The ‘National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy’ (2017 – 2021), published in June 2017 described Travellers and Roma as “among the most disadvantaged and marginalised people in Ireland”. The Report provides strong evidence for this marginalization citing for example that over 80% of Travellers are unemployed, only 13% of Traveller children complete second level education and male Travellers are 11 times more likely to be in prison and have a suicide rate 7 times the average rate for Irish males.

The extreme marginalization of Travellers might have been expected to lead to a strong focus in the Strategy Report on integration and employment but the report rejects integration as a strategy and is extremely weak on employment.

In February 2017, the Department of Justice and Equality published its ‘Migrant Integration Strategy’ which deals with our new migrant communities, just four months before the Traveller Strategy. The two documents contrast significantly on integration and employment.

The Migrant Strategy warns that “Irish society faces considerable risks if integration is not supported” and that these risks include “Segregation and ghettoization of specific migrant groups, with the potential for social exclusion and economic disadvantage.”

To prevent this marginalization the Government committed itself to “migrant integration as a key part of Ireland’s renewal and as an underpinning principle of Irish society.”

The Migrant Strategy defines “integration” as the “ability to participate to the extent that a person needs and wishes in all of the major components of society without having to relinquish his or her cultural identity.”

The document outlines a vision for Ireland in 30 years as “a society in which migrants and those of migrant origin play an active role in communities, workplaces and politics. Its sees the guiding principles for Ireland of the future as those of solidarity and shared identity as members of Irish society.”

The document says that achieving this vision will require “those of Irish heritage to expand their notion of Irishness to include migrants and those of migrant origin. Equally, migrants who make their homes in Ireland on a long-term basis will be expected to engage actively and to assume shared civic responsibilities for promoting the well-being of our society.”

The only new migrant community that is not covered by this strategy of integration are the Roma because they are classified with Travellers for policy purposes.

The National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy (2017) rejected integration as a strategy for Travellers and Roma in favour of a different strategy of “inclusion.” Inclusion is not defined in the document and the reason for rejecting integration is given as “Discussions 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.”

In contrast to the Migrant Strategy which focuses on developing shared identity and shared civic responsibilities the Traveller Strategy emphasises the importance of “recognising the distinct heritage and identity of Travellers and their special place in Irish society.”

The Traveller Strategy lists six “key initiatives and developments arising from the development of the Inclusion Strategy”. Three of these initiatives and developments are focussed 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 Traveller unemployment.

Employment is one of the key drivers of integration. The long-term vision of the Migrant Integration Strategy is 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.”

Traveller policy has not given priority to employment over the last 30 years even though unemployment rates in the community have remained consistently above 80%. The 1995 Task Force on the Travelling Community Report said that there were “very limited employment opportunities for Travellers” because of the then high level of unemployment but Traveller unemployment remained above 80% even during the labour shortages of the “Celtic Tiger” boom and continue now when we are again facing labour shortages.

The Program for Prosperity and Fairness (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 impact on Traveller employment. These are the possible conflict between Traveller culture and identity and employment and the taxation and welfare systems.

Up until the mid-1990s FÁS (now Solas) operated 26 Senior Traveller Training Centres (STTCs) providing specialized training for Travellers.  The Task Force recommended in 1995 that the control of these STTCs be transferred to the Department of Education because FÁS training, geared towards employment, was not “culturally appropriate.” One of FÁS’ targets was progression of its trainees to employment and the failure of Travellers to progress to employment was affecting their performance metrics so they gladly handed over control of the STTC’s to the Department of Education.

Twenty years later the conflict between culture and identity and employment remains unresolved. The 2017 Traveller and Roma Strategy said 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 taxation and welfare systems inordinately impact on low-skilled workers particularly those with children. Travellers have low employment skills and the average Traveller family size is now five children.

Job Seekers get a Child Allowance of €1,654 per child per annum. A married Traveller with Adult Dependent and 5 children gets a Job Seeker’s Allowance of €25,487 (2018 rate) plus Child Benefit of €8,268, medical card, housing entitlement and all the other welfare payments linked to the medical card.

We have a housing shortage and a shortage of building workers. If this Traveller (married with adult dependent and 5 children) worked as a building labourer at the REA rate of €13.77 per hour his/her take-home-pay for working 39 hours per week for the year would be €25,560 or €73 more than the Dole but the family would not qualify for the medical card and the wide range of linked benefits.

A Traveller working as a paid employee is 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.

We have created an absurd situation where the houses that Travellers need will have to be built by East European labourers while Travellers continue to draw the Dole. The only question which remains is for how much longer will the Irish Government be able to maintain this blatantly unsustainable Traveller policy.

Posted by Felim O'Rourke