Cast your minds back to the pre-coalition days of 2010, when five Liberal Democrat MPs signed an early day motion expressing reservations about a paper written by Peter Hain entitled, ‘In Work, Better off: next steps to full employment.’ The early day motion detailed the MPs’ concerns that Hain’s paper could lead to a workfare programme in Britain, where some job seekers could be required to spend ‘six weeks in a programme of full-time community-based work experience.’
How ironic it is that, just months later, these very MPs would prop up a Tory party whose manifesto included a ‘work on the Dole’ programme, which promised that “Anyone on Jobseeker’s Allowance who refuses to join the Work Programme will lose the right to claim out-of-work benefits until they do, while people who refuse to accept reasonable job offers could forfeit their benefits for up to three years.”
Hypocrisy aside, it’s worth asking why these Liberal Democrats were dubious enough about workfare to sign the early day motion in the first place. Perhaps it’s because the evidence suggests that workfare simply doesn’t fulfil its aims – that is, to reduce the number of benefit claimants overall and to give people the skills and experience to help them into employment. A 1993 review carried out by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) in the US concluded that there is “little evidence that unpaid work experience leads to consistent employment or earnings effects” and highlights that workfare is least effective in a weak labour market, citing the example of West Virginia. More recently, the government’s own peer review study, published in June of this year, found that Mandatory Work Activity ‘had zero effect in helping people get a job.’
Last week, the executive of Unite the Union passed a motion condemning the practice of workfare; this week our conference will ratify that.
Everyone is entitled to decent work, training and income. Despite this government’s poisonous rhetoric, benefits are not a privilege but a right which must be protected. Cheap labour schemes should be replaced by real training and education under trade union supervision. Only then can we give unemployed people decent and fair opportunities to get into work.
But we must also remember that this country is facing the deepest recession since the 1920s, coupled with the biggest cuts to public spending in our history. According to the Guardian’s James Ball there are as many as 30 applicants chasing every vacancy, so in the vast majority of cases, people are unemployed because there simply are no jobs. Treating them as ‘gaming the system,’ as Chris Grayling spitefully put it is to miss the popint when we have a jobs crisis in this country. Making people work without getting paid doesn’t solve this – it only displaces paid workers, adding to already-growing unemployment figures.
It is important to ask who workfare actually benefits. It doesn’t benefit the taxpayer, who is forced to pay the wages of privately-employed workers. It doesn’t benefit the paid worker, whose job may be replaced by a benefit claimant forced to work for free. It doesn’t benefit the benefit claimant, whose chances of getting paid work are not increased at all. It only benefits private companies, who get their payroll taken care of by the public purse, aided and abetted by a government that seems blind to the effects of its own policies.
Trade unions have centuries of history of standing up to powerful companies on behalf of ordinary people. Workfare is no different. We oppose this pernicious programme, because it is unjust and damaging – to both workers and the unemployed. Unite will boycott workfare placements because it is a scheme which runs counter to trade union values of dignity and fairness. We believe the civility of a society can be determined by how it treats its most vulnerable members. On that measure, this government has failed.
Steve Turner is the Head of Policy for Unite. This post forms part of our coverage of Unite Conference 2012.