Aint Nothin’ Fair about Workfare
This week, Tesco inadvertently blew the lid on the UK Government’s so called Work Experience Programme. The retailer advertised a permanent nightshift position with a salary of JSA + Expenses.
Today’s article takes a look at the Workfare programme, the dangers it presents, and what you can do to make it stop.
Arbeit Macht Frei? Nicht, Arbeit ist Frei!
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 doesnt 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.
What’s wrong with Workfare?
Firstly, as a society, we have agreed that forced labour is against the law. Article 4 ofthe 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.
Tesco: The Poster Boy for Corporate Greed & Bullsh*t
There are over a hundred providers, in the corporate and public sector, who have signed up as workfare ‘providers’. It is not limited to Tesco, and neither, therefore, will the consequences. However, Tesco have excelled themselves with their response to the issue. In response to the furore around the advert placed on the jobcentre website, their response was simply that it was a mistake, a typo by the jobcentre that the role was advertised as permanent. This answer is a fail on two grounds. Firstly, the typo is not the issue. Responding only to whether the role was permanent or not, is akin to the Mafia clarifying that the cement shoes they tied onto the guy they threw in the river were absolutely NOT tied too tightly. It’s an irrelevance in the grander scheme of things. Secondly, it’s a lie, or the jobcentre have gone crazy because these adverts have been all over the country for many months. Are they all mistakes? None have been spotted in all this time? Despite people turning up for interviews for permanent jobs on JSA wages to find they are only six weeks? Really Tesco? That is right up there with the ‘I didn’t inhale’.
On social media, the Tesco Facebook site and twitter accounts have been hammered by thousands of furious customers, stating they simply refuse to buy another item from their stores, and will transfer their Tesco related services e.g. Insurance, banking, petrol to retailers outside the workfare scheme. Firstly, Tesco responded by informing people that after utilising 1400 placements, they had offered 300 jobs. This means 1100 unemployed people worked free to Tesco for up to 30 hours per week, for six weeks free of charge for Tesco. This is not something to shout about Tesco. This is not a service Tesco are providing; it is a service we are providing. We are providing Tesco with free labour. Offering someone a job after a period of forced labour is nothing to be proud of. If Tesco had 300 jobs going, surely they should simply have employed 300 people, not got free labour from 1100 people as a bonus.
In the meantime, Marie Curie Cancer Care’s press office exemplified how to manage a crisis, by not only withdrawing from the scheme, but communicating clearly why they joined, and why they would no longer be participating. Yes it would have been better if they had never signed up at all, but for every provider that withdraws, the pressure on the government to withdraw the scheme ratchets up. This is why, what you do over the next hours, days and weeks is so critical.
This is How we Make it Stop
It is imperative that we do not simply shake our heads and complain about the workfare scheme. It is disgraceful enough on its own, but in combination with the Welfare Reform Bill and the NHS Bill, it represents the greatest assault on the public purse and conscience in the new Elizabethan age.
The Welfare Reform Bill forces terminally ill people with a live expectancy longer than 6 months to seek a job. It forces disabled people, and those suffering depression, to work after assessments by ATOS. These people will then, thanks to Workfare, find themselves in forced labour, for as little as £53 per week. This plan is so sickening, that even the Daily Mail has recoiled in disgust. This week, they ran an article entitled ‘This is Not War Time Nazi Germany and Cameron’s Attacks on the Vulnerable and Needy Must Stop’. Yes, the Daily Mail.
There is a wave of resistance to this bankrupt forced labour scheme, which you can get involved in right now. There are three main ways of protesting this; Dissent, Protest and Law. Don't feel limited to any one of the three either. A mass and varied resistance is a beautiful thing.
If we begin with dissent, this is making it absolutely clear that you vehemently oppose the Workfare Scheme, and influence others to do the same. This acts to inform workfare providers that they are making an unpopular move. This is already working.
In the good news pile, thanks to the pressure applied using social media – twitter and Facebook – several companies and charities have pulled out of the scheme. They are coming in thick and fats, but at time of writing: Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, TKMaxx, HMV, Marie Curie Cancer Care, Shelter, Oxfam, 99pStores have withdrawn from the scheme entirely. Matalan have suspended their participation pending an internal inquiry. Poundland have announced they are reviewing their position.
Here is the list of workfare providers. All you need to do it tweet them, go to their Facebook sites and comment, and make sure you post your views on your own Facebook and twitter accounts so others can be made aware of this outrageous abuse of power.
Then there is protest, this can take place in person or via social and mainstream media aswell.
An e-petition has been started to end the Workfare Scheme. This is so important, as although we wish to target companies who participate in the scheme, we must equally target this at source. The policy needs to be killed, and the e-petition forces a debate in parliament once it reaches 100k signatures. We are already at just under 5k after 48 hours, so sign now, tweet it and Facebook it, Google plus it, stand in the street ringing a bell about it if you have to. Just get it out there.
Sign the e-petition.
This morning, people have been picketing the stores of Tesco and other retailers participating in the scheme. There is also a National Day of Action on Saturday March 3rd. You can keep up to date on actions, and publicise your own by going to the Boycott Workfare website, or following them on twitter @Boycottworkfare.
Write to your local MP, email the CEOs of companies related to Workfare, ring customer services and refuse to leave the line until they stop exploiting forced labour. Be imaginative, be playful, be terrifying, be whatever you like. But be a stand against this corrupt scheme.
Finally, there is the Law. The matter of forced labour can be taken to the courts, to make the scheme illegal. Cait Reilly, a 23 year old graduate who lost her benefits after refusing workfare in Poundland has now lodged a case for a Judicial Review of the government’s scheme. You can keep up with the case via the lawyer’s website. If you have been forced into workfare, this is your opportunity to make a stand. Contact Public Interest Lawyers, make your case.
This government is eroding a body of social support and human rights in months, which it took us centuries to grow. It is incumbent upon each of us to make a stand for the kind of world we want to live in. We get the government we tolerate, and our tolerance has been pushed well past its limits. This is not a scheme to encourage young people into jobs; it is a scheme to encourage tax payer pounds into corporate pockets, sky high unemployment figures out of the headlines and vulnerable people off the balance sheet. It is a sick, indefensible disgrace and you can make the difference. We all can. So let’s.