Workfare scheme is failing miserably in helping people into employment

07 January 2014
By Pilgrim Tucker, Unite community coordinator, London and Eastern

It has been a central theme of this government to demonise people out of work. Iain Duncan Smith who once had an epiphany in the Easterhouse housing project on the edge of Glasgow was apparently moved to tears at what he saw. They must have been crocodile tears.

This intensely ideological politician on the right of the cabinet has used his role as the government’s Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to seek to ferment divisions between ‘hard working people’ who get up in the morning and walk past houses where there are ‘three generations’ of work shy families who would rather sit at home with their curtains still drawn. This is a myth. Studies of the Labour Force Survey of household who provide most of the statistics found an infinitesimal 0.3% where neither generation had worked.

Bob Holman the community activist in Easterhouse is generally regarded as being the person who opened Duncan Smith’s eyes and persuaded him to take up ‘compassionate Conservativism’. That was then. He is so disappointed Holman has called for his resignation. He wrote recently;

"Within two years he was claiming that poverty was not directly due to a lack of money but was the result of bad parenting, drug and alcohol addiction, laziness, and the breakup of families."

We in Unite haven’t had to change our analysis because of the economic crisis we’ve set to work. 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. We’ve seen a surge in problems on workfare and sanctions.

Workfare companies are cashing in on unemployment misery. Recently a group of Unite’s community members joined a protest outside the annual conference of the trade body for ‘welfare to work’ providers.

Inside 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. They got noticed, but with billions of pounds worth of government contracts at stake, the government’s propaganda machine exaggerate welfare spending. A single demonstration won’t change things. It’s part of a much bigger campaign expressing solidarity to a group of people who are subject to attacks of a kind you can’t imagine until you’ve experienced them yourself.

Workfare or ‘welfare to work’ require people to undertake unpaid work to receive their Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) or Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). The government won’t release the figures on the numbers of participants but 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.

The sanctions regime has become harsher and the numbers affected have rocketed. Jobcentre reps – from the Public and Civil Servants have told us about the targets they are set to get people off benefits. Staff are subject to disciplinary action if they don’t meet them.

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. 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 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.

One spoke to me of her experience trying to care for her disabled grandchild while meeting the jobcentres requirements, another of being sanctioned after needing to make medical appointments, while another was on the bring of suicide.

The profits of the private companies who provide the workfare programmes trade in misery and needless to say have exploded massively.

Private companies under a new workfare scheme are now placing unemployed people to work for free. Contractors and cost-cutting public bodies are replacing paid jobs with free labour.

Sanctions and workfare hide the true rates of unemployment. 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 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 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.