Forcing people into jobs they don’t want, just to claim their benefit, might be defensible if there was pretty swiftly a real job available to those who were capable and wanted it, but as the Tory-led government has pushed its workfare scheme, the alarming truth is that it has created a forced working underclass of claimants working for their dole — at £1.78 to £2.25 an hour for a 30-hour week, in other words — who have not been gaining essential skills of preparing for a full-time job, but have instead, found themselves being exploited by huge companies happy to take on cheap labour to be dumped at the end of a trial period.
Writing about this in the Guardian last August, John Harris noted that workfare’s origins were in Labour’s “Flexible New Deal,” and that “one of the central ideas of Iain Duncan Smith’s Work Programme is ‘mandatory work activity‘: up to 30 weekly hours of faux-employment spread over 28 days, during which people have to do work ‘of benefit to the community’ in return for their jobseeker’s allowance of £67.50 a week [and just £53.45 a week for those aged between 18 and 24]. If they decline the offer of “experience” … or fail to make a go of it, their benefit can be stopped — for a minimum of three months, and six months if the transgression is repeated.”
However, although a campaigning website, Boycott Workfare, was established in 2010 to publicise the Workfare scandal, and the story resurfaced in January this year, when an enterprising young woman named Cait Reilly “launched judicial review proceedings in the high court,” as “a challenge to regulations that require up to 50,000 jobseekers to carry out unpaid work at major corporations,” it was not until February this year that the story unexpectedly broke into the mainstream, when a Tesco job advert in East Anglia — for night shift workers to be paid “JSA plus expenses” — was publicised and went viral, that public opinion swung in favour of those being exploited.
A huge number of well-known companies — and even charities — were involved in the workfare scam. When the Tesco scandal broke, the Guardian noted that they included the Arcadia group (including Topshop and Burton), Argos, Asda, Boots, Poundland and TK Maxx, and that Sainsbury’s and Waterstones had apparently ended their involvement beforehand.
As a result of the widespread public indignation — the only way that dreadful political decisions can be rolled back, it seems — the government climbed down. On February 29, the Guardian reported:
Companies and charities — now sensitised to the power of Facebook and Twitter — were not slow to pick up the enormous groundswell of anger and incredulity that such famous brands could be involved in something popularly regarded as blatantly unfair and exploitative … Employers had decided the punitive aspects of the work experience scheme were a reputational hazard. Few were averse to the principle or spirit of work experience; but none, especially the charities, could in the end live with the idea that a young person is compelled to carry through with an unpaid “voluntary” placement of up to eight weeks or face a sanction – the removal of two weeks’ unemployment benefit. That scale of loss, the children’s charity Barnardo’s said, would tip youngsters on the edge of poverty into destitution.
When ministers and representatives of the high street stores and charities met, the employers apparently had to make it clear that “dropping sanctions was the price of employers’ continued support for the entire scheme.” The Guardian noted suggestions that “the government may have been taken aback by their implacability,” and that Chris Grayling, the employment minister, “realised he had no choice but to acquiesce to their demands.”
Ministers tried to argue that sanctions were “relatively rare,” but, as the Guardian noted, it was “a presentational disaster for the government, which has struggled pitifully to convince the public that its work experience scheme for youngsters is either voluntary or reasonable.”
Unfortunately, the battle against workfare has not been won, even though, as Boycott Workfare explained, the following companies and organisations have now said they “will no longer take part in workfare”: TK Maxx, Sainsbury’s, Waterstones, Shelter, Marie Curie, 99p stores, Maplin, Oxfam, Mind, BHS, Burger King (“although they have only mentioned one of the five workfare schemes”), HMV and Boots. Four others — Scope, Matalan, Argos and Superdrug — “have suspended their involvement,” although Boycott Workfare noted that they “look forward to them confirming that they will stop involvement in any of the government’s workfare schemes.”
Boycott Workfare added crucially that Poundland said they would “pull out of the Work Programme but remain in the Work Experience Scheme,” and Tesco “are “still involved in the scheme.” In addition, Pizza Hut said they “have the scheme under review,” and Age UK are “investigating.” Boycott Workfare’s page on Workfare providers also includes dozens more companies who are, or have been involved.
However, as the Guardian also explained, the government’s climbdown was “a relatively minor concession” in the context of the government’s welfare-to-work strategy,” with ministers still believing that “sanctions are an essential tool to persuade claimants to take work experience and job placements seriously,” and punishments continuing to operate in “the other two government-run work experience schemes, and through the work programme, most notoriously for disabled and chronically sick people on employment support allowance.” See here for details of the five different workfare schemes.
Workfare and the NHS
Last week, on his website The Green Benches, Dr. Éoin Clarke broke some disturbing news that tied in the workfare debacle with the effects of the NHS privatisation that was passed by Parliament seven weeks ago. In the article, “Workfare comes to the NHS as unpaid workers take the place of NHS staff,” Dr. Clarke explained that “Jobcentre Plus & Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Hospitals Trust have teamed up to place unpaid unemployed workers in their hospitals,” and added, “After a day’s assessment and induction at Sandwell College, the untrained and inexperienced personnel are placed in the hospital for period of up to 8 weeks unpaid. During this time they provide refreshments to patients and transport medicines.”
The participants for the most part enjoyed the experience and in fact 33% of those placed actually secured jobs as a result. This however is besides the point. Freezing the recruitment of staff & replacing them with untrained staff is a deliberate downgrading & de-skilling of the workforce. This is so they can ultimately pay staff less as the jobs the staffs are being eventually placed in are simply “healthcare assistants”.
No one for one moment thinks that there will not be a gradual encroachment into the duties currently performed by nurses & auxiliaries, and that through time these unpaid staff members, or even those eventually gaining employment as health care assistants will become quasi-nurses. That the head of nurse recruitment was placed in charge of the work programme placements epitomises the future intentions of these workers to take on the role of nurses. In addition, nurses are trained professionals and their roles cannot simply be replicated by a few hours training at Sandwell College.
The most worrying aspect of this trial was that a) it was a “pilot” which means it will most likely be rolled out nationwide and that b) As far as media exercises go it was exceptionally choreographed & packaged in a way to paint the initiative in the best possible light. Details were only released after the pilot was completed. Plans are now afoot to step up the programme.
This is a fair assessment. I rang the Trust, and was directed to the press release, which was on the front page of the Trust’s website, under the heading, “Hospital trust helps jobseekers get back to work.” In the press release, it was noted that the pilot scheme involved six jobseekers, and that their tasks “included making hot and cold drinks for patients and helping to feed them if necessary, as well as collecting medication from the hospital pharmacy to give nurses more time on the wards.” They were identified as “ward service assistants,” recognisable by “the red T-shirts they wore,” and they “spent eight weeks helping out on the wards.”
As Dr. Clarke noted, those who had taken part were very enthusiastic indeed, and one said, “I know that after doing this I never want to do anything else ever.” Nevertheless, the doubts expressed by Dr. Clarke are valid, because the NHS is having to cope with the pressures of huge budget cuts, as well as additional cost of implementing the “top-down reorganisation” in the Health and Social Care Act, all of which will stretch resources to their limit. This is in spite of the fact that those involved in establishing the scheme — the Medical Division at the Trust, including the Assistant Director of Nursing and the Head of Nursing — see it in nothing but a positive light, with Linda Pascall, the Assistant Director of Nursing, saying, “We have really appreciated the support the ward service assistants have given to the wards. Their positive attitude has made this venture a success and we hope to be able to continue to work with our Jobcentre Plus partners to offer this scheme which has proven to have genuine benefits for our local community.”
In response to Dr, Clarke’s article, one of his readers, Jennie Kermode, made some important points about those being taken on in a scheme that, as Clarke noted, is clearly intended to continue. “There are all sorts of safety issues here,” she wrote. “Medical matters aside, were all these people CRB-checked? Did they have adequate diversity training, especially in relation to disability? Did they have the health and safety training necessary to enable them to do things like lifting without injuring themselves? Were they given a proper understanding of patient confidentiality issues?”
I picked up on this story because of its importance, and, as Dr. Clarke also noted, because “not a single newspaper in this so-called representative democracy has bothered to report this even though the NHS issued a press release after the scheme had concluded.” I join a number of independent journalists in trying to correct this silence on the part of the mainstream media, and welcome any further news from anyone who knows more.
Note: Also see this new post about workfare on The Green Benches, and check out the campaigning website False Economy. Also, please note that the image at the top of this article was originally published on The Void, where a recent article about workfare described how charities are continuing to dissociate themselves from the government’s cruelty and arrogance, as personified — in this case — in the form of the increasingly unpleasant employment minister Chris Grayling.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Beverly Hendricks wrote:
Appalling, Andy. Thank you this post.
You’re welcome, Beverly. The assault on the public sector and the welfare state is so thorough that it’s hard to keep track of everything, and it’s really not helped by a general indifference in the mainstream media – with the exception of a handful of media outlets.
Beebs Tweet wrote:
Another topical issue – disability living allowance, and other benefits withdrawn. Chronically ill with cancer and other major illnesses forced to work – 31 died in Scotland and about 100 or so in the UK. Yet, the press focuses on so called “benefits cheats” amounting to less than 0.3% according to official figures. New legislation prevents those who are denied help or withdrawn/receipt of benefits from receiving legal advice!! Why is the culling of the sick not being exposed for what it is??
Thanks, Beebs. I’ve been covering these topics in a number of articles, and I can recommend the Guardian’s coverage, as well as that of an extraordinary community of disabled bloggers that has grown up over the last few years in particular, but the treatment of the disabled is actually a national scandal that is not being covered with the urgency and indignation that it deserves.
Why is this? Because, sadly, empathy is seriously out of fashion, and people have preferred to look for scapegoats in a time of uncertainty, and have believed the cynical propaganda about disabled people being scroungers.
What I can’t tell is if this extremely uncaring worldview is something that runs deep. My better nature tells me not, and points to the indignation that greeted the news that Tesco was advertising for jobseekers to work nightshifts for no pay, but I think the jury is out. 33 years – since Thatcher’s 1979 election victory – of being remorselessly told that only greed is good and that anything but self-interest and materialism is for losers has rather altered the parameters of the world I grew up in, which, i recall, was largely one with Christian values that are almost extinct today.
Virginia Deoccupy Homelessness Simson wrote:
The measure of a civilization’s de-evolution is the lengths it goes to when rationalizing and even condoning SELFISHNESS. Here in the US, the Ayn Rand crowd has tried to crowd US out for a couple of decades. But this new “centrist” alliance of Bill Clinton, Pete Peterson, Obama hacks, rePUGlitards creating “you caused the economic collapse!” rationalizations this week is taking it to whole new heights. Until such time as the PTB stops attending the same elistist schools and raising their children in psychologically unsound ways, we are ALL DOOMED. One GREAT thing about advanced anarchist thinking (not chaos, real anarchism) is that it attacks this idea of human nature is bad right up front. No human nature is NOT bad – but the way we raise our young to feel disempowered, unpermitted to grow in natural ways, abused, traumatized and BLAMED is EVIL. EVIL = humans hurting other humans and other living things. _Just _that _simple. It may be that we cannot undo public schools in a few years, BUT that said we CAN put monsters on leashes. And as thinking people, it is our obligation to do so, imho.
Virginia Deoccupy Homelessness Simson wrote:
The Ultimate Selfishness is having children that you have NO intention of raising. The Rit$o$/Worthmore$ of this world have children out of DUTY – and WE are the ones who feel the pinch of that. The “best” schools are always those that are so far away from their castles, manors, condos that the children can’t come home from them except for major holidays. How can one grow up SANE when your parents have totally abandoned you from the off?
Yes, Virginia, thanks for the comments. I saw first-hand at university what boarding schools do to those who are trained to suppress their emotions and assume positions of leadership and power that they are told are their birthright, and it’s chilling.
Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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