“Starting in some areas at first, anyone aged 18 to 21 signing on without these basic skills will be required to undertake training from day one or lose their benefits.
If they are still unemployed after six months, they will have to start a traineeship, take work experience or do a community work placement – and if they don’t turn up, they will lose their benefits.”
George Osborne, Autumn Statement 2013
Way back in February 2012 it emerged that Tesco were recruiting unpaid workers on government workfare schemes. The public were furious at this grotesque exploitation from one of the UK’s biggest employers and a storm of protest erupted, both online and in the streets, about private companies using workfare.
The DWP were thrown into chaos at the outrage. Emergency meetings were held with top employers. Government documentation which proved unemployed people were being forced to work for free was hastily re-written as DWP ministers lied that this was not the case. Eventually, in a humiliating climbdown, it was announced that the Work Experience scheme would in future be ‘voluntary’, at least until the claimant had agreed to take up the placement at which point attendance would be forced.
Whilst this was a major victory for anti-workfare campaigners, the fight against forced unpaid work was only just beginning. Work Experience was just one workfare scheme, many other unpaid work positions remained mandatory. Then, over the next two years, the number of people having benefits stopped or sanctioned for not meeting increasingly petty and pointless conditions imposed by Jobcentres soared. Poverty not seen in years re-emerged in the UK as foodbanks opened across the country to meet the desperate need of those stripped of benefits. A climate of fear took hold in Jobcentres, as many advisors ruthlessly bullied and harassed unemployed people in order to meet unofficial targets to sanction as many claims as possible. The latest figures show that more people are having benefits sanctioned than ever before – 227,629 sanctions were imposed in the last three months of 2013.
In this toxic environment claimants have reported that if they refuse a voluntary workfare scheme, such as Work Experience, they are threatened with different, mandatory workfare schemes instead. Despite the rules, many people are still being given the impression by some Jobcentres that Work Experience, Traineeships and other unpaid work schemes for private companies are mandatory. And in his Autumn Statement last year George Osborne announced that young people who refuse a Traineeship or Work Experience position will be sent on a six month unpaid Community Work Placement instead.
If there were any doubts before that Work Experience and Traineeships were not forced work then George Osborne has laid them to rest. Whilst his plans have not been fully implemented yet, the Government’s intention is clear. Young people who do not take up unpaid work, for companies like Poundland and Virgin, will be sent to carry out 780 hours forced labour instead or lose their benefits. Traineeships, and the Work Experience scheme are workfare, there can be no argument about that anymore.
This is why it is genuinely astonishingly that a government funded body, appallingly backed by the TUC, should still be offering a Work Experience Quality Standard which attempts to claim these schemes are voluntary.
Fair Train sell these Quality Standards to companies who must then go through the rigorous procedure of filling in a short form and sending them a cheque. This will allow their workfare crimes to be washed away as Fair Train pronounce their use of unpaid workers is voluntary and even the “first step into a dream career”.
Of course the truth emerges when Fair Train try to sell this shady racket to employers. Work Experience can help with recruitment because it give employers a chance to ‘try before they buy’ says Fair Train – showing this vile organisation really views young people as mere commodities to be exploited and discarded as greedy employers see fit.
Happily the Fair Train quality standard has turned out to be a dismal failure. Last year they organised a week celebrating unpaid work which turned out to be an embarrassing flop. Since then barely over 160 employers have bought one of their Quality Standards, including a car washing firm, a fried chicken shop and several charity shops. Dream careers indeed.
So desperate have Fair Train been to flog their workfare badge of shame, and their comedy workfare trinkets, that they have even attempted to hijack the hugely successful Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign launched in response to the latest mass workfare scheme. Claimant’s rights website Refuted recently revealed on twitter that Fair Train had encouraged them to sign up, presumably after securing their details from the Keep Volunteering Voluntary website. Refuted have long campaigned against exactly the kind of unpaid work that Fair Train are so keen to re-habilitate. Those running this shady outfit are clearly not the sharpest tools in the box, although they are tools.
It is sad to see that several charities who say they do not participate in workfare, including MIND, Scope, Oxfam and Shelter, all have shops who have signed up to the Fair Train workfare badge of shame. This is likely to have been done at a local level and hopefully will be dealt with by head offices. Most of Fair Train’s customers seem to be grouped around small geographical areas, suggesting they are employing telesales staff to go through local business directories to flog their services. Charities opposed to workfare should ensure that all of their local shops and offices are aware of this practice.
No-one needs these clowns. Organisations opposed to forced unpaid work can sign the Keep Volunteering Voluntary agreement. It doesn’t cost anything and those behind it are genuinely independent, unlike Fair Train, who are funded by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, a body accountable to Iain Duncan Smith. There is nothing fair about the unpaid work that @FairTrainOrg celebrate, it is exploitation and it is not volunteering.
Fair Train currently have a handy list of employers who don’t pay their workers wages available at: http://www.fairtrain.org/organisations
Follow me on twitter @johnnyvoid