That the anti-workfare campaigns have forced major concessions from the Government over benefit sanctions is an important victory.
Sanctions have, temporarily at least, been removed from not just the Government’s Work Experience scheme for young people, but also the Work Programme and Sector Based Work Academies. We have no guarantee however that the DWP won’t try and sneak sanctions back in once the row, and the court cases, have died down. We also don’t know if they plan to force people onto Mandatory Work Activity (MWA), four weeks workfare, if they refuse to ‘volunteer’ for the other schemes. According to George Osborne last year, this is Government policy.
Sanctions still very much exist on Mandatory Work Activity, which is basically a system of Community Service for unemployed people presided over by Jobcentre staff. Unemployed people can be sent on MWA from day one of their claim if the Jobcentre decide they aren’t trying hard enough to find work. This most pernicious form of workfare is being propped up by charities who benefit from the free labour under the scheme.
Even if sanctions were to be permanently removed from all workfare schemes it should still be resisted. Unpaid work is yet another attempt by money grabbing bosses to increase their profits at both the tax payer’s and the workfare worker’s expense. Huge companies such as Holland & Barrett are now basing their recruitment policies on workfare schemes. This means they can select potential staff from the Jobcentre and offer them what is basically a probationary period with the company. Because they don’t have to pay them, they can now take on more probationary staff than they need. This allows them to benefit from a rolling pool of free labour for tasks which require little training.
The benefits of this for large companies are clear. Argos gave the game away when they said they only used workfare staff during the busy Christmas period. This put paid to any claims that taking on unpaid workers was somehow unprofitable due to the time needed to train them. It is also one of the clearest indications we have of workfare being used to replace real jobs.
The evidence shows that most people on workfare are not offered a job with the host employer. Even those who are subsequently employed have already had their wages paid by the state for up to two months. This represents a significant saving to the companies involved. Meanwhile workfare workers live on the pittance paid by the benefits system whilst working full time. Many people have reported being unable to afford lunch and spending all day hungry, despite often carrying out strenuous physical work.
Another big advantage to workfare staff for employers is that it allows them to undermine both formal and informal agreements with existing staff over working conditions. Workfare workers, many of whom are young and keen to impress, can be used to cover shifts that might have earlier attracted overtime rates. ASDA forced workfare staff to work on Christmas Eve, whilst paid workers, many of whom aren’t Christians and would have welcomed the over-time, were sent home. Workfare staff have no rights and can still be subject to benefit sanctions if dismissed for gross incompetence. So far the DWP have given no indication as to what gross misconduct might mean in practice. It is possible that gross misconduct could be construed as failing to cross a picket line. Whilst the DWP hold the purse strings, and manage any disciplinary matters, the collective bargaining power of all employees is undermined.
In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher introduced the despised Youth Training Scheme (YTS), later re-branded as the Youth Opportunity Programme (YOP). The YTS was aimed at 16 and 17 year old school leavers who back then were eligible for benefits. Thatcher used the introduction of these schemes as an excuse to scrap benefits for those under 18. It is possibly the agenda of the Tories to use workfare as cover to do the same to 18 to 24 year olds. Cameron has already floated the idea of scrapping Housing Benefits for those under 25.
But even on the derided YTS young people were paid for their work. In fact they were paid around a third more than was currently available to 18 – 24 years old on benefit. Even then some employers chose to top up the wages of those on the scheme, something that seems almost unimaginable now. If greed was good in the eighties, it is now seen as the greatest possible human virtue. To greedy people at least.
There is an insidious drive by this toff Government to mislead our children into thinking that working for free is a necessary step in establishing a foot hold in the jobs market. The truth is that according to the Government’s own figures, work experience is of barely any value to people looking for work. For the vast majority of participants it is a complete waste of time. People who attended workfare were only 16% more likely to be off benefits six months later than those who did nothing at all. This figure can surely be explained by the fact that only the most motivated young people volunteered for workfare. They also proved themselves able to pass the selection process needed to get on the scheme, which can include an interview with the employer . They’d almost certainly have got work anyway. Perhaps even quicker.
Back in the bleak eighties youth unemployment was higher than it is today. George Osborne is obviously working very hard to change that, but even back then no-one suggested people should work for free to get a job. If you worked, even on a YTS, or other training scheme, you also got paid. You might have not got paid enough, but it was more than the dole.
Now the private sector expects the tax payer to pay for their new recruits, at least until they’ve decided whether they really want them or not. In most cases it turns out they don’t. And the DWP has decided the tax payer should keep young people in poverty whilst they work. It is the worst of all possible worlds. State funded forced labour to increase the profits of the rich. Yet another wealth grab by billionaires intent on wrenching every last penny from the working class. And all carried out by the state they pretend to hate and in many cases refuse to pay for themselves.