The rights and wrongs and mostly wrongs of workfare

Amidst some confusion, Tesco recently published and advertisement on the website for a permanent position paying, well, nothing. The salary was described as being “JSA+expenses”. JSA being, for those that don’t know, JobSeeker’s Allowance, or in plain English, the dole.

Cue a lot of outrage (from the left) about this being slave labour. Outrage from people mostly in nice middle-class jobs paying a nice middle-class salary. Retorts from the right that it’s just as unreasonable for these idle yoots to be paid something for doing nothing – also, of course, from people with comfortable jobs and salaries. Depressing how tribal everything in politics has become.

This is actually something I know about in practice. It’s part of  Ian Duncan-Smith’s attempt to reform benefits and to get people back to work.

As a result of the furore, Tesco and most other big employers have said they don’t want anything to do with the scheme if there’s any compulsion about it.

My practical experience follows.

One of the reasons I haven’t been blogging much for the last year or so is that I’ve been starting a business – a small bakery – , which takes up all my time and energy. Until the middle of last year, my business partner and I, neither of us in the prime of youth, were working ridiculous hours for no money – it certainly would be slave labour if it wasn’t for the fact that we were doing it entirely willingly.

First, a real volunteer

From time to time we get approached by hopefuls with a CV, looking for a job.  Our answer was always, – truthfully –  “yes, we’ve got work – but no money to pay for it” – and that would be an end of it. But then came Cath, with a degree in sculpture from art school. Cath said, “I’ll work for nothing if you like. It’ll give me something to do while I look for a proper job.”  We were uneasy about it, but we needed the help. A couple of days a week, Cath came in and worked for nothing. The other days, she went out job-hunting.  If we specified the time, then we’d pay her; if she came in when she wanted, she worked for nothing.  She signed on, and told the job centre she was volunteering with us. I was worried that they’d say, “Oh, you’re not available for work, so you won’t get benefits on the days you volunteer”, but in fact they were very happy and counted her volunteer work with us as active jobseeking.

Quite soon, of course, Cath did find a proper job – one much better suited to her talents than doing our washing up. We were sorry to lose her.

A4E sends us “volunteers”

It turns out that this “volunteering” was all the rage, under both Labour and Conservative governments.  We know about interns and “runners” in the media business – not to mention lawyers’ articled clerks and barristers’ pupils in the not-to-distant past.  Well-meaning people trying to get the long-term unemployed back into work understood that people with initiative and energy like Cath don’t stay unemployed for long, so organisations like A4E tried to use persuasion on people who weren’t naturally as energetic and ambitious to get out into the workplace.

We were struggling again, when we got a phone call from  an organisation telling us they  were called A and E – cue instant panic that one or other of our better halves was in some medical trouble . Mishearing, of course.  Turned out it was A4E, Action For Employment.  They offered us “volunteers”, workers who would come and do 30 hours a week, for four weeks, for no pay from us. Just an inspection to ensure we had decent insurance.

We were assured that they were “volunteers”. The idea is that if they have spent a month “volunteering” in a real business, it would count as experience and we’d be able to give them references which would help them to get a job. The scheme in particular was set up by the previous government, and targeted single mothers aiming to get them back into work.

We both agreed that someone to help with the washing up, for four weeks, would be a godsend. We weren’t making enough money to pay them, let alone us. And we didn’t just get them to do the washing-up: we showed them how to do other things in the bakery, from making pies to baking bread.

The first one was helpful, she came, did her four weeks and left. The second one – we’ll call her Amelia – didn’t speak a great deal of English, but by God was she a good worker.  At the end of her four weeks, we couldn’t imagine going back to working without her so we tried to work out some way of finding the money to pay her, so she would stay.   Trust me, for a new business struggling each month to pay the rent on the shop and the bills to suppliers, finding £180 a week (minimum wage for a 30hr week) is a very big ask. There is no way we could do it.

So we asked her how many hours she would be willing to work for – and it came in at around 16 hours a week, which is what she does. Actually she works an extra hour as a volunteer every day. She knows she doesn’t have to, and we are eternally grateful to her. She’s a core member of our staff now, and we’d love to pay her more if she could work some more.  But here’s the rub: she doesn’t want the money – certainly not if it’s on a payslip. She has to show her payslips to the housing benefit office very so often, and if she earns more than we currently pay her she’ll lose her benefits, and while her daughter is still young, she can only work during school hours. Rightly, Amelia thinks her duties as a mother come first.

So in our case, this so-called “workfare” worked. It got us through an impossibly sticky patch, gave us the space to think about how the business was going, and got Amelia working.  We got free labour when we really needed it, and our business is still growing and will go on to provide many new jobs.

But the idea of Tesco, or any other established, highly-profitable business getting free labour in the same way really sticks in my craw. Tesco can afford to pay staff; it should do so – as we would, and now do. What stops us taking on more staff now is less their wages (although it’s a factor) than the space in our bakery.  However, if organisations like A4E can put people like Amelia in touch with struggling startups like us, and help us survive into growing, prosperous businesses, I really don’t see the downside.  I don’t know, and won’t ask, how much pressure was put on Amelia to “volunteer”; I do know that she’s now working willingly, for a real – if  small – wage; and I hope and intend that she’ll go on to share in our prosperity as we grow.

The question of coercion

I know quite a few people who are adept at working the benefits system.

One youngish man, in particular, I’ll call him Bert, will serve as an example. I know him well.

He’s had a difficult life. His mother was only 13 when he was born; he still lives on the same estate although he now has his own flat. By the time he was 13, he was smoking skunk, but he did get a job and held it for several years before a violent incident (he witnessed a murder) gave him a breakdown and made him homeless – he got his flat at the end of that long episode.  But he’s not worked since: that all happened a good ten years ago.

He needs to work, and I am sure it would be therapeutic, but his skunk and video-games habit destroy his will to do so. He’s on incapacity benefit for mental illness, and from time to time it’s cut back to the basic JSA – particularly if he goes to the jobcentre looking for work. For some reason, each time he tries to do so, it triggers the system to say he’s capable of working, therefore shouldn’t be on the higher rate incapacity benefit. So he’s penalised just for trying to find work. He knows how to work the appeals system and the assessment system and twice in the time I’ve known him he’s got a lump sum in back payments of incapacity benefit after a successful appeal – which he’s used to buy a new laptop or an XBox, rather than spending it week by week in the drug economy that runs through the estate where he lives.

He needs to be helped back into work, and frankly a little bit of coercion (aka a metaphorical  kick up the backside) wouldn’t hurt him at all. As a worker, his main problem would be his unreliability – it’s the main reason I haven’t given him a job; I am, however, convinced that in his case getting out of his flat and going to work every day would be by far the best therapy for his “illness”.   His is just one example: other people with similar backgrounds have other, more difficult personal problems which would make them even more challenging to employ.

The new, stricter, ability tests run by Atos  target people like Bert and miss, because he’s smart enough to get round them. Unfortunately, because of the way they’re cast, they do catch a lot of people who shouldn’t be caught – people who aren’t quite so smart. People with real mental and physical health issues who might, with the right (expensive) support  be able to manage a few hours a week, but not forty.  More and more of the casework handled by mental health charities is now focused on dealing with assessment appeals, people losing benefits because they’re judged to be fit to work on the basis of incomplete information and basically because they’re not smart enough to work the system. Bert, for all his problems, is smart enough to work the system and therefore smart enough to work.

The elephant in the room is the broken benefits system

The main conclusion I draw from these two examples – not a scientific survey by any means – is that the real problem isn’t workfare, but the benefit system.  It’s a broken system that means that Amelia can’t work more hours even though she is willing and able and her employer wants her to; and that Bert loses benefit whenever he gets of his arse and goes and looks for a job. It’s not been fit for purpose for generations.   The workfare type “volunteer” schemes that got Amelia to us in the first place are at best a sticking-plaster, and as we see, might have got her into work but certainly haven’t got her off benefits.


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