How Fair is Workfare?

Sanctions -- more like handcuffed to work placements

The UK Government’s work-to-welfare (workfare) scheme was introduced into operation by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2011. Where benefits, such as Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), are usually handed out with certain conditions attached, workfare has an element of participation in work-related activity.

With JSA, the conditions, laid out in a Jobseeker’s agreement, would be committing to actively searching for work, providing a job search to your JobCentre Plus Adviser – which could constitute anything from handing in a CV to going to an interview to searching online for jobs on the government’s own job sites and the like. Workfare aims to get people into a working situation, and those that refuse to take part can have their benefits sanctioned, or stopped for a long period of time. Therefore, you are essentially working for your benefits.

Big corporations profit from taxpayer

Workfare has come under fire in recent months due to the fact that benefit sanctioning can lead to homelessness and cyclical unemployment – where someone is unemployed for a period of time, ‘employed’ for a short amount of time, then unemployed again. The critics of the scheme say that this is modern-day slave labour. The problem most have is that, whilst on your workfare placement, you are not paid the minimum wage (some argue that it should be a living wage, anyway), but instead you are working for your measily £53.45 (JSA entitlement for under-25s) or £67.50 (JSA entitlement for over-25s) or £94.00 (ESA entitlement for Work Related Activity Group). At a working week of up to 30 hours a week, sometimes more, under-25s – which are the group mostly put forward for the scheme – are earning only £1.76 per hour. This is over £4.00 less than the minimum wage of £6.08 per hour. Thus, constituting the term “slave labour”.

Big corporations profit by taking on ‘participants’ on this scheme. Case in point, Tesco took on 1400 participants over the last 4 months for 4 weeks’ work experience. They made a profit of £3.7 billion in 2010, and they can afford to pay these participants minimum wage or above. Instead, they have saved themselves over £1 million in wages, by taking part in this scheme. Taxpayers should not be subsidising big corporations in this manner. Big corporations like Tesco, SuperDrug, Boots, Poundland, and many others, are basically being offered free labour at the taxpayers’ expense.

Tesco and other big corporations rethink involvement

A Twitter and Facebook campaign to target those who are exploiting the unemployed by using workfare was launched just over two weeks ago, and over the past week or so, many big corporations have withdrawn or suspended involvement in this and some of the other government schemes. Sainsburys was one of the first to pull out saying that they didn’t like the benefit sanctioning clause in the workfare scheme. Others to follow suit were Maplin, TKMaxx, and Waterstones. SuperDrug has suspended its involvement until the government can guarantee that no one will lose their benefits for refusing to participate in the scheme. Tesco approached the DWP about removing the sanctioning clause to ease “the confusion over the voluntary nature of the scheme.”

The DWP took to Twitter (@dwppressoffice) and said that “[it] is categorical that no jobseeker has or will be forced to work for a private company under work experience scheme.” And that “[it] only mandates people for community work.” Which isn’t what their own handbooks on the subject state. In Chapter 3 of the Work Programme Provider Guidance, it says categorically, that “Participants who are mandated to undertake activity may incur a loss or reduction of benefit should they fail to comply without good reason.” And further on, it says “Where you are providing support for JSA participants, which is work experience you must mandate participants to this activity. This is to avoid the National Minimum Wage Regulations, which will apply if JSA participants are not mandated.” The fact that the DWP is a civil office, run by our taxes, means that it should not be mandating anything, especially to avoid a corporation paying the National Minimum Wage.

After nearly a week of being slated on Facebook and Twitter, Tesco announced on Tuesday that it would give participants a choice to keep their JSA or to be paid for their 4 week placement. They said, “We do recognise it will be difficult for young people to give up benefits for a short-term placement. Therefore, providing the placement is completed satisfactorily , they will be guaranteed a permanent job at the end of it.  We hope that this will be a major boost for young people looking to enter the workplace on a permanent basis.”

They continue on to say that “Tesco committed 3000 work placements under the Government’s work experience scheme. To date around 1500 have been delivered. Please be assured we will offer the choice of paid work and the jobs guarantee to all of the remaining placements we will deliver under the scheme.”

The power of social media and how you can participate

This is the power of social media. Had it not been for the bombardment of tweets and Facebook posts, and, ultimately, the bad publicity, Tesco along with many other corporations, would not have withdrawn or suspended or amended their involvement in workfare. The Boycott Workfare campaign continues until all corporations rethink their status and involvement in the government’s workfare ‘work for your benefits’ schemes.

There is to be a national day of protest on the 3rd of March 2012, at all locations of big corporations still using the workfare scheme. See Boycott Workfare website for more details.

Follow me on Twitter @shannon_rivers


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