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Workfare scheme is failing miserably in helping people into employment

On Monday a group of Unite’s community members joined the noisy protest outside the annual conference of the trade body for ‘welfare to work’ providers. Inside the building was Esther Mcvey, Minister for Disabled People, Executives of private workfare companies such as A4E and G4S, DWP Managers, representatives from right wing think tanks such as The Tax-Payers Alliance and Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘Centre for Social Justice’, and other industry big-wigs.

Protestors outside banged pots, blew whistles, and blasted music from a mobile sound system. They got noticed, but there’s billions of pounds worth of government contracts at stake, and the government’s propaganda demonising the vulnerable and exaggerating welfare spending on out of work benefits is unrelenting.  So that single demonstration of course won’t change things, but it’s part of a much bigger campaign, and it also offered a bit of cheer and a feeling of solidarity to a group of people who are subject to attacks of a kind you can’t imagine until you’ve experienced them yourself.

Unites community members are mainly people who aren’t in regular paid employment, many are claiming Job-Seekers Allowance (JSA) or the disability benefit Employment Support Allowance (ESA). We’ve developed welfare rights training and set up a system where members can help each-other with their difficulties with benefits, and recently we’ve seen a surge in problems relating to the policies the protest was focusing on - workfare and sanctions.

Workfare or ‘welfare to work’ is the name for the schemes that require people to undertake unpaid work to receive their JSA or ESA.  Although the government won’t release the figures on the numbers of participants it was estimated that at the end of 2012 850,000 had been sent on one scheme alone. The schemes are supposed to help people into work, but the last set of statistics showed that they were failing miserably, and in fact they may even harm peoples’ prospects of finding employment.

The sanctions regime has recently been made much harsher and the numbers affected have rocketed. Benefits can be stopped for between four weeks and three years.  PCS jobcentre reps have told us about the targets they are set to get people off benefits, and how staff are subject to disciplinary action if they don’t meet them. They said that as there are so few jobs compared to the numbers of job-seekers the only way staff can meet their targets is by the use of sanctions and this often involves tricking the job-seeker or lying to them. Last year there were 500,000 sanctions issued, but that number’s grown and between October 2012 and June 2013 1.35 million sanctions were issued, with 12.5% of jobseekers being issued a sanction each month.

Outside a jobcentre in North London this week we spoke to jobseekers about a campaign we are running about cuts to welfare benefits. I heard from grandparents in their 60s, parents with young children, and young people desperate to find apprenticeships or a first job. The way these people are being treated is shameful. One spoke to me of the difficulties she experienced trying to care for her disabled grandchild while meeting the jobcentres requirements, another of being sanctioned after needing to make medical appointments, one middle aged man fought back tears as he spoke, another talked to me about suicide. All of the claimants spoke of the indignity they were subjected to, the unrelenting pressure to continuously apply for work whether or not the work was suitable for them, and constant threats of having their money stopped.  A staff member came outside and told us how  because of sanctions the local food-bank had asked them to stop making referrals as the charity couldn’t cope with the numbers.

It is sickening to think that there are people directly benefitting from these peoples misery, but the profits of the private companies who provide the workfare programmes have exploded massively. Meanwhile the companies taking the placements profit from a free source of labour and the need to pay less staff.  In addition to private companies a new workfare scheme is now placing unemployed people to work for free in the public and voluntary sectors and is being used by profit conscious contractors and cost-cutting public bodies to replace paid jobs, so that’s another benefit - for the government - but a clear loss for working people.

Sanctions and workfare are also very successful at hiding the true rates of unemployment, as those who are sanctioned or on workfare schemes aren’t counted in the unemployment figures. Whether any programme designed to prepare jobseekers for employment can be successful is dependent not just on the quality of the schemes (and these schemes are poor quality) but of course on the availability of paid jobs.  There are five million people in receipt of out of work benefits (plus however many are sanctioned or on workfare), but less than 500,000 job vacancies available.

It’s time to up the ante and take opposition to these schemes into the workplace, not just for the sake of the people who are being exploited and degraded by them, but also to protect the paid jobs that they replace.


Pilgrim Tucker, Unite Community Organiser


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