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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 14, 2013
10 min read

‘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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