Work! Fair?

There has been much recent debate about the extension of the idea of ‘workfare’ in the UK. ‘Workfare’ is supposed to be an extension of ‘welfare’ seen by the syntax used in the word itself. It is an idea which grew from the idea that people should not receive benefit entitlement as a result of unemployment without ‘giving something back’. In the context in which I’ll be using it, it refers to mandatory work ‘placements’ for people who are not able to secure employment in order to receive benefits that relate to being out of work.  It sounds quite warm and fluffy because of course people should be helped into work and ‘give something back’ but the word also implies a series of sanctions of this work is not undertaken.

Outside the Jobcentre

Yesterday the UK government released its first figures about the ‘Mandatory Work Activity’ programme (a workfare system). This scheme as the Guardian explains empowers Job Centre managers

to make unemployed people do a month’s work experience at charities, government offices or high-street chains if they feel claimants “fail to demonstrate the focus and discipline necessary to seek out, secure and retain employment opportunities”. If they do not take part, claimants have their benefits removed for 13 weeks. A second failure to take part means benefits are removed for six months.

They also go on to explain about another parallel scheme where

managers can also ask jobseekers to take up unpaid work experience (WE) for eight weeks. However, under this programme, people can refuse to do the work or pull out within the first week without having benefits docked

Surely these opportunities will help young people ‘get into the habit’ of work? Isn’t that the way the argument goes? I am not against help being offered but I am against that help or shall we call it work, being unpaid.

Worryingly, the Guardian picks up a differential in the referrals made to the voluntary and mandatory schemes depending on gender and race.

The figures show a wide variance between gender and race groups entered into the two schemes. Of those being referred to the mandatory scheme, 75% (18,000) were male, while 66% were male in the non-mandatory WE scheme.

Figures for ethnicity reveal that 24% of those being forced to do work experience were from minorities compared to only 13% on the voluntary WE scheme.

No explanation of these variations in figures have been given by the DWP but it’s useful to bear in mind that these referrals and the decisions about which referrals are made to which scheme (the sanctioned scheme or the ‘voluntary’ scheme) are at the discretion the of manager of the job centre.

The sanctions and social control extended to those on workfare placements is also balanced by the benefits to involved companies. They receive a cheap (free) workforce and their own costs fall. Work provided is often low or non-skilled and potentially displaces those who would otherwise have been employed at least on minimum wage.

I tried to look up some studies about the effectiveness of ‘workfare’ to put this in an international context. I found a study from the Centre for Labour Market Research (Aalborg University) called ‘Flexicurity, workfare or inclusion? The Politics of Welfare and Activation in the UK and Denmark’ (pdf)

While the paper is from 2005 so refers mainly to Labour’s ‘New Deal’ some of the research evidenced is interesting in a current context.

The authors, for example, establish that

the failure of mainstream social and welfare services to deal effectively with the problems associated with poverty (homelessness, poor health, drug and alcohol addiction, learning difficulties) act as barriers  for returning to the labour market. Disengagement from the labour market is seen as the fault of the individual, rather than the result of inadequate social support.

The paper (which makes interesting reading) explores how much (or little) those who are socially excluded through poverty have been engaged to coproduce government policy which relates to promoting employment. For me, it raises interesting parallels with work on the personalisation agenda in social care. We are, quite rightly, moving to systems where we are trying to equalise the power divide (despite its constant presence) between users and government agents of delivery (aka social workers!) while in the field of benefits and promoting work we are infantilising claimants and forcing them to work without day. Don’t similar principles of improved outcomes by involvement and coproduction exist? Would it be better to work with people and find to really what the barriers are to work – whether that be the availability of work in a particular area or field, broader sociological issues such as poverty or those issues explained above.

Why are we assuming that ‘disengagement from the labour market is seen as the fault of the individual’.

If people ‘choose’ not to work, why? What is there within society that pushes this agenda.

Another interesting study comes from the DWP itself published in 2008 looking at ‘workfare’ in the United States.(pdf)

Again, interesting and worth reading but the evidence produces jumps out from the first page (so you don’t need to delve very deep) where it explains that there is a fall in welfare claimants however that may be because people drop out of the system.

But it also concludes that these ‘workfare’ type programmes work best in jobs that actually pay a wage rather than just the benefit level itself and they do not increase the likelihood of claimants actually finding jobs and are particularly poor at delivering ‘results’ for those who have ‘multiple barriers’ to work. Indeed, it may be more punishing to those who experience more of these barriers because they are more likely to be sanctioned.

So where are we now? With a hotchpotch scheme invented by a government that wishes to punish people for unemployment when the unemployment rate is skyrocketing.

Offer work placements, by all means, but offer placements that allow the dignity of a payment of at least the minimum wage to be made. Private companies are growing rich on the back of those who have the least and that seems to be an underlying theme for this government.

Is WorkFare Fair? Not at all. But from a government that seems to like to through the word ‘fair’ round and attach it’s own values to it, I don’t see this changing.

We need to throw their own research back to them. The evidence is there. The way is to push through more co-productive ideas. The way is for more jobs to actually exist and not punish and stigmatise those who are not able to find them.

"One Man, One Job" World Trade Center Construction

3 thoughts on “Work! Fair?

  1. Great post. What next? I’m trying to think of a better system that could be put in place, as this one is absolutely devastating a situation that was already bad. It’s a huge blow to my generation (I’m 24) as it’s decreasing opportunities when there were so few to begin with – it’s like being kicked when you’re down. This research is excellent, thanks for posting it.

  2. Good to see a cogent and reasoned argument on why workfare is punitive, illogical and unlikely to make a positive difference for those who are long term unemployed. There’s a lot of rhetoric and placard waving around which is empty and alienating. They should read this.

  3. Thanks so much for the comments.

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