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All work and no pay – the rise of workfare

Anne-Marie O’Reilly and Warren Clark report on plans to extend ‘welfare-to-work’
November 2011

'She found another placement for me at Primark. I worked from 10am to 4.30pm or 5pm with a half-hour break. They didn’t pay any money. It was nearly six months – January to June. When I finished the volunteer work I went to the manager: "Do you have any vacancies?" They said "We’ll call you when we do." I haven’t had a call.'
Karina, jobseeker placed at Primark under the Flexible New Deal

As consumers, we may all be guilty of ignoring the poverty wages paid by companies such as Primark in their factories abroad. But how many of us are aware of the exploitation going on in the UK, as workfare schemes allow such companies to profit from free labour?

Karina’s story (above) is not uncommon. More and more people are being compelled to work without pay on threat of losing the poverty income of £67 per week (if you’re over 25) that jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) provides.

Workfare in the UK

Karina was mandated to work in Primark under New Labour’s Flexible New Deal. She had been sent to a private ‘welfare to work’ provider whose regime included putting claimants to work without pay in businesses, charity shops and public sector workplaces. Although regulations meant that she could only be obliged to work for up to 12 weeks without pay, she worked for 24 weeks, fearing she would have her benefits stopped if she did not agree. She had signed up to and paid for a college course that would help her find work but she had to give it up to do the placement: ‘They told me they would stop my JSA, so I stopped my English course.’

New Labour introduced work-for-your-benefits schemes, or ‘workfare’, and initiated welfare reforms that enabled the ‘welfare-to-work’ industry to boom. Now the Conservatives are extending welfare-to-work providers’ control of unemployed people’s lives to two years, during which a claimant may be mandated to do anything from sitting in the provider’s office applying for 100 jobs a week to undertaking periods of unpaid ‘work-related activity’ (the new euphemism for work, designed to avoid minimum wage legislation).

Under the Flexible New Deal, at the end of a year in the hands of a provider, claimants were allowed to return to the normal requirements of the jobseeker’s agreement. However, with the launch of the government’s new Work Programme, Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) minister Chris Grayling has indicated that the two-year referrals will ‘loop’, meaning claimants could be on the programme indefinitely. As long as they are, people will be required to take up unpaid workfare placements organised by the jobcentre.

The impact on jobs and wages

The Work Programme is a real threat to jobs and wages. In an example uncovered by Corporate Watch, Newham Council filled an administrative role with a six-month workfare placement. A colleague explained: ‘The basic starting wage for that level is around £17,000. Yet all she was getting was JSA and the fares for her lengthy bus journeys, while people doing identical work were getting a salary, paid leave and pension contributions. We were horrified.’

Last year, 800 station staff on London Underground were cut, prompting concerns for passenger safety. Just months later, a new workfare initiative was rolled out by A4E (one of the Work Programme providers) to provide 200 workfare wardens to make ‘people feel much safer’ at north London tube stations. The need for a uniformed presence remains; the paid employment does not.

In the US, the long-term effects of workfare are stark. In New York, 20,000 unionised workers in the city parks department were replaced by 30,000 workfare workers in the first years of the scheme. The challenge to organised labour is huge.

In some areas, there is less than one job advertised for every 20 people seeking work, yet unemployment is being identified as a personal failing. Workfare is a manifestation of the government’s attempt to discipline and control the lives of the unemployed. A central theme emanating from both the Labour and Tory conferences was the condemnation of people getting ‘something for nothing’. They were targeting people claiming benefits, who Iain Duncan Smith was quick to link to the summer riots: ‘It is little wonder when you consider the way these areas have been blighted by welfare dependency over the years.’

‘Getting something for nothing’, though, is an accusation more appropriately levelled at the companies whose unpaid staff are subsidised by the taxpayer than it is at unemployed claimants.

Punishing claimants

Workfare providers are often reported to treat participants with disdain. A4E reminds claimants via email that unemployment is due to a lack of positive thinking, and some of Reed’s lucky claimants are given copies of a book by the company’s founder, James Reed, explaining how a ‘3G mindset’ will help them get a job. Yet Reed, a recruitment agency, does not make the jobs it advertises available to those on the Work Programme, since this is a ‘different arm of Reed’.

Providers are not even averse to using claimants to carry out work on their own premises. A4E was recently listed as one such provider doing so.

The state-sanctioned intrusion of these private companies into individuals’ lives does not end when participants secure employment. They still receive phone calls from their Work Programme ‘employment coach’ over the full two years. This is to ensure that the private companies can claim their bonuses when someone manages to stay in work for six months or more.

In the new climate of claimant-as-criminal, it is fitting that G4S, which runs prison and detention centre transport, was awarded its Work Programme contract on the basis of a bid promising to send a ‘field operative’ to a claimant’s door within two hours if that person was ‘non co-operative’.

Even the government’s advisory committee spotted that the reforms place more emphasis on punishing claimants for being out of work than helping them find it. Its report on mandatory work placements concluded: ‘Published evidence is at best ambivalent about the chances of “workfare” type activity improving outcomes for people who are out of work’ and ‘being mandated to mandatory work activity is regarded as a punishment.’

Boycott workfare

Who is arbiter of the relationship between big business, the state and the citizen, and where are the democratic checks and balances? Since claimants are now the responsibility of private companies, there is not even the basic accountability afforded by the Freedom of Information Act, and it is difficult to discover which companies are profiting from mandatory work placements. Iain Duncan Smith has forbidden providers from sharing performance data voluntarily. The government clearly thinks the less we know the better.

The future of workfare in the UK is far from certain. Right wing think-tank the Social Market Foundation has predicted that the Work Programme will fail unless the government makes the ‘success criteria’ involve a lot less success (although how they can claim ‘payment by results’ without actually finding people work will be in an interesting challenge to navigate).

Claimants are beginning to expose the harsh realities of the Work Programme, and the Boycott Workfare campaign has formed to challenge those companies and organisations getting ‘something for nothing’ through claimants’ unpaid labour. John Locke, commonly referred to as the ‘father of liberalism’, theorised that the contract behind modern British democracy includes the inalienable right of people to sell their labour. Workfare is one name for a system that forces people to work for free; slave labour is another.


Photographs of claimants on workfare schemes by Philip Wolmuth


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Lee 16 November 2011, 20.56

I did six months of workfare about five years ago; so it’s nothing new. I actually enjoyed my placement and so didn’t complain; however it caused a lot of problems and awkward moments because everyone else I was working with was either a paid employee or a volunteer.

Eric Greenwood 16 November 2011, 21.22

I am on the work programme at a4e. Its exactly the same as the two times i experienced it before.

I was threatened with sanctions for applying for TOO many jobs, and being sent to paint walls or sweeping the streets.

I apply for 3 – 8 jobs a week, i phone job agencies, i visit websites i buy my own newspapers as they dont get them there.

Yet they say its MY fault i havent got a job, because it must be his fault otherwise he would have a job..

I am currently being punished by being sent on a whole raft of useless courses for daring to say there are not many jobs out there.

Alex 16 November 2011, 22.26

wow. Slave labour…I can’t believe it. This is bonded labour. Please publish your own stories about this I am fascinated and appalled.

lee brierley 16 November 2011, 23.03

as a socialist i find it disgraceful, and also these welfare reforms are attacking disableld people its malious and callous. the media is mainly right wing and has alot of influence. social justice.

JennyBN 17 November 2011, 12.09

what’s to stop you joining a union? wouldn’t they demand that you be paid a wage? i’m due to have to start one of these programs in march, i’ll be taking home goods to the value of…. if they don’t pay me for working

charley 17 November 2011, 19.29

Send them an invoice for your work as though you were self employed. There was court case recently where an unpaid intern did this and the court upheld his right to do it

joe kane 17 November 2011, 19.31

Goodbye British Welfare State.

Welcome to our the new neoliberal stalinist forced labour concentration camp.

If you don’t work for nothing then you don’t get your DWP gulag subsistance rations or a roof over your head.

Same goes for the chronically sick and disabled now being passed fit to work by the DWP’s gulag medical hut run by professionally registered medics working for corporate profit-makers Atos.

Eric Greenwood 24 November 2011, 07.46

I am being forced to apply for voluntary jobs..Yes thats right..if i dont apply for these jobs i will get sanctioned. Not that they are placements run by a4e, but they are getting charities to teach me and train me.. to get the experience to get a “proper” job, so i will leave and that is a waste of time and money from the charity and what benefit do they get.. Nothing.. Add to that People forced to go into these places they will not do a good job.

Kevin 25 November 2011, 12.02

I avoided going on these schemes last year, as I was on contribution based JSA which had run out, so got no benefits at all. I looked up that people with over 30 qualifying years of Nat. Ins contributions would get full basic state pension anyway, so I just signed b’stards at A4e….

Kevin 25 November 2011, 12.04

OOps…signed off I meant, is big brother editing this?

Robert the cripple 4 December 2011, 10.54

a simple question: will a spending option directly boost short
and long-term growth and create jobs? This may mean very constrained funding for healthcare,
pensions and welfare for the foreseeable future. It’s tough, but the alternative is ducking the genuine
decisions nearly every government of an
advanced economy currently faces.

Labour plans to get back into power, this is the “Labour party in the black” notice it’s not the top which will be hit but the bottom, we are now seen as basically scroungers work shy and not fit.

Even when after a well know person hangs himself Labour cannot accept people being ill, or perhaps they might want more of us to hang our selves it saves money

Jammy Dodger 11 December 2011, 00.27

We need to work together to smash this evil capitalist society , and rebuild a society for the workers….

Tobanem 4 January 2012, 10.51

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines “Forced or Compulsory Labour” as follows:

“All work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself/herself voluntarily.

Good definition!

Section 71 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, and its counterpart in Scots Law, Section 47 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland)Act 2010, both outlaw forced or compulsory labour.

If the present Work Experience Scheme, the Mandatory Work Activity Scheme, and the forthcoming Community Action Programme are not forced or compulsory labour, what in fact are they then?

These Workfare schemes have been compared with community sentences handed out to convicted criminals, but even the ILO says convicted criminals should only be doing forced or compulsory labour “provided that the said work or service is carried out under the supervision and control of a PUBLIC authority and that the said person (criminal) is not hired to or placed a the disposal of PRIVATE individuals, companies or associations”.

The recent UK legislation will prove to be a paper tiger if it cannot be used to defend railroaded victims conscripted onto these Workfare schemes to work for wealthy private companies without wages.

It will not do to class these schemes as “training” – or anything else!

mkmky 13 January 2012, 15.52

Assigned to the JobFit programme today,finally able to get the training i have been promised,JCP had explained that the funding for the course that i was supposed to go on had been redirected to this new programme. Went to the induction,training was restricted to £50.00 per person over 2 years..huh?. Second meeting asked what work placements are available? other than Poundland none.Luckily i had found a work placement and gave them the contact details…I was told great but i could not take it because they would not be set up for at least 6 months…confused,god knows i am.

Paul Stanway 13 January 2012, 16.29


Can you possibly be more specific about invoicing as self-employed by sending a web link or something? Because if you can invoice the company you’re working for that’s pretty good advice to anybody placed on these work schemes and I’m sure we’d all like to know the specifics.


Dan 13 January 2012, 19.13

Cool dude, let’s go back to slavery. Then sit back and be amazed and disgusted when more people turn to drug dealing and other crime just to eat. Nice job, society.

peter schevtschenko 15 January 2012, 21.00

article 4 of the human rights act prohibits forced labour,surely workfare breaches such an act?
i am prepared to use the h.r.a. if told to go on compulsory labour

redditor 16 January 2012, 10.12

There’s some more discussion on Reddit here:

Paul C 16 January 2012, 16.01

Until the minimum wage is completely abolished people like this are going to be priced out of the market. Fix the minimum wage and you’ve a chance of helping these people to help themselves.

Alternatively this chap could take a bus to London and get a job in McDonalds tomorrow.


neil 1 February 2012, 19.12

What amazes me are where are all the protests > not a banner or article on news or papers years ago there would be riots in the streets people protesting outside downing street , etc now not even a murmour , very little organised protest on the net except a few splintered groups , Im due to start this in theory in feb , unless I sign off jsa and can get a job , but then they have won! although Id prefer not to be a slave, Cameron and co aka his victorian counterpart Mr bumble (oliver) would have victorian workhouses back ! One things for sure He wouldnt do it so why should we??

mark 28 December 2012, 09.57

Paul c. work in mcdonalds serving “food” that slowly kills people?

Adrian 17 January 2013, 11.33

B&M stores have strated using workfare jan/2013. Receiving free labour and stopping overtime for employees with contracts. The people forced to do this free labour are not happy and neither are the employees!

Eowyn Rohan 17 February 2013, 19.50

Of course, candidates on the Flexible New Deal, who did not pursue voluntary work, were assigned to a classroom…. with graduates sharing the space with unskilled, ex offenders, those with abuse issues…. treat as if they were in Kindergarten, and treat with utter disdain and contempt by Welfare To Work Clerks. Such as A4E and Working Links.

PLUS… candidates also had to sit silently on “Employability Training”, such as basic numeracy and literacy. However, agencies which recruited candidates to deliver such programmes may it clear that candidates need not be qualified teachers, and need not even possess teaching qualifications.

Of course, the job was quite pathetic for the Welfare To Work Clerks…. to the extent that the Clerks awarded themselves the baloneous and ego boosting term of “Consultant”.

Thankfully, after the 2010 General Election, the Gravy Train was cut off, and the Welfare To Work Clerks more than likely had to sign off, and seek employment as Call Centre Clerks.

brian 24 February 2013, 17.59


Nimue Brown 18 March 2013, 10.40

So the big companies get free labour paid for (barely) by the government, but we stigmatise the slave labourers as being scroungers. Umm….

Comments are now closed on this article.

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