cut health and education spending. Militant Left believe the PUP should have been set at the €15 euro per hour level at least – €585 per week – since the start of the pandemic. The trade union movement should demand that it be increased to that level immediately and that €15 per hour be set as the minimum wage.