Future of work in rural communities in Ireland

December 12, 2019

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by Seán McCabe, TASC

The Carnegie UK Trust-TASC Ensuring Good Future Jobs essay collection describes many of the key challenges faced by workers in Ireland today, and proposes a series of policy and practice changes to ensure good future jobs. First published on 28 November, as a coordinated response to the Irish Government’s first Future Jobs Strategy, this blog series showcases the contributions by key social partners in Ireland to the collection.

Quality work should provide for a decent standard of living. However, it is not simply a matter of securing productive and safe work which provides a fair income. There are many external factors beyond the work itself which determine an individual or family’s standard of living and so it is unwise to disassociate quality of work from the societal context in which the work takes place.

A comparison of net income for workers across countries would miss out on nuances related to the social welfare and security systems that provide for healthcare services, education opportunities and dignified retirement. Similarly, when seeking to understand the quality of work in different contexts within a country, it is necessary to take into consideration the potential for personal development, social integration and community cohesion. This is particularly true when considering livelihoods in rural communities in Ireland. Rural decline is an overused and dehumanising phrase, but it is a reality for too many communities in Ireland. It describes the loss of community, culture and identity in villages across the country – a loss of young people to urban centres; a loss of essential services like post offices, schools and Garda stations; a loss of social hubs like pubs and sports teams; and a loss of small, locally owned businesses. This is the societal context with which we must reconcile our understanding of the future of quality work.

Agriculture has been the lifeblood of rural Ireland for generations. Beyond providing the community with food, agriculture has provided jobs – and not just for the farmers and farm labourers. The broader community – shop keepers, butchers, bakers, creamery and abattoir employees – depended on agriculture for their living. Yet today, a combination of market forces are undermining both agriculture and the fabric of rural life that depends on it. These forces are impacting the standard of living for farmers and the broader community, diminishing quality of life and rural livelihood opportunities. A recent TASC report, Cherishing All Equally, highlighted that agriculture is the most unequal sector in Ireland in terms of income. The sector also faces significant challenges to reduce its contribution to Ireland’s green-house gas emissions in the face of climate breakdown and stands to suffer the worst impacts from changing climates.

Motivated by these factors, I recently undertook a journey around Ireland to meet with farmers and their communities to listen to their aspirations for the future of their work and their communities. It quickly became clear that the much-feted economic boom brought about by intensification of dairy in Ireland may not be a panacea for rural decline but may, in fact, accelerate it. Other, less prosperous areas of agriculture – like beef or tillage – are confronting existential challenges of their own while growing of vegetables is hardly visible and those who are facing fierce competition just to survive. In these conversations, I heard of the need to expand dairy farm capacity to handle bigger dairy herds, with many households taking on intergenerational levels of debt to finance this expansion – the construction of new milking parlours and slurry pits, building or expanding sheds, renting land and purchasing stock. Farmers told me how the increase in labour required by the larger farms had to be borne by the family as there generally wasn’t local labour available and, if there was, the money wasn’t there to pay wages. They spoke to me about the lack of negotiation power they wield against the large supermarkets who dictate the price for their product, and they expressed their concern that further decreases in the price of milk, or increasingly frequent adverse weather, might force their family into dire financial straits.

Such vulnerability to market forces is not new. In 1891, deeply troubled by out-migration from rural Ireland and concerned with the survival of Irish farms, Horace Plunkett formed the first dairy cooperative in Ballyhahaill, Limerick. Three years later, there were 33 co-operative creameries and agricultural bodies around Ireland and the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society was established to support them. Within another four years, 947 agricultural co-operatives were affiliated with IAOS.

On my travels, many older farmers lamented a loss of self-reliance. Local creameries and abattoirs as co-operatives have transitioned to hybrid Public Limited Company (PLC) based models where co-operative members have a share in the PLC. Local processing hubs have closed in the name of economic efficiency. This centralisation of processing, together with the loss of price-taking options and the rapid proliferation of large scale “edge-of-town” supermarkets has slowly increased pressure on farmers and resulted in the loss of jobs and locally owned businesses in the wider community. In addition, poor or non-existent public transport services coupled with stricter drink-driving laws have increased rural isolation and the erosion of local government powers have exacerbated the challenge of revival.

Continued intensification of the dairy sector is likely to lead to the end of the traditional family farm in Ireland. The ramification of this for the wider rural community and the future of quality work in rural Ireland is unclear. However, in the absence of policy measures to prevent further decline, rectify inequality in the agricultural sector and address the pressing need to significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture and other high emissions sectors to meet internationally binding climate targets, it would appear that agri-business and large retail corporations, rather than farmers and rural communities, are the primary beneficiaries of intensification.

In seeking to holistically address the standard of living in rural Ireland and reverse rural decline, it is necessary to consider how quality work can be fostered in rural communities. We could do worse than to revisit the work of Horace Plunkett for inspiration. A cooperative economy holds wealth in a community and prevents the value of labour and product from being unfairly extracted.

Community wealth building is a place-based approach to economic regeneration which empowers local government and enables communities to create and retain wealth locally. Such models are reliant on progressive procurement by anchor institutions, such as the local authority, hospitals, football clubs and universities, to channel funding into local, worker owned cooperatives that pay living wages. Larger procurements are broken into smaller lots where possible, to enable and encourage local SME, third sector, co-operative and social enterprise participation. Based on a commitment to promoting local economic growth, such models have been successfully deployed in a number of cities around the world, including Preston, Manchester and Cincinnati.

How would such a model work in communities in rural Ireland? The lack of existent anchor institutions is an initial stumbling block. Efforts to ensure plural ownership of the local economy could start with the major challenge facing our communities locally and globally – climate change. Action to combat climate change requires significant investment in rural Ireland – in terms of the deployment of renewable energy services, the retrofitting of homes and the development of an appropriate public transport network to end car dependency. If such investment was channelled through local government following a community wealth building approach, it would provide for temporary anchor institutions to stimulate local economies and help ensure social approval for climate action. There is an imperative to couple community business with the proliferation of climate action through community-led local development. This would allow for the diversification of livelihoods for struggling farmers and create avenues to quality work while also encouraging in migration to rural communities.