Work for Welfare – forced labour by any other name

1 09 2011

I have never been completely against the idea that those who have claimed Jobseekers Allowance long-term, participating in some form of work placement in return for money.

That said, the current suggestions for a Workfare style scheme, do not appear to reflect the realities of employment or even some of the benefits of employment. Indeed many of the examples of work for welfare I’ve heard about have been as far removed from building skills, confidence and self-esteem as you can get.

The problem arises because of the “forced” nature of the work. Allowing a claimant to find voluntary work at any stage of their claim, in a field they wish to gain experience would be a start to giving the claimant more choice in the matter.

Unfortunately it seems, those who want to volunteer, in the true sense of the word, face multiple barriers within the benefits system to be able to do so. Most strikingly is the threat of losing benefit as the recipient may not be actively looking for work or may be considered as doing work that they should be getting paid a wage for. While the Directgov webpage on volunteering suggests you can volunteer as much or as little as you want, in practice it appears to be very different.

Peter G. from Southampton has been signing on for almost 2 years after being made redundant from a supervisory position. He had been in full-time employment from the age of 16 and this was his first experience of the benefits system. He had hoped to make the most of his time looking for work by keeping active and ensuring there were no major gaps in his CV.

“I asked if I could volunteer the first time I went to sign on. I was told that it was possible, but I was likely to lose my benefits as it would be seen to be not looking for work. I tried to explain my situation but the guy behind the desk wasn’t interested. He said if I volunteered in a similar job to the one I’d been made redundant from that it would be considered the same as paid employment and I’d lose all my money. He told me the government don’t let you volunteer in a job that someone would normally be  paid for…”

It’s interesting that when someone who wants to work, who is unable to find work but who wants to remain active, has such bureaucratic problems. And the “would normally be paid for” argument is very relevant to this government scheme.

So, back to this future of workfare, where does this leave us?

To me there is a major ethical problem when the government forces benefits claimants to work in a commercial environment for no more than their weekly benefits. The 4 week work experience scheme has hit the headlines both in support of and displaying contempt for this, although claims that it is akin to workfare are always disputed:

Work experience should be beneficial to the participant and contribute towards finding future employment, it’s not a scheme to punish the unemployed by making them do our dirty work. If this comes to fruition, it will promote a lazier working society who feel, for example, they can drop more rubbish at their feet etc. as the poor will pick it up.

Anne S. from Billericay told me,

“I worked in admin since leaving college. It’s all I’ve ever done and to be honest, it’s what I’m good at, it’s all I want to do. I lost my job at an estate agents in the recession and had to go on Jobseekers. I was asked what jobs I was looking for and I told them admin, secretarial and personal assistant work. What I’m qualified and experienced in. They sent me to work for a supermarket for four weeks. I had no choice or I’d lose my money. I finished it last week and was told there was no job at the end as I didn’t have enough “retail experience”. What was the fucking point of that? “

Sadly, Anne’s is not an isolated case. She told me of other people who had difficulty with the enforced work,

“There was a lad who was a single dad. He had two beautiful kids both at school. He was desperate to work and had worked for the same supermarket company before his wife left him and the kids. He thought that the work experience would be a way to get back into work with the company now the kids were back at school…They put him on shifts outside of school hours and he didn’t have anyone to look after the kids. When he tried to talk to the shift manager about it, he was told he had to work the hours they said or they’d report him for non-compliance and he’d lose all his benefits and his house.”

Obviously this is not the official line given by the DWP or indeed the supermarket involved but this is what people are facing, this example is not heard in isolation.

Now there are legislations that prevent people from being forced to work and no doubt there will be some “kill the poor” types out there who will use this as an excuse to repeal such legislation… until then it stands.

The European Convention on Human Rights, article 4, supported in the UK legislation by the Human Rights Act 1998 says,

Article 4 ? Prohibition of slavery and forced labour

1. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.

2. No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.

3. For the purpose of this article the term “forced or compulsory labour” shall not include:

a. any work required to be done in the ordinary course of detention imposed according to the provisions of Article 5 of this Convention or during conditional release from such detention;

b. any service of a military character or, in case of conscientious objectors in countries where they are recognised, service exacted instead of compulsory military service;

c. any service exacted in case of an emergency or calamity threatening the life or well-being of the community;

d. any work or service which forms part of normal civic obligations.

Take note of the last part, “any work of service which forms part of normal civic obligations.” Ordinarily this has referred to the likes of Jury Duty etc. something every UK citizen able to do so, is eligible for. It is likely this is the loophole term the government will rely on should any cases be brought to court regarding forced labour for welfare.

It appears at first glance that forced labour, such as a workfare style scheme, where remuneration does not reflect the work done, could come under Article 4 on Slavery but of course it won’t be so simple. There are always loopholes and “civic duty” clauses that the government can rely on.

That said, does it stop being forced labour or slavery just because the government have managed to bypass legislation with a loophole?

A recent article suggested that someone on Jobseekers Allowance, over the age of 25 would be receiving £2.25 per hour for their 30 hours work. For someone under the age of 25 being forced to participate, it works out at £1.78 per hour. It doesn’t take a bright spark to work out this is far less than the National Minimum Wage of £5.93 for someone over the age of 21. In fact, the over 25 hourly rate works out at less than the NMW £2.50 apprentice rate .

This is not an acceptable rate of pay in the UK.

I have read the argument, JSA combined with Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit all adds up to a reasonable wage. However, not everyone claiming Jobseekers Allowance is eligible for Housing Benefit or Council Tax Benefit.

Edwin from Glasgow told me of his experience during a “work placement” phase.

“I was told that I was still expected to look for work during my full time placement. The placement gaffer wouldn’t let me go offsite during my lunch hour to look for work. He was a right hard bastard, task master type. When I complained about the placement he told me to shut up, that I was paid a reasonable wage and he tried to add up all the benefits I was getting to prove it. Thing is I don’t get Housing Benefit as I bought my house just before I my company went bust. He said this justified my £65 working a 30 hour week. I had repayment insurance but it ran out after a year, so now I’m living in hope of finding a job or a rich wife.

Then the bru started to hammer me with all these interviews and threats. I apply for at least 10 jobs a week, including minimum wage jobs. I’m no proud. I paid tax all my life and I’m getting nothing but aggro in return and now I might lose my house too.

These are very dark times”

These stories don’t sound like valuable work experience to me, they sounds like forced labour and poor conditions by people who make a profit out of the “slavery” of those on welfare benefits.

I completely disagree with commercial companies such as Primark or Asda benefiting from free work from those who rely on state welfare to survive.

For example Asda opened 168 stores in 2010-11 – Company profits rose from £500m to £820m in 2010. With a market share of 17.5% of population and a 6.6% growth in like for like sales over the year, Asda are commercially thriving at a time when recession is hitting most businesses in all industries. Why then are they benefiting from “free” forced labour? Why, when their profits are so phenomenal, are they not paying a living wage to their DWP work experience trainees for the duration of the placement?

Primark in 2010 saw a 35% growth in profits to £341m, when many high street chains were going into administration. Growth in the year 2010-11 was “only 5%” but it’s still positive. Why then are the alleged sweat shop employers, offering DWP clients unpaid work experience placements, when they could easily pay them for the 4 weeks they attend.

Surely by offering a living wage for the work experience period, the “trainee” is being given a real work experience, with money in their pockets at the end of it. The motivation of earning real money is a good incentive to find work, when there are jobs available, and they are on an equal footing with their employed counterparts.

These profit making companies offering unpaid placements could be providing paid work to people. They could contribute to the number of available jobs, meaning people would feel there was potential to earn. By taking on unpaid staff, they do nothing for the jobs figures, the do nothing to motivate the slow jobs market, they reduce the potential employment of paid staff, regardless of what the likes of Poundland may claim.

It’s interesting to note that Poundland’s annual profits grew 130% in 2010 to £19m, the same year stories of their taking on forced welfare labour came to surface.

By dividing the workforce into paid and unpaid staff in a commercial environment, you are breaking down the very necessary, “we are a team” approach many retailers promote to their staff.  Stories from participants of these schemes are not feeling valued and integrated. Many claim they are given the jobs paid staff don’t like or want, scraping chewing gum off floors on hands and knees during opening hours as customers wander over them, mopping spillages and cleaning vomit.

Jaz from the West Midlands described her work placement,

“I was given a fancy title but all it meant was running around with a mop clearing up spilled jam, alcohol and urine. I was told by other regular staff, these jobs were for ‘retards’. My brother has Downs and I wouldn’t let him work with these people. They were rude, bullying, condescending and in the majority.

Having a first class degree in Marketing I thought this would be a chance to get my foot in the door and I was excited at the prospect of working with such a large company. On day 1 I took my CV by day 3 it was still on the staff room table for anyone to look at. I was told I’d have to apply for vacancies online like everyone else and that I’d get no special treatment because of my placement.”

All the work placement participants talk of  work that “would normally be paid for”. They would not be allowed to source their own commercial placements with such companies because of this alleged ‘would normally be paid for’ rule, which would stop their benefits. Yet it’s considered acceptable for the DWP to force claimants onto these placements that fit the ‘would normally be paid for’ criteria.

It’s a cliche but it’s true, there really is one rule for them, another for us!

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8 responses

1 09 2011
Ellie

Why would running around a shop with a mop be considered ‘civic duty’? Is a shop a civic centre? May be me failing to understand, but I thought ‘civic duty’ was the cutting of ribbons at new rose gardens by the major.

1 09 2011
grumpyhatlady

As noone has yet challenged this in court, I am merely speculating as to how the govt could justify their scheme within current legislation. The likelihood of it being part of the social contract could also be used. Obviously you cannot compare true civic duty such as jury duty with working for pittance of a benefits income in a commercial environment but when has that ever stopped them trying?

1 09 2011
Ellie

And civic duty would presumably apply to all like jury service does. I so look forward to accounts being sent to Tesco for a month to do their duty by scraping the shewing gum from the floor…..

is there much chance this will be challenged in the courts? Would the unemployed be awarded the legal aid necessary to go as far as they could? Any lawyers likely to be interested in taking the case that you are aware of?

1 09 2011
grumpyhatlady

I read of a union in north of England taking forward a challenge based on the HRA / ECHR but I couldnt find the link again to add to this blog. As for legal aid, I honestly dont know. The massive cuts to Legal Aid in England will be affecting the poorest, e.g. benefits appeals wont be covered anymore, so I dont see it covering this kind of thing. Unless the unions get involved. I don’t know of many Lawyers with a half a heart so sadly unless you wait for me to qualify in a few years, there will be few willing to take on such a case… but never say never.

25 10 2011
Nile

The unions won’t get involved: they only think of themselves, and even then they think but little.

The benefits-only ‘trainees’ aren’t union members: how would you persuade a union rep to take an interest in their conditions of employment?

I can see a reason: union members are being displaced and replaced by free labourers who can be ordered to do *anything*, any job, no matter how filthy, and threatened with destitution if they refuse the work. Try keeping up your members’ terms and conditions in the face of that! But most reps and shop stewards simply aren’t all that clued-up… And, given the visible consequences of redundancy and the fate that awaits you on the dole, what kind of fool would make any kind of noise about it?

Even if the senior leaders of the union were were interested, what action would the union have any legal standing to pursue?

Sure as hell, they won’t endanger their political careers and their privileges on the NEC by speaking out against a policy which was devised within, enacted into law by, and still *is* the official policy of, the Labour Party.

17 11 2011
Bill Kruse

This is a demand-killer. These people aren’t earning a proper wage so they can’t buy things, they don’t have the buying power the economy needs. They won’t be paying NI either and nor will their employers, also damaging to the economy. This is a step down the slippery slope to economic oblivion as once any company starts doing it at any level peer pressure means their competitors have to do it too and more of it. This will end up with everyone except the self-employed being direct employees of the state at far less than minimum wage. It’s self-defeating.

BB

17 11 2011
christonatrike

Forced Labor, my arse, does anyone force them to take the free money. They should feel proud they are helping and prove they can be a productive member of the community. i’d gladly starve them into finding work.

3 09 2012
Barry

Except for the fact you can’t do that and find them employment as there are far more job seekers than there are real job vancancies they can fill. Really, for once, try to stop reading the Daily Mail and work-out what the REAL problem in this country is!

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