Workfare is Unfair
It looks as though next week’s Work and Pensions White Paper will propose the creation of a workfare scheme. If they go ahead this will be bad employment policy. Almost as important, it will be unfair: unfair to unemployed people, unfair to people in work, unfair to businesses.
We can’t be certain what will be in a White Paper before it is officially launched (at least one previous initiative underwent major changes at 11.30 the night before it was published). But this one seems very likely: it is in the Mail, the Telegraph and the Observer and it has been Conservative Party policy for some time. As their 2008 paper, Work for Welfare put it:
Our intention is that anyone who has been through the new system without finding work and has claimed the allowance for longer than two out of the previous three years will be required to join a mandatory long-term community work scheme as a condition of continuing to receive benefit support.
Other Conservative papers have suggested that the policy might apply to unemployed people once they have been on Jobseeker’s Allowance for two years, but the discussion in the Observer rather suggests that it could in principle be imposed on anyone:
…where advisers believe a jobseeker would benefit from experiencing the “habits and routines” of working life, an unemployed person will be told to take up “mandatory work activity” of at least 30 hours a week for a four-week period. If they refuse or fail to complete the programme their jobseeker’s allowance payments, currently £50.95 a week for those under 25 and £64.30 for those over 25, could be stopped for at least three months.
At the TUC, we’ll produce a detailed response to the White Paper after its been published and after we’ve had a chance to discuss it with our affiliated unions. But I’m certain that we will oppose workfare in principle as well as in detail.
Before I explain why, I’d better start off by pointing out that, while these plans are worse than the previous government’s, they represent an accentuation of a shift towards workfare rather than something completely new. The last government introduced a “work for your benefit” programme – as a pilot, but with a view to extending it nationwide. After intensive lobbying by the TUC and unions, this proposal was reformed to consist of mandatory work experience rather than an actual unpaid job, but the distinction is slippery and, as long-term readers of this blog will know, we were adamantly opposed.
We oppose workfare on both moral and practical grounds. The most important moral objection to workfare is that unemployed people are not responsible for their unemployment: they are the victims in this story, not the villains. People who have been made redundant and young people who have not been able to get a job since leaving school did not cause the economic crisis and the number of unemployed people has not risen so steeply because there are 700,000 more lazy people than there used to be. But workfare is being imposed as if people on JSA were the “workshy” of today’s Mail and Telegraph headlines.
Workfare is unfair to unemployed people because it requires them to work in return for their JSA – the amount of JSA you get depends on your family circumstances. If a job is worth doing it is worth being paid the rate for the job, but even the highest levels of benefit will still leave people working for an hourly rate well below the national minimum wage – the rate we have established as the minimum to avoid exploitation.
Workfare is unfair to disabled people – hundreds of thousands of people currently receiving Incapacity Benefit are being re-tested, using a much tougher medical test. A large majority of them will be left with no alternative but to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. Because of discrimination against disabled people and the fact that opportunities in our society are still inaccessible in many ways, they are more likely to find themselves on the benefit for a long time. Disabled people will therefore be disproportionately likely to find themselves subjected to workfare.
For the same reason, lone parents are going to be hit by this reform: since October, lone parents whose youngest child is aged 7 or over have been required to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. Childcare is still hard to arrange, jobs that are flexible enough to be combined with school hours are comparatively rare and so lone parents are likely to find themselves unemployed for longer periods and therefore likely to have workfare applied to them.
Workfare is unfair to people in work: workers doing jobs comparable to those undertaken by the workfare conscripts will effectively be in competition for their jobs. In some cases, this will lead to them losing their jobs; even when this does not happen, the competition will serve to hold down pay and terms and conditions. This is not only unfair, it is hardly what the economy needs at a time of depressed demand. Some people find it hard to sympathise with workers in this position, but a thought experiment may help: imagine that someone who has been working in the same occupation as yourself is made redundant and then required to do the same job, but for £65 a week. Would you think that was fair to them or to you?
Workfare is unfair to some businesses. Businesses and self-employed people working in the same field as the JSA claimants who do not have this subsidised labour will find themselves losing contracts.
The motivation of unemployed people is not the cause of mass unemployment. Research during the recessions of the 1980s and 90s found that, if anything, unemployed people have a stronger attachment to employment than people in work. Unemployed people are less likely to be happy than people in employment; they are likely to suffer from depression and other mental illnesses, and more likely to suffer the longer they have been unemployed. It is very unlikely that people would deliberately choose a state that had this effect.
The biggest problem face – as Douglas Alexander points out in an excellent article in today’s Independent – is that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go round. According to the latest labour market statistics, there are 2,448,000 unemployed people, 2,405,000 “economically inactive” people who say they want jobs and 1,137,000 working in part-time jobs who want to work full-time. On the other side of the equation, there are 459,000 job vacancies. Even if we limit our comparison to unemployed people, there are more than 5 unemployed people for every job vacancy; before the recession, this ratio was normally around 3:1.
And finally, workfare is poor employment policy. People on workfare schemes don’t have as much time to spare, so they can actually become less likely to search for a job. When they do, a CV that includes time on a workfare scheme does not make them more attractive to employers, who are likely to conclude that this is someone who had to be forced into work and is the last person they want to offer a job to. A couple of years ago, the Department for Work and Pensions published a review of workfare around the world, the main finding of which was that
there is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers.
When the Work and Pensions select committee looked at the last government’s plans, they were particularly impressed by this research, especially its finding that “the ‘workfare’ approach is least effective at getting people into work in weak labour markets and that it is not appropriate for those with the most barriers to finding work.” They went to some lengths to accept the then Secretary of State’s reassurances that his proposals were not workfare as such, but even so said that “work for your benefit” should only go ahead “if this appraisal [the pilots] demonstrates convincing proof of success.” The White Paper is likely to propose diving straight in, without waiting for the results.
Workfare can only pass if non-Conservative MPs vote for it. The proposals are different enough from the last government’s to justify opposition by Labour MPs who supported James Purnell’s “work for your benefits plans. The key issue will be whether Liberal Democrat MPs support it. Steve Webb, when he was leading for the Liberal Democrats on James Purnell’s Bill, criticised its coercive approach but said that his Party would not vote against the Bill because they supported provisions empowering disabled people. The new proposals are far more coercive.
Four current Liberal Democrat MPs – Andrew George, Mike Hancock, Simon Hughes and John Leech – signed an Early Day Motion that specifically criticised the workfare elements of the last government’s proposals:
That this House is concerned about the proposals made in the first clause in the Welfare Reform Bill relating to work for your benefits schemes, which give powers to introduce mandatory full-time work experience pilots from 2010 and will require some jobseekers to engage for up to six weeks in a programme of full-time community-based work experience, claiming that this will enable claimants to build up work habits and practical experience; notes that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) defines workfare as programmes that have the aim to improve the employability and work habits of participants and that enforce the reciprocal responsibilities of those receiving social assistance through taking part in activities of benefit to the wider community; further notes the DWP research report published in 2008 examining the impact of workfare schemes that mandate participation in unpaid work activities as a condition of receiving social assistance which found that workfare has a deterrent effect that stops people claiming or encourages people to leave welfare schemes before the workfare stage; further notes that the present sum of £60.50 per week Jobseeker’s Allowance equates to £1.73 per hour for a 35 hour week of full-time mandatory activity; and therefore calls on the Government to make work for your benefits schemes voluntary.
These were all very good points. They still are.