Supporting Labour Force Participation

Posted on Friday, 16 June 2023
Main Image
labour force
Page Content

Increasing labour force participation, in particular among women, represents a further policy challenge for labour market policy. As Table 1 illustrates, the proportion of individuals who are actively participating in the labour market has increased since 2011 and 2019. However, these rates are still lower than ideal with in particular female labour market participation well below the levels it should be reaching. The gender gap, of almost eleven percentage points, illustrates this outcome quiet clearly.

Labour Force Participation Rates by Gender, 2011-2022

Policy responses to this challenge need to be broad-based, and include initiatives addressing childcare provision and affordability, retraining, family-friendly employment strategies and enhanced employment quality. It is important that we remember these participation rates, and the challenges they imply, as we review labour market priorities in the period ahead.

Tackling Youth Unemployment

As Chart 2 illustrates, youth unemployment remains a major labour market policy challenge albeit that the picture is drastically better that a decade ago. The Chart highlights the very rapid increase in the numbers unemployed aged 25 and under, as the 2008-2013 economic crisis unfolded. The numbers in this group more than doubled between 2007 and 2009, peaking at almost 105,000 in Q2 2009. Since then decreases have occurred, reaching 39,000 in 2019 before climbing during the 2020 and 2021 Covid-19 lockdowns.


Youth Unemployment by Gender, 2007-2022

By the end of 2022, 30,000 people under the age of 25 were unemployed – 16,000 males and 14,000 females – meaning that youth unemployment accounted for almost three in every ten unemployed people in Ireland. Experiences of unemployment, and in particular long-term unemployment, alongside an inability to access any work, training or education, tends to leave a ‘scarring effect’ on young people. It increases the challenges associated with getting them active in the labour market at any stage in the future. In the short-term it makes sense for Government to invest in the ‘youth unemployed’ and Social Justice Ireland considers this to be a central and strategic priority.


Addressing Underemployment and Precarious Employment

Recent years have seen the growth of various forms of part-time work and a high number of underemployed workers over recent years. While the number of people employed is higher now than at any time, just over one in five workers are part-time workers and there are 102,000 of these who are underemployed, that is working part-time but at less hours than they are willing to work.

Judged over time, CSO labour force data suggest the emergence of a greater number of workers in precarious employment situations. The high number of individuals with less work hours than ideal, as well as those with persistent uncertainties concerning the number and times of hours required for work, is a major labour market challenge and one which may grow in the period ahead. Aside from the impact this has on the well-being of individuals and their families, it also impacts on their financial situation and adds to the working-poor challenges. There are also impacts on the state, given that the Working Family Payment (formerly known as Family Income Supplement (FIS)) and the structure of jobseeker payments tend to lead to Government subsidising these families’ incomes, and indirectly subsidising some employers who create persistent precarious employment patterns for their workers.

Social Justice Ireland believes that now is the time to adopt substantial measures to address and eliminate these problems. Our commitment to the development and adoption of a Living Wage reflects this. However, aside from pay rates, policy also needs to address issues of work quality and security more aggressively.


Work and People with Disabilities

Results from Census 2016 provide the most recent insight into the scale and nature of disability in Ireland – new Census 2022 data will be published in late September 2023. In a document published in November 2017, the CSO reported that the 2016 Census found a total of 643,131 people had a disability in Ireland; equivalent to 13.5 per cent of the population. The most common disability was a difficulty with pain, breathing or other chronic illness which was experienced by 46.1 per cent of all people with a disability. This was followed by a difficulty with basic physical activities, experienced by 40.9 per cent. The report found that both these disabilities were strongly age-related. It also showed that 1.2 per cent of the population were blind or had a sight related disability (54,810 people); 1.4 per cent of the population suffered from an intellectual disability (66,611 people); 2.2 per cent of the population were deaf or had a hearing related disability (103,676 people); 2.6 per cent of the population had a psychological or emotional condition (123,515 people); 3.3 per cent of the population had a difficulty with learning, remembering or concentrating (156,968 people); 5.5 per cent of the population had a difficulty with basic physical activities (262,818 people); and 6.2 per cent of the population had a disability connected with pain, breathing or another chronic illness or condition (296,783 people). [1] 

The Census 2016 data also revealed that there was 176,445 persons with a disability in the labour force, representing a participation rate of 30.2 per cent; less than half that for the population in general. These findings reflect earlier results from Census 2011, the 2006 National Disability Survey and a QNHS special module on disability.

A 2017 ESRI report examined the employment transitions of people with a disability and found that among those of working age most (82 per cent) had worked at some stage in their life but that 35 per cent had been without work for more than four years. It also found that were Government policy to facilitate the employment of people with a disability who want to work, some 35,600 additional people with a disability would join the active workforce; a figure equivalent to 1.5 per cent of the 2017 labour force.

This low rate of employment among people with a disability is of concern. Apart from restricting their participation in society it also ties them into State-dependent low-income situations. Therefore, it is not surprising that Ireland’s poverty figures reveal that people who are ill or have a disability are part of a group at high risk of poverty.

Social Justice Ireland believes that further efforts should be made to reduce the impediments faced by people with a disability to obtain employment. In particular, consideration should be given to reforming the current situation in which many such people face losing their benefits when they take up employment. This situation ignores the additional costs faced by people with a disability in pursuing their day-to-day lives. For many disabled people the opportunity to take up employment is denied to them and they are trapped in unemployment, poverty, or both.

Asylum Seekers and Work

During February 2018 the Supreme Court formally declared the absolute ban preventing asylum seekers taking up work as unconstitutional. The declaration followed an initial decision in May 2017 with the court giving the Government time to adopt new legislation and procedures to accommodate the decision. In effect, the Government failed to do so, and the Supreme Court removed the ban.

Social Justice Ireland welcomed this long overdue recognition; we had called for policy reform in this area for some time. However, we remain concerned by Government’s attempts to limit these rights and restrict the opportunities of Asylum Seekers. At the root of these problems are issues regarding the effectiveness of the current system of processing asylum applications. Along with others, we have consistently advocated that where Government fails to meet its own stated objective of processing asylum applications in six months, the right to work should be automatically granted to asylum seekers. Recent reforms have made welcome progress in this direction. Detaining people for an unnecessarily prolonged period in such an excluded state is completely unacceptable. Recognising and facilitating asylum seekers' right to work would assist in alleviating poverty and social exclusion among one of Ireland’s most vulnerable groups.

Acknowledging the Work of Carers

The work of Ireland’s carers receives minimal recognition despite the essential role their work plays in society. Results from the 2016 Census offered an insight into the scale of these commitments, which save the state large costs that it would otherwise have to bear – an update based on Census 2023 will be published in September 2023.

Census 2016 found that 4.1 per cent of the population provided some care for sick or disabled family members or friends on an unpaid basis. This figure equates to 195,263 people. The dominant caring role played by women was highlighted by the fact that 118,151 (60.5 per cent) of these care providers were female. [2] When assessed by length of time, the census found that a total of 6,608,515 hours of care were provided by carers each week, representing an average of 38.3 hours of unpaid help and assistance each. Two thirds of this volume of care was provided by female carers. Using the minimum wage as a simple (if unrealistically low) benchmark to establish the benefit which carers provide each year suggests that Ireland’s carers provide care valued at more than €3.4bn per annum. [3]

Social Justice Ireland welcomed the long overdue publication of a National Carers Strategy in July 2012. The document included a ‘roadmap for implementation’ involving a suite of actions and associated timelines, and identifies the Government Department responsible for their implementation. However, these actions were confined to those that could be achieved on a cost neutral basis. Various progress reports of the strategy have been published to date and point towards some progress on the actions set out. However, these are, as a group, limited given the unwillingness of Government to allocate sufficient resources to supporting those in this sector.

Social Justice Ireland believes that further policy reforms should be introduced to reduce the financial and emotional pressures on carers. In particular, these should focus on addressing the poverty experienced by many carers and their families alongside increasing the provision of respite care for carers and for those for whom they care. In this context, the 24 hour responsibilities of carers contrast with the improvements over recent years in employment legislation setting limits on working-hours of people in paid employment.

Recognising All Work

A major question raised by the current labour-market situation concerns assumptions underpinning culture and policymaking in this area. The priority given to paid employment over other forms of work is one such assumption. Most people recognise that a person can be working very hard outside a conventionally accepted “job”. Much of the work carried out in the community and in the voluntary sector comes under this heading. So too does much of the work done in the home. Social Justice Ireland’s support for the introduction of a basic income system comes, in part, because it believes that all work should be recognised and supported. 

During the 2008-2013 recession Government funding for the Community and Voluntary sector reduced dramatically and this has not, as yet, been restored. It is essential that Government appropriately resource this sector into the future and that it remains committed to the principle of providing multi-annual statutory funding. The introduction of the Charities Regulatory Authority, the Governance Code and the Lobbying Register in recent years is intended to foster transparency and improve public trust. However, it is essential that the regulatory requirements are proportional to the size and scope of organisations, and do not create an unmanageable administrative burden which detracts from the core work and deters volunteers from getting involved.

In August 2019, the Department of Rural and Community Development published Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities: A Five-Year Strategy to Support the Community and Voluntary Sector in Ireland 2019-2024. This Strategy sets out the vision for community and voluntary sector development over the next five years. It contains a series of 11 policy objectives across all stakeholders, from Public Participation Networks to civil society organisations to local and national Governments.

The Community Services Programme works to tackle disadvantage by providing supports to community-based organisations which enables them to deliver social, economic and environmental services, with a particular focus on areas that, by virtue of geographical isolation or social isolation, have too low a level of demand to satisfy market led providers. The groups in receipt of these services may not otherwise have any access.

Social Justice Ireland recommends that implementation of the five-year Strategy be resourced in a way that recognises the important role of the Community and Voluntary Sector, the local role of the PPNs, and the challenges of community development, and seeks to generate real partnerships between communities and agencies. We further urge Government to implement commitments in the National Volunteering Strategy 2021-2025 which has been developed in tandem with both the Community and Voluntary and Social Inclusion Strategies so as to ensure policy coherence across all three.

Social Justice Ireland believes that government should recognise, in a more formal way, all forms of work. We believe that everyone has a right to work, to contribute to his or her own development and that of the community and wider society. We also believe that policymaking in this area should not be exclusively focused on job creation. Policy should recognise that work and a job are not always the same thing.


[1] Note, some individuals will experience more than one disability and feature in more than one of these categories.

[2] A CSO QNHS special module on carers (CSO, 2010a) and a 2008 ESRI study entitled ‘Gender Inequalities in Time Use’ found similar trends, McGinnity and Russell, 2008:36, 70.

[3] Calculation based on 2016 minimum wage of €9.15 per hour.