THE prolonged, harsh Covid-19 restrictions enforced on some industries have caused the ‘black market’ to flourish, with claims some people are continuing to work, while availing of social-welfare payments.
This has created much grievance and frustration among Cork business owners, who have expressed their dismay.
One Cork hair salon owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “I have been out of business for 35 weeks, since the first lockdown. My salon is down a substantial amount of money, as I have abided by the rules.
“I still have bills to pay and it is soul-destroying to know that there are hairdressers out there working away on a regular basis.
"It is very annoying that some hairdressers are operating behind closed doors and that clients are not obeying the rules.”
The salon owner said it is obvious that hair is being cut and that most of it is being done against the lockdown rules.
“Most of the people I am meeting have had their hair done and, by the law of averages, not all of these people are in a bubble with a hairdresser.
“I am seeing a lot of precision cuts and men walking about with fresh fades that were obviously not done by a friend or family member.
It is not just one all-over colour: It is highlights and precision cuts, which means that it is being done professionally.
“It is the lack of discreetness amongst the general public that is a real slap in the face; the blatant disregard for public-health measures by people trying to make more money on the quiet is very hard to take,” she said.
She is getting daily requests from people who want to avail of her professional services; who want to get their hair cut. Despite being offered huge rates, she has politely refused all approaches.
“One lady offered treble her normal rate. It is a horrible position to be put in, as I always strive to keep our clients happy. It has been tough saying ‘no’, but I am determined to abide by the rules.”
The hair-salon owner said that the authorities are not doing enough to stop social-welfare fraud in every sector.
“I don’t think the authorities are doing enough to stop people exploiting all the loopholes that exist,” she said.
“Everyone knows people are claiming benefits and working at the same time. It is going on in every town and village nationwide. It is so disheartening.
“The authorities should be encouraging more people to name and shame people who claim benefits, but continue to work. It is very unfair on the law-abiding people, who go out to work and pay their taxes. The people who are committing welfare fraud should be caught and prosecuted. There should be a more vigorous campaign mounted against this ongoing blight on society and stiff fines being enforced,” she said.
Susan Ryan, owner of Susan Ryan Beauty, in Cork City, said the amount of business being done on the quiet is a “huge kick in the teeth” for the owners who are abiding by the pandemic rules.
“I am looking at girls with their nails done,” Ms Ryan said.
“I know a fresh set of nails when I see them. While I am not allowed to do it safely and professionally in a legal business, it can still be done in someone’s home.
"I know the majority of people doing nails from their homes do not have a qualification or have insurance.
“Many of them are claiming social welfare, so they can undercut legitimate businesses, price-wise, and that is unacceptable,” Ms Ryan said.
“If we charge €50 for a particular service, out of that we have to pay VAT, insurance, taxes, USC charges, rent, wages, and rates. From that amount, we might make €10, while the person doing it up the road, for €30, gets to keep the full amount. It makes no sense.
“There is too much work being done under the counter and the black-market economy is getting bigger, which is very worrying,” Ms Ryan said.
“By the time I go back to work, it will probably be a full year with no work.
"Yet business is booming behind the scenes for certain people. It is all wrong. It is illegal and immoral. It is unfair on those who have done everything we were asked to do.”
Ms Ryan said the Government needs to do more to eradicate the black market, which is detrimental to all employees and business owners nationwide.
“The black economy has been going on a long time,” Ms Ryan said. “The Government has a lot to answer for in allowing it to happen. It is getting harder for legitimate businesses, offering the same services, to compete. It is so frustrating and infuriating. We need more support from the Government.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Social Protection told The Echo: “The pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) was established by the Department of Social Protection in March 2020 to provide emergency support to employees and the self-employed who lost their work due to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. To date, over €6bn has been paid in respect of the payment.
“A recent study, conducted by the Central Statistics Office, has suggested that the income of all Irish households would have fallen by almost 20% in the second quarter of 2020 without the intervention of government supports, such as the PUP and the TWSS/EWSS.”
The spokesperson said that the department will pursue vigorously any social-welfare fraud cases before the courts: “Where the department encounters serious fraud cases, it is the department’s policy to pursue these cases before the courts. While the department can take such prosecutions under social-welfare legislation, cases of identity fraud, or multiple claiming, are generally referred to the gardaí for prosecution under criminal-justice legislation.
“During 2020, some 72,000 control reviews of PUP claims were carried out by officers of the department, resulting in over 24,000 claims in payment being stopped. This has resulted in savings to the department of approximately €94m over the amount that would have been spent had these payments continued.
“Members of the public are encouraged to let the department know of any concerns they may have with people claiming social-welfare support.
"Anonymous and confidential reports can be made via a number of channels. Each report is examined and referred for follow-up action.”