Workfare: a policy on the brink

Warren Clark explains how the success of the campaign against workfare has put the policy’s future in doubt
February 2013

'Three people start today on this “work experience”. They are to help us for up to 30 hours a week for eight weeks over the Christmas period. I am terrified by the idea that head office think they don’t need to pay their staff. I myself am on part-time minimum wage and if they can have workers for free now, what is to stop them making my position redundant and using job centre people to run the store at no cost to themselves?’ – Shoezone employee, November 2012.

At the end of 2012, stores such as Argos, Asda, Superdrug and Shoezone made use of the government’s workfare schemes to meet their seasonal demand, instead of hiring extra staff or offering overtime. This is part of an increasing trend to replace paid employees with workfare participants. In September the 2 Sisters Food Group sacked 350 workers at its plant in Leicester. It moved the production of its pizza toppings to Nottingham, claiming that the move was ‘as a result of several recent strikes’. However, instead of employing people, the company has taken on 100 workfare placements, ‘to give them an idea of what it’s like to work in the food sector’.

It’s not just companies using workfare. It has an increasing presence in the public sector too, plugging the gaps left by redundancies and cuts. Hospitals, public transport and councils have all used workfare participants to provide services. Halton Council has shed 10 per cent of jobs since 2010, and is now using workfare placements. Lewisham has closed some of its libraries. It has now emerged that its new, outsourced ‘community libraries’ use people mandated onto workfare for free labour.

The use of workfare has escalated over the past year and this has had a significant effect on the amount of paid work available. ‘Mandatory work activity’, which compels people to work without pay for 30 hours a week for four weeks, has been expanded to 70,000 placements a year, despite Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) research showing that it had ‘zero effect’ on people’s chances of finding work. The so-called ‘work experience scheme’, eight-week placements mainly in the private sector, is expected to put 250,000 people to work without pay over the next three years. The government refuses to say how many of the 850,000 people sent on the ‘work programme’ have also been forced to work for free. With five other workfare schemes also in operation, it all adds up to workfare replacing paid jobs and driving down wages.

Yet despite the expansion in workfare, the first statistics published on the work programme show it has been a resounding failure: it did not even reach its own minimum target for the number of people the schemes were supposed to get into work. People on the work programme are twice as likely to have their benefits sanctioned as to find work.

Challenging workfare

Until recently the reality of mass forced labour in the UK was yet to reach public consciousness. Unless you, or a friend, had been made to work for free for the likes of Asda, or your work hours were cut when your employer took on placements, you probably wouldn’t have known about the policy. Red Pepper (Oct/Nov 2011) was among the first to report on the government’s plans to rapidly increase the number of people on workfare and raise concerns about how the scheme would undermine work conditions, undercut the minimum wage and attempt to rewrite the social contract.

The success of the campaign against workfare is ensuring that it is both widely known and widely criticised. Workfare’s viability is now genuinely in question. Tens of big high street brands and charities have been compelled by public pressure to end their use of workfare, including Sainsbury’s, HMV and Oxfam. Two of the workfare schemes (work experience and some placements on the work programme) no longer threaten to punish those who fail to participate by stopping their benefit payments (though claimants are often given the impression that they will be, or are threatened with a compulsory scheme if they don’t comply).

There have been promising stories of grassroots union activists seeing off the threat of workfare at the Home Office and in Brighton and Hove City Council, while Norwich City Council was the first local authority to pass a motion boycotting workfare. The future of workfare is uncertain and this central plank of the government’s attack on welfare could be overturned.

Building a movement

In February 2012, Tesco made the mistake of posting an advert for a workfare position online: nightshifts for jobseeker’s allowance. Within hours, the advert was all over Twitter and Facebook and the mainstream media were forced to pay attention, with even the Daily Mail leading with headlines such as ‘Tesco makes u-turn over “slave labour” jobs scheme’ (22 February 2012).

Once people knew about workfare, they responded. Days of action have taken place in 43 towns across the UK – from cheeky post-it notes left throughout stores to occupations and pickets of key offenders. Very rapidly brands including TK Maxx, Burger King and Marie Curie, which had been quietly profiting from thousands of hours of unpaid work, withdrew to save their reputations.

Boycott Workfare also targeted pro-workfare think tanks, whose undemocratic lobbying has pushed the workfare agenda. Persistent campaigning has ensured they no longer advertise the venues of their conferences, fearing the events will be disrupted by direct actions.

The campaign and ensuing media coverage has challenged the political climate. Far too many people of all political hues bought into the narrative of ‘strivers and skivers’. It was Labour, after all, that introduced workfare into the UK, dividing benefit recipients into deserving and undeserving poor.

As grassroots action picks off some of the largest workfare users, the schemes’ futures begin to look less certain. Until coordinated UK-wide action forced a climbdown (though not a complete withdrawal), the British Heart Foundation’s website boasted that at any one time it had 1,600 workfare placements in its stores. A recent DWP report on mandatory work activity has noted a sharp reduction in placements since charities have been persuaded by the campaign to withdraw. Since December 2012 the willingness to profit from forced unpaid work has become even more unpalatable as people on sickness and disability benefits who have been found ‘unfit for work’ can also be sent on unlimited periods of workfare. Lord Bichard, in a Commons select committee, even mooted mandatory work for pensioners. In recent months, by taking on the target others have baulked at, namely charities, Boycott Workfare has prompted even more to announce that they will be pulling out. Workfare is wobbling.

These victories have presented new challenges. Despite mainstream media commentators, politicians and some campaign groups claiming that Tesco had pulled out of workfare when the company announced an additional new scheme it was introducing, in reality it was still participating. Superdrug and Scope suspended involvement, then later sneaked back in.

A campaign led by the unemployed

From the start the Boycott Workfare campaign has involved and taken its lead from people directly affected by workfare, people who are often ignored by many sections of the left.

Where traditional politics has left a vacuum, the space for grassroots, creative and agile campaigning has opened up. Working with other groups, a key feature of the way Boycott Workfare campaigns is that it seeks to enable as much action as possible – welcoming every tactic and strategy deployed against workfare and publicising actions wherever they are and whoever has organised them. It means empowering individuals to resist being subject to workfare, providing information to people receiving social security or who have been sanctioned. It’s about trying to help, with no strings attached.

People understand that it is their actions that can make the difference. It’s their movement. Much of the knowledge about who is using workfare is ‘crowd-sourced’; people’s real stories and experiences are used to challenge those who claim they are not using workfare. Every day, people take their own actions against workfare, writing letters, sending emails or haranguing those involved in the schemes on social media.

Slowly but surely a campaign network has established itself across the UK. People take action when and how they want to, liaising to share information and inspiration and to coordinate for key targets. Collectively the grassroots are punching way above their weight.

Workfare and the unions

As is often the case, how unions have responded varies enormously. Union leaderships have been slow to react to workfare as a workplace issue. The TUC occupies the uncomfortable position of officially condemning workfare, while supporting Labour’s intended scheme, the so-called ‘job guarantee’. This scheme advocates compulsory work at far below a living wage with a similar harsh sanctions regime to that operated by the current coalition government.

Grassroots members of Unite’s new community branches are taking direct action against workfare. Yet Unite still asked the Boycott Workfare campaign to do free casework for its new community union members who had been unemployed and recently sanctioned, despite charging these members a £26 annual fee. Boycott Workfare declined. It seems Unite is yet to use its resources to offer the kind of individual case support we try to provide for free.

The PCS has been supportive, agreeing to sit down with the campaign to see what can be achieved by working together. However, the CWU agreed to help implement a workfare scheme at the Royal Mail. It belatedly exited the scheme, after being embarrassed into doing so.

Despite this mixed picture, local branches have passed motions opposing workfare and brought the issue to national conferences. Many unions, including the BFAWU, NUT, Unison, Unite and PCS now have policy against workfare. In 2013, the campaign hopes to work in genuine dialogue with unions to devise strategies to counter workfare at a local, regional and national level – essential since workfare’s implementation is so diffuse.

The year ahead

The campaign to stop workfare faces some big challenges in 2013. Since October 2012, people who refuse workfare or fall foul of the system in other ways now risk losing their subsistence benefit for up to three years. Universal credit looms on the horizon and with it will come a new deluge of conditionality. Low paid and part-time workers will be drawn into the same boat as jobseekers – forced to do jobsearch and workfare until they are earning the equivalent of full-time work at minimum wage. Whitehall intends to make using the disastrous Universal Jobmatch website compulsory, sentencing those claiming social security to hours of demoralising searching on an ineffective database, while also making surveillance of every click possible.

There is, however, a realistic prospect of success. A DWP legal submission attempting to block information about who is using workfare argues that the schemes risk collapse if that information is published. Since we are continually discovering this information through word of mouth anyway, the campaign can take heart from this admission of its effectiveness.

More people will be introduced to workfare in 2013. But as we step up our outreach, they will also be introduced to us, and we still have a few tricks up our sleeves. Potential workfare users be warned: if you exploit us we will shut you down.

Warren Clark is a member of the Boycott Workfare campaign, with personal experience of workfare. He writes here in a personal capacity. Illustration by Malcolm Currie


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Eric Greenwood 14 February 2013, 18.09

I am on the work programme, this is my 3rd time with the same company each time they promised a job, each time they failed. I have become a outspoken critic and somewhat of an expert about A4e. I object to complusion, When people are forced to work for nothing a lot of people wont do the best work, the other problem is if the companies using them think its a roll on roll off policy.

There is only 1 thing i have learned in my time at a4e and on the work programme. Cover my back, document everything. Now if there were actual jobs at the end as well that could be seen as being useful, however in a recession when a lot of companies are closing when even the ones who have the staff are holding onto them.

Unions Should be fighting for their staff, we are replacing union members and as being on “workfare” we have no rights to leave.

Universal Jobsmatch has become horrendous to use every wednesday jobs warehouses Spamming every week, the same jobs. all these combine to create a distrust of anything the dwp is involved in

Julie 15 February 2013, 19.34

The Work Programme is a disgraceful waste of public money and needs to be scrapped now! Companies such as A4e are troughing it out of the public purse and do not improve the prospects of people sent on their programmes- the money could be much better spent on giving people the opportunity to gain recognised qualifications and to take part in training which actually leads to jobs. Sending people on unpaid work placements does nothing to improve employment prospects- all it does is provide companies with the chance to get free labour courtesy of the taxpayer, whilst also undermining wages.

gil 15 February 2013, 20.30

@Eric Greenwood

You say you’ve been sent to the same company 3 times, and each time you have worked for them unpaid with teh promise of employment, but the employer won’t offer you a job

As you mention that you’ve documented everything, have you thought of trying a legal challenge to reclaim pay @NMW under the internship regulations?

Have a look at this link:

Eric Greenwood 16 February 2013, 17.28

Gil it is worse than that, I wouldnt have minded working, but they (a4e) promised you will have a placement and didn’t even get one, except for once when I was on my last week, and they had two work programme people sent there but only enough work for 1 person. So I spent that week sitting doing nothing in another place rather than A4e office.

David 17 February 2013, 21.56

My experience of the Work Programme in part any ways.

I started with a company called Intraining who then sub contracted me out to a company called BSD.It took this company two months to arrange a first meeting.In that meeting I filled in forms,the adviser then demanded I enroled on three learn direct courses.IT,numeracy and literacy.This was under threat of loss of benefits.I took a numeracy test to see if BSD could be funded by the SFA and because I passed the test it meant the company could not claim funding.The adviser then demanded I took the test again and this time fail it.So in reality I was asked to commit fraud of tax payers monies under threat of loss of benefits.I tried to bring this to the attention of the DWP and they said I had to go back to the company and put a complaint in.What are the chances of a company that is using WP clients to commit fraud of them actually admitting it?The Work Programme is a scam…

Eyes Wide Open 17 February 2013, 22.11

What people keep missing is the cost to tax payers of welfare. These companies don’t get people for free, they get PAID to have them there.

If it is not enough of an insult they they think a person and their time and work is worth nothing, its made all the worse to think the person doing the labour is paying for the liberty.

Lets not forget, those people unemployed are anything but the picture the torys want us to envision, why have been leaching on the system for 20+ years.

They have been long working people, contributing tax for years, in my own case over a decade!
I think I have contributed enough into the social pot for bad times and so have most others now.

To be persecuted for the bad actions of top tier idiots and banks is disgusting.

colin 17 February 2013, 22.53

direct action is needed STOP LONDON WORKING then everyone will know about workfare all we have to do is take over the m25 and london bridge cripple them as they are crippling us …..ive said this before but people tell me no we need peacfull protest ….i say it can be done peaceful all we do is get in the way its not just workfare its all the reforms to welfare …they need reminding that welfare is something we all pay for it was created to stop the poverty in this country .all we have now is a breed of supper rich criminals acting as a government .something else ive said before is …they hung saddam for crimes against his people .theres to many im alright jack people who are ignorent to whats going on but now i see that this bedroom tax will apply to old age pensioners those who have a partner /wife who is under retirement age

lauren 17 February 2013, 22.57

I was referred for one of these work programmes. Dont get me wrong, this is the first time I have EVER been unemployed – Im not a skivver! I ended up submitting legal proof (which cost me money) that I could not afford the £5 a day (£25 a week) from my £62 a week benefits that it would cost for me to attend this ‘work’ since travel is not susidised in any way.

The DWP also require you to search that stupid website 10 times a week, and apply for 7 jobs a week. Each time I go to the library to use their computers, thats over £5 in bus fair, or a 2 hour walk in currently freezing conditions with chronic lung problems

trev howarth 18 February 2013, 10.01

while it was obvious from the start that the Tories would re-introduce slavery , the most outrageous thing is Labour are doing nothing whatsoever about it . They should hang their heads in shame – if it was THEY forced to work for nothing you can bet they’d be up in arms!

Baz 19 February 2013, 21.59

Why can’t we agree to work for them for the hourly rate of whatever it amounts to (ie:the money you get for jsa divided by the hrs worked!)and claim working tax allowance which as we all know bumps up our income to what the dwp say is what the LAW SAYS YOU NEED TO LIVE ON!?

Gordon 20 February 2013, 03.04

This policy is not failing as some claim: it is successfully driving down workers’ bargaining power as intended. There are far more jobseekers than jobs; the govt. are well aware of this so their true intentions are transparent, yet the media largely play along with their pretence of targeting ‘scroungers’.

Labour have accepted capitalism and believe that wealth trickles down from the ‘entrepreneurship’ of owners. It should not come as any surprise that they, like the Tories, will follow the logic of that paradigm when an economic downturn threatens the profits of owners.

The fact that the owners themselves caused the downturn is immaterial – due to corruption, careerism and the prevailing dogma, the politicians will be more interested in preserving the existing power structure than in economic justice or alleviating the suffering of citizens.

The reality is, capitalism is a deliberately engineered system of social control and exploitation; it is still widely considered the best system available and there’s a dearth of the imagination and optimism needed to try to find a new and better system.

Commenters saying “I’m no scrounger, but…” are accepting their chains – this acceptance that you should feel ashamed for lazing about and refusing a meaningless job is just an idea that’s programmed into you. You should feel ashamed when you know you are being called upon to do something actually worthwhile but fail to do so. Working in Argos is not such a calling; it is meaningless. There is enough wealth & technology now for everyone to live a nice easy life yet people work longer hours than mediaeval serfs and struggle to pay the rent.

Reject this system outright; don’t try to tame it or argue on its terms. People should never work just to serve some master’s interests; they should only ever work when they see that there’s work that really needs done, that is meaningful to them. This is only healthy, sane and natural. It should not be considered radical or idealistic in a society that supposedly is against slavery & exploitation in principle.

Our aim should be: work because a sick person needs treatment, or because your neighbour needs a lift across town, or because a kid needs to learn how to write – don’t work because you need to pay the rent or because you want to enjoy excessive power and luxury. The essentials of life can and should be guaranteed for everyone – ‘laziness’ is just a matter of engagement, and who can blame anyone for being disengaged these days?

Andy Kempster 22 February 2013, 17.49

The problem is that it is all being politicised when it shouldn’t be

Thomas Casagranda 24 February 2013, 22.21

I’m concerned. I, now, have to sign on at the Work Programme provider’s office. Has anyone experienced this ?

Rupert Ferguson 27 February 2013, 21.26

Although Workfare should certainly be criticized for the callous exploitation of the the work force that it truly is, Labour’s ‘New Deal’ was every bit as bad. The use of ‘New Deal’ labour by Local Authorities as ‘second class’ road sweepers is a classic case in point: and the roll on roll off system of one candidate being replaced by another, with both of them being simultaneously denied the skills that the creators of the initiative had supposedly signed up to, illustrates the extent to which Neo-Liberal social engineering and the manipulation of the economy by the money markets has destroyed the ability of millions to earn a decent living. Interestingly enough, New Labour’s effective ‘Asianization’ of much of the Labour Market, in a bid to attract outside investment by the multinational corporations at the forefront of the drive towards an ever more Globalized form of Capitalism, was funded to a large by the European Social Fund: which had been set up for a very different purpose entirely. The Work Programme is also funded in part from the same funding source. Perhaps one way of putting a stop to at least some of these sharp practises, from both sides of the political spectrum, would be to organize some sort of initiative from within the European Parliament to ensure that money from the European Social Fund is used for what it is actually intended.

jimmy Kerr 27 February 2013, 22.04

As a veteran campaigner, I was out on the streets campaigning against the “Work Programme”, even as I was working at my placement. I have to say the people at Ingeus, the provider were really helpful in getting me a job so there is a lot to say for the idea of some kind of Government policy where the Jobcentre or some other agency gets paid by results. lthough as a socialist, I was instinctively against the mandatory work activity part of it, in practice, it was in fact crucial for me in the transition from unemployment towards work, so again there is a lot to be said for some kind of benefits system that compels people to get out of their bed in the morning and get active.

The problem for me is that the entire system is abused ruthlessly by employers. My employer is B an M, a chain of value stores, who through their relationship with the “providers” in effect get the equivalent of a full time worker, that they don’t have to pay for. I don’t blame B an M at all for taking advantage of this system, no employer in their right mind would turn that down, but what it means is that one paid worker or several part time workers are in effect out of a job because of this system. No matter what your views on so-called scroungers are, this has to be a wrong-headed approach.

there is also another problem. the people that are sent from the “providers” are all on some kind of “course” or “pre-employment training” system, set by the provider and, there is no nice way of saying this, but are clearly vulnerable, with medical conditions, obvious learning difficulties, etc, who as a result of their conditions, don’t really appreciate just how they are being exploited and so tend not to make a fuss, when, as employers tend to do, get messed about for breaks etc.

Now again, there is a lot to be said for giving these people some kind of experience that would help them in their search for work, but in practice, there is no job at the end of it for these people, no matter what they are told by the provider.

The system as constructed is not about helping people to work, or even the much fabled workfare idea, which in theory would be a good idea if the benefit levels increased to the minimum wage at least. It is simply abouts giving employers slave labour, the privatisation of the functions of the jobcentre and ultimately cutting the welfare bill.

Claire 28 February 2013, 10.58

Workfare people don’t even get fares paid, or lunches!
This is outrageous. My workplace has volunteers and student interns who get fares and lunches and we are a not-for-profit (and how!). The volunteers all do it to support us, the students get the benefit of learning the art of writing for a small publication, journalism skills etc and it’s part of their college course.

If we can afford to pay them fares and lunches there’s no excuse for anyone else. As far as I’m aware charity shops and campaigning organisations seem to offer these basic benefits as well.

Sometimes doing ‘work experience’ is very valuable so I wouldn’t knock it as such. I got into paid work after volunteering for a campaigning organisation. My daughter interned at an architect practice and I feel sure she got accepted at a university asking for higher grades than she achieved because of that work experience. They paid her fares & lunch as well.

But this is the crucial thing – any work experience has to be just that – experience which will improve your employability. If you already have experience in shelf-stacking, shop work, sweeping up or whatever there’s no benefit in you doing more of the same.

But that’s not what it’s really about is it?

lori 1 March 2013, 00.08

just copied this from scope

John 6 March 2013, 13.00

If there were more vacancies than unemployed then it would make sense having training schemes that fitted people to available jobs in the local area. This happened up until 1990 when Thatcher privatised the old Government Skill Centres which had been on the go since the end of WW2. They were closed within two years.

I got a career out of one such course and I will always be grateful for the high standard of training they provided with C&G certificates that were really worth the paper they were printed on. It was voluntary as well.

What we have now is a Work Programme which has little to do with real training and more to do with punishing claimants, providing free forced labour and creating unemployment through the displacement of paid employees by free of charge labour supplied by the DWP.

Comments are now closed on this article.

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