The Hollow Centre:
Wages for Work Branded a Dangerous Socialist Ideal
This week, a successful grass roots social media and direct action campaign, has seen providers of the Government’s Workfare scheme pulling out in significant number. The government has made a vigorous response to the issue branding those opposed to workfare ‘job snobs’ and stating that the campaign was tiny and orchestrated by the Socialist Worker Party. Today's article picks through the spin and reminds us why it is so important that we maintain the principle of wages for work.
WorkFare – What’s all the Fuss About?
The Government has a whole host of programmes purportedly in place to support the jobless back into paid employment. Workfare refers to ALL of the programmes which are mandatory, or long term paid less than minimum wage. For example, offering an unemployed 21 year old History graduate 2 weeks work experience with the British Museum, at their request – is quite a different proposition from forcing the same 21 year old into 8 weeks stacking shelves at Tesco under threat of sanction.
The Government’s Work Experience Programme, Mandatory Work Activity scheme and The Work Programme all fall into this category. Workfare campaigning in recent weeks has focussed on the Work Experience programme.
The Government’s so-called ‘Work Experience Programme’ started out a limited affair under Labour. Essentially, people claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) were offered voluntary placements in their field of interest but still able to claim their JSA and any reasonable expenses. There were some important limitations on the programme:
1. Placements were entirely voluntary
2. Placements could last a maximum of 2 weeks
3. Placements could only take place in the public or third (voluntary/charity) sector
However, in 2011, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government announced a plan to increase uptake of Workfare by 100,000. They also made changes to the programme as follows:
1. A jobseeker who leaves a placement after 1 week loses their welfare payments for 6 weeks. If they do this a second time, they lose them for 13 weeks. The third time, three years.
2. Placements can be for as 30 hours a week for up to 6 weeks
3. The scheme has been opened up so corporations in the private sector can exploit this taxpayer funded, forced labour.
To put this in some context, this means that someone who finds themselves unemployed, is now told that they must work up to thirty hours a week, for six week periods at a time, stacking shelves for Tesco or Poundland – to receive as little as £53 per week. Also, Tesco isn’t paying the £53; we are, through our taxes. Although an interview is supposed to be guaranteed at the end of the term, it is not required that the workfare provider has a vacancy open. An interview for a job that doesn’t exist is no interview at all.
Corporations get free labour, the government get’s to massage the unemployment figures and the unemployed, (of which there are 3 million in the UK today) get shafted.
The Principled Opposition to Workfare
Firstly, as a society, we have agreed that forced labour is against the law. Article 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights clearly states - No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour. If the government threatens to withdraw a person’s sole lifeline, lest they supply their labour, then it can clearly be argued that this labour has been attained forcibly. The labour is also clearly compulsory.
Secondly, the opening of the scheme to the private sector, allowing public funding of private labour simply beggars belief. It is completely unconscionable to many, that whilst the government is taking a chainsaw to the welfare state on the stated grounds of ‘austerity’– it chooses to use taxpayers’ money to fund forced labour for private corporations. Aside from being principally abhorrent in and of itself, there are a series of deplorable outcomes. It means corporations get to choose between salaried and free staff, creating competition with the ‘real’ jobs market and a further means of suppressing wages in the real economy. It also means that Topshop owner Arcadia (an infamous tax avoider) gets free staff paid for by taxes they themselves refuse to pay.
Thirdly, it entirely subverts the minimum wage. We agreed as a society, that we needed a minimum wage in order to provide a balance between a corporation’s logical ambition to reduce its labour costs and a workers need to gain a fair, living wage. Before and since the implementation of the minimum wage, corporations have battled against this legislation, arguing they need to be freed of this ‘red tape’ in order to compete and grow their business. The wail at heinous restrictions like the minimum wage (making sure your employees are paid enough to afford to eat when they get home) and health & safety legislation (ensuring your employees are not in peril as they perform their duties) and union rights (employees able to bargain collectively, rather than as individuals when dealing with a corporate giant).
So, no great surprises that government and corporations alike were thrilled with the Workfare programme. It embodies the thrill of both. A government seeking to hide the impact of its appalling fiscal and social policy, and a corporate world hell bent on growth & profit uber alles.
Mythbusting the ConDem Super Spin
In just a week of vigorous campaigning, with myriad individuals and groups taking varied actions, workfare providers started to drop out of the programme under the pressure. People tweeted, they commented on company Facebook pages, they wrote letters, they showed up at stores with placards and megaphones. Any single person who has followed the #workfare or #boycottworkfare twitter hash tags will attest to the immense, diverse noise created by popular dissent of this offensive policy. In fact there was even cross breeding, with people starting to make links in a shared and pernicious ideology between Workfare programme, the Welfare Reform Bill and the NHS (Health & Social Care) Bill. All three dismantle social security provisions, based on principals of fairness and community, which it has taken centuries to achieve.
Shelter, Matalan,Poundland, 99p Stores, Oxfam, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Marie Curie Cancer Care,Burger King, Maplin and others have joined the list of workfare providers who have pulled out of the government scheme. This has been a big embarrassment for the government as pundits ask ‘If there is nothing wrong with the scheme, why are so many providers pulling out?’
In response, Work and Pensions Minister Chris Grayling put his palm through the ‘in case of emergency – break glass’ unit and the Downing Street media machine kicked into overdrive. If you listen very closely, you may even hear the whirring of cogs. The narrative goes as follows:
There is a tiny, hard left opposition to workfare, which has put such pressure on companies that they have had to pull out of a successful scheme, the result that young people lose a valuable opportunity of work experience.
Furthermore, the opposition to young people stacking shelves in a supermarket is ‘job snobbery’ by some elite who don’t understand the importance of the life skills and discipline a young person can get from such work. Finally, there is a brutal aside to Britain’s young people, and other jobseekers who think they are too good to stack shelves, making them job snobs too.
This argument has been spat out across the media, the BBC in particular with Question time, Daily Politics, Newsnight, the Today Programme and BBC This Week all covering workfare, stressing the Downing Street narrative. But it is important to challenge the three central pillars to this argument a) that the programme is successful, b) that to oppose it is job snobbery and b) that the opposition to it is tiny a party affiliated.
Workfare Doesn’t Work
Firstly, if the media were doing it's job interrogating a story rather than regurgitating press releases, then Ministers would be held to better account in their arguments. Chris Grayling was left completely unchallenged on the Today Programme when stating that figures showed 50% of workfareexploitees were no longer claiming JSA six months after their placement. He was not asked if that is a higher or lower percentage than JSA claimants who haven’t participated in workfare (answer? Lower. 60% of JSA claimants in the young people age group leave JSA within 3-6months). He was not asked what percentage of those claimants found work with or even in the industry of the workfare provider (this figure isn’t even monitored by the DWP). He was not asked to clarify if those 50% of claimants were actually in work or simply stopped claiming, dropping out altogether. Indeed, if they had really done their rhomework, they'd know that a DWP research review in 2008 found workfare did little or nothing to improve the prospects of the unemployed.
There are almost 3m unemployed people in the UK today, and this is not simply because they all lack work experience. The jobs market is stagnating as the private sector creates jobs at a slower rate than the job losses in the public sector. It is a nightmare scenario for business start ups as lending is down across the board to small businesses and consumer demand is breaking under the dual pressures of a rising cost of living and frozen wages. So, perhaps a greater thinker than Chris Grayling and the DWP bods might conclude that a scheme which offers companies who might otherwise employ a person on a wage, the opportunity to have one free of charge might just undermine the labour market even further. Therefore the case for the success of the programmes is entirely unfounded. Some might consider saying something is true, which has manifestly been proven false, might constitute a lie.
You’re not a Snob to Expect Pay for a Job
The second argument, accusing people who oppose forced labour as job snobs is also an affront on the sensible mind. It is interesting that the great majority of voices expounding on the virtues of a hard days unpaid work stacking supermarket shelves are never likely to enjoy the privilege. The talk of discipline, pride in a day’s work, harks back to the era of ‘the happy prole’ – the uncomplaining working pleb who endured the daily grind for a pittance. The noble peasant. I would reserve a special place in hell for those patronising and foolish enough to ascribe romance to poverty. To somehow claim that it is wrong, ungrateful somehow, for a person to aspire to utilise their talents, to work a career rather than a job, to contribute to the highest extent of their mental and physical ability…and be paid a living wage for it, smacks of the paternalist attitude of Victorian Britain. The saddest case of this I have witnessed was Michelin Star Chef Michel Roux Jr’s piece on BBC This Week - entitled 'Young Would Rather Be Sat on Benefits'. Roux Jr expounded on the virtues of a hard day’s work, the importance of work experience and how his career was made by starting at the bottom, washing pans and chopping carrots, and working his way up. He sadly failed to mention in the entire piece or the subsequent interview that he is the son of millionaire Michelin star chef Albert Roux, nephew of millionaire Michelin start chef Michel Roux and the Roux family are culinary aristocracy. These other contributing factors might well have had a more considerable bearing on his subsequent opportunity to succeed, than the carrot chopping. He was also a paid apprentice, despite being independently wealthy. On leaving his apprenticeship, he was able tojoin his father’s already established Michelin start restaurant. The experience of washing pans for a while, when you afford a millionaire lifestyle and are destined for employment at the elite level in your career of choice, is not comparable with people your standard unconnected young Briton with parents unable to afford them opportunity or financial support, with no job or career plan at the end of it. Aspiration should not be the preserve of those who can afford it.
You Don’t Need to be a Socialist to Oppose Forced Labour
The promise of rewards for hard work and success, regardless of priviledge of birth, was one of the basic promises of capitalism. Capitalism says that anyone has the opportunity to make it. It is not a socialist ideal that the skills and capabilities of all our people are given reign to create progress and prosperity for us all. That is just as easily a liberal ideal or a conservative ideal. In fact, it is purely a neo-liberal world view that suggests the most important thing is the market. As if the market and progress were the same thing, when the state of the market now clearly demonstrate the opposite. The market has become entirely detached from the real economy, to such a degree that we often find them acting in direct opposition.
In the case of workfare, there have actually been several campaigns working in the same direction. Boycott Workfare have provided information and generated the social media campaign and the National Day of Action on 3rd March 2012. Meanwhile, Right To Work have been behind a number of the recent direct actions. However, like the UK Uncut model, once informed, masses of people have supported the campaigns by using social media or attending organised actions. Others have started direct actions in their local area and advertised them using the online presence of the campaign groups. This is a really effective way of protesting and encouraging mass and varied participation. There is no political party affiliation made by the groups, and twitter has been flooded with ‘Grayling says I’m a member of the socialist workers party. I’m not’ tweets. This is another case of a simple, outright, bare faced lie. To say that anyone who opposes forced labour is automatically a member of the Socialist Worker Party, or a dangerous hard left zealot (whatever one of those is) surely should raise an arched eyebrow of query?
It is simple. it is offensive to expect someone to be compelled to submit to forced labour. Putting free labour into the jobs market undermines waged labour – why pay for it when you can get it for free? The minimum wage is being circumvented by this scheme. It is a scam, and the only dangerous ideology here is that which promotes creating second class citizens, compelled to work for their welfare and not a wage creating tax payer funded free labour for corporations.
Meanwhile, despite Grayling and his motley crew, the campaign gathers pace, providers continue to pull out and pressure on the government to withdraw the scheme. It is possible to exert the kind of pressure that makes a change. So, be sure to talk to people, clear up the myths of the Downing Street media machine and make a stand for a day’s wage for a day’s work.