Unemployment lines outside Irish welfare offices – it’s not only Irish citizens that are seeking benefits

A POLISH woman called Magda (not her real name) last week became the best known Pole living in Ireland.  That's quite an achievement given that there are around 150,000 Poles living here.

What made Magda famous?   If you've read an Irish newspaper in the past week you will know all about her.

She's famous not because she's done anything remarkable.  Quite the reverse, in fact.  It's because she's living off our welfare system.

Magda recently gave a very frank interview to a leading Polish paper in which she spoke about living in Ireland and what it was like for her. The paper was doing a major feature on Poles living here and how they were doing in the recession.

In particular, Magda talked about our generous welfare system and how it enabled her to have a "wonderful" life here without working.  She talked about walking the beach in the early morning and being free of the stress that comes with a job.

Given that she was talking to a Polish paper, she was probably a bit more direct and upfront than she would have been if she was being interviewed by an Irish paper.

However, unfortunately for her, the Irish Independent got hold of her interview and turned it into a front page story.  In doing so, the paper got its translation badly wrong and implied that Magda had said that life on welfare in Ireland was like a Hawaiian massage (!) but that the area where she lived in Donegal was a s***hole.

She didn't say either of these things.  What she actually said was that she had done a course in Hawaiian massage, and that although she thought Donegal was the most beautiful place in the world, others (presumably locals who can't get a job and are being forced to emigrate) think it is a s***hole.
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The original inaccurate Irish Independent story caused an outcry, with one local politician even offering to buy Magda a one-way ticket home to Poland.  As first reported, this appeared to be a bare-faced case of "welfare tourism" and on top of that, Magda was insulting our country!

The Irish Independent website had over 600 responses to the story in the first day, most of them outraged at Magda and highly critical of our welfare system.

When the full, correct version of Magda's interview giving a more rounded picture of her life in Ireland was printed a day later, the angry reaction began to abate.  The Polish ambassador was interviewed on radio talking about how misleading and unfair to hardworking Poles the Irish Independent report had been.

And the next day Magda herself was on radio explaining why she was on welfare and how she hoped to start a massage business soon and eventually get off welfare. She also made it clear how much she loves Ireland and Donegal.

At that stage the innate tendency of the Irish to feel guilty about everything kicked in, and Magda became a kind of wronged heroine. The politically correct brigade came out in force condemning the newspaper for getting it so wrong.  There were even mutterings of  racism.

But it's not a simple as that.  Although a few points in the Irish Independent piece were stupidly wrong, the main details in the report were correct.

The Magda case had highlighted a real problem with our welfare system and with EU rules, and that's why it was so contentious.  

It has nothing to do with her as an individual.

She's clearly a lovely person. She's 38, a New Age type who fell in love with Irish culture and music (she was into U2 as a teenager).  She left Poland in 2001, lived in Amsterdam for five years, got into Irish traditional music there and came here in 2006 to go to a music event in Donegal.

Once here she was hooked by the landscape and the music and decided to stay, settling in the small coastal village of Dunfanaghy, near Letterkenny.  She did various jobs like waitressing and bartending in the holiday season, and she worked in a hostel where she was getting  200 a week but had to work long hours.

Two years ago, unhappy with the stress it was putting her under, she left that job and went on welfare.  Her account of living on welfare in Ireland was the central part of both her original interview with the Polish paper and the report in the Irish Independent.

Here is how she summed it up in the original interview:

“I start my days always the same way. I go to the beach to watch the sunrise. This energizes me for the rest of the day. What’s my life like? Wonderful. I can grow as a person, I can breathe.

“I get a welfare payment – 188 per week plus 59 for the rent. In the winter, (I get) an additional 20 for fuel. It’s 267 per week. Nothing extravagant, but it is enough to have a quiet life.”

She explained that she did not go to pubs and makes her own meals from local produce which she buys cheaply at a local market.  She shops for clothes in the cheapest store (and because she is on welfare she gets a winter clothing allowance from the state).

“After paying for my house I have 172 per week; 40 a month goes for the Internet and a landline phone, 35 for a mobile. Once every two months I pay for electricity, about 100," she says.

She can manage very well on welfare.  “Work for the minimum wage? It’s not worth it. When working in a hostel I earned 200 per week and I was busy from morning until night.  First breakfast for guests, then the reception, between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. cleaning the rooms, then taking the phone calls again. “Kind of cool, you meet people from all around the world, but when they are knocking on the door at 11 o'clock in the evening, you feel like murdering them."

So Magda gave up her job because she could get more on welfare and have a stress free life with time to enjoy the Donegal landscape. She needed time to think and to revive after her time in the hostel, she told the Polish paper.

She spends her days walking the beaches, surfing, reading, cooking her own food, occasionally doing massage.
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She also told the paper -- and later repeated in her radio interview -- that she wanted to start a massage business and get off welfare as soon as she could.  She does not like living off the state, she said, and saw this  period as a valuable time for her to prepare to start her own business.

As well as going on welfare, she has done a couple of Fas courses (Fas is the national training agency which helps unemployed people to get back to work).  One of these free courses was in massage therapy, including hot stone massage.  She also said that she might do other courses that would be useful in running a business in the future, like marketing.  

She is not married and does not have children, so the three bedroom house she is renting in Dunfanaghy with the help of her rent supplement payment is big enough to have a massage room.  She was going to start the business months ago but delayed when a friend pointed out that if you're on welfare for at least two years you get state help.

An unemployed person who starts their own business, continues to get full welfare benefits for the first year and over half benefits during the second year.  It's called the back-to-work allowance.

There are other state supports as well for people who have been on welfare for at least two years and want to start a business.   So Magda did the sensible thing and decided to wait until she would qualify.  This also allowed her to do the Fas courses, and she may do more courses.

This aspect of Magda's case alone irritated people since a well known way of staying on welfare here is to keep doing courses.  This week, by coincidence, there is a furious debate going on about the hundreds of millions of euro which have been spent on providing courses and other back to work measures here over the past few years with virtually no real jobs being created as a result.

But leaving aside questions about whether giving Magda a hot stone massage course makes sense, the central argument about her case is whether or not our welfare system is so generous it acts as a disincentive to work, and whether it is attracting people like Magda to come here to live on welfare.

Welfare in Poland gives unemployed people between 25 and 45 a week, depending on where they live and on other factors.  It runs out after a year, after which there is a much lower subsistence payment.

Rent supplements are similarly low, and there are few other welfare payments of the kind that are available here.  Family payments (like children's allowances in Ireland) are about one-tenth the level they are here.

On average, someone on welfare here who takes up the various payments that are available would be at least four times better off than someone in Poland.

EU rules, however, insist that any EU citizen who comes here to live must get the same level of welfare as an Irish person.  That is an extension of the EU's overall policy of giving all EU citizens the right to live and work anywhere in the EU; if the person happens to be out of work while they are here they must get the same benefits as an Irish person.

Secondly, the EU says, welfare benefits in a country like Ireland are matched to the cost of living here.  Because it costs much more to live in Ireland than in Poland, the level of welfare payments here will not attract people to come here from Poland, or anywhere else.

This is nonsense, of course, and Magda is the evidence.  If you're someone like her who is sophisticated enough to be able to live a frugal but healthy life, you can survive very well on welfare here without working.  And if Magda had two or three children she would be getting twice as much in various payments from the state here.

One of several unemployed Polish people here interviewed by Irish papers in the wake of the Magda controversy made it clear.

"You know, I would go back to Poland and then what? I would get 570 Polish zlotys per month (139).  I would have to move back to my parents (who) live in a village. No, I prefer to stay here", the 28-year-old female said.

Despite the difference in the cost of living, life on welfare in Ireland is much more comfortable than in Poland, especially rural Poland.  So why go back?

The EU policy is fine in theory, but it's hopelessly idealistic in practice and people from other countries, especially Eastern Europe, take full advantage of it.  That's the main reason why, despite the severe recession and high unemployment in Ireland now, very few of the immigrants who came here over the past decade are returning to their home countries of Poland or Latvia or Croatia or wherever.

Denise Charlton, chief executive of the state-supported Immigrant Council of Ireland, commented on the fact that immigrants were staying here last year.

"In recent years, because of the recession, there has been a perception in Ireland that migrants are going home.  But our statistics show that demand for information about migrants' rights and entitlements remains strong, and we know that many of them have made Ireland their permanent home," she said.

Of course Charlton, whose job depends on immigration, thinks this is a good thing.  Many other people here are not so sure, especially since their high taxes are struggling to pay for our enormous welfare bill, which is completely out of proportion to most other countries.  It's one of the main reasons why we have a huge budget deficit which has to be bridged by borrowing.

One example of how out of line we are is that our unemployment payments are close to twice as high as they are in Britain. Why? No one seems to know, other than that during the boom spending on welfare here went through the roof.

A small restaurant owner in Donegal pointed out last week that if he paid workers like Magda more than 200 a week his sandwiches would be too expensive and he would be out of business.  Like him, many employers here believe that our welfare system, not just the unemployment or jobseekers payment but all the other payments as well to those out of work, is a serious disincentive to work, for either Irish people or Polish people like Magda.    

It's not Magda's fault. But the system has to be fixed.