Boycott Workfare Conference 26.05.12
A mixture of groups were represented, including Solidarity Federation, Brighton Benefits Campaign, Boycott Workfare, consent.me.uk, Socialist Workers Party, Right to Work, ALARM, Anarchist Federation, Staines Anarchists, Disabled People Against Cuts, UNISON, NUT, CWU, along with many non-aligned individuals.
An opening statement of support and encouragement was read from Caroline Lucas, who could not attend.
Information was given on Brighton Benefits Campaign, which has been running since 2010. It was initially set up in in oppositional response to Labour’s welfare reforms, which saw public money being given to private providers, and a growing culture of people being bullied into jobs with undesirable working conditions. Tactics used by BBC included job centre picket lines and the distribution of educational leaflets. A major difference between then and now is that the government now has retail chains involved, such as Holland & Barrett, WH Smith and Poundland, who can in many ways be targeted more effectively. Some of the difficulties regarding protests against retailers using workfare are that there are charities involved, such as British Heart Foundation, and some of the people on the programme are genuine volunteers rather than having been manipulated into doing it.
Andy Richards from UNISON states that there has been a tendency to see workfare as something that only affects the unemployed. But there are significant impacts on those in work, as the existence of workfare programmes undermines their pay and conditions. It leads to job substitution as companies prefer to take on people in workfare schemes rather than regular employees, for the simple reason that they don’t have to pay them. If we look to the experience in the US, Wisconsin in particular, we can see clear evidence of job losses that are attributable to workfare.
In Brighton, campaigning has successfully kept the local council workfare free. The council also wanted to bring in unpaid apprentices while cutting full time staff. This was also campaigned against, and stopped. However, AR acknowledges that UNISON have not always been focused and/or quick enough in all circumstances. The issue of workfare is on the agenda of their upcoming annual conference. Although this is a good thing, it is unfortunate that the motions to be discussed avoid an explicit call for a boycott of workfare schemes, as it would be very influential against employers if they do not have union support.
Presentation on the workfare schemes
There are five workfare schemes, three being mandatory, two voluntary. However, there are reports that those who refuse the conditions of the voluntary schemes have been moved on to the mandatory ones. However, regardless of whether a scheme is voluntary or mandatory, what they all have in common is that people are working without being properly paid for their labour.
1. Work experience
Organised by job centre for 16-24 year olds. Placements can last up to 8 weeks, working 30 hours/week. No wage is received, just the continuation of Job Seekers Allowance benefits.
The scheme is voluntary, with the government making a big thing of it being voluntary. However, there have been many reports of people being told (1) their benefits will be stopped if they don’t participate, and/or (2) being moved on to the next scheme if they refuse.
2. Mandatory work activity
Organised by private providers. Any jobseekers can be put on this, as decided by a job centre advisor. Those on the scheme work 30 hours/week, for 4 weeks, without wages, just the continuation of benefits. Refusal results in loss of benefits. The government argues that some jobseekers need this to be taught the discipline of working, and this is a good way of providing that. Chris Grayling thinks this is the best thing the coalition has introduced.
3. Work programme
This is the flagship scheme, which replaced Labour’s Flexible New Deal in 2011. Benefits claimants are referred to private companies, who organise mandatory work placements, for no wages. Refusal results in loss of benefits.
Private companies providing the scheme can force claimants to take work, which they find for them by acting like job agencies do. The company receives money if the claimant leaves benefits.
This means that employers don’t have to do much to recruit people, as state money is being given to these private providers on the work programme to do that for them.
All this does is take jobs out of the regular market – it doesn’t create any new jobs. It results in fewer jobs for jobseekers, as companies will prefer to have their recruitment done without any expense.
4. Sector-based work academies
Organised by the job centre, this involves a work experience/training programme, usually for two weeks. There is no guarantee of job at the end. The skills gained not necessarily helpful in building a CV, or related to the type of employment area the recipient is attempting to find employment in.
The scheme is open to claimants of over 18 years. It is voluntary, but benefits may be lost if they withdraw after the first week.
The impact of this is that employers who take part in the scheme have workers trained-up for them, getting to use them as unpaid employees. At the end of the scheme, the employer is obliged to offer an interview, even if they don’t intend to recruit, but nothing more than this.
5. Community action programme
This scheme is not currently national, but will be in 2013. It is a lot like the work programme, in that it’s organised through private companies. However, the focus is more on community work. However, the Department for Work and Pensions has also included ‘retail placements’ among the list of areas where people can be placed on this scheme.
Participation on the scheme is mandatory, and can last for six months, for 30 hours/week, plus 10 hours job search under the provider’s supervision.
This scheme is likely to be increasingly used by local authorities and government agencies, which are looking to mitigate against budget cuts by hiring these unwaged workers.
Trade union meeting
Points raised include:
• A big problem is that workfare happens in a lot of places which are ununionised.
• It would be very useful to have trade union leaflets to give to people (on pickets and protests).
• When picketing High Street retailers involved in workfare, it is important to address the workers in the stores, to make it clear that the action is not against them.
Direct action meeting
Chaired by SolFed. Points raised include:
• A brief discussion of what is meant by ‘direct action’. Some argue it is reliant on solidarity and working class self-organisation, accepting neither guidance nor leadership from businesses, government, charities or unions.
• SolFed’s campaign against Office Angels is a good example of a successful, small-scale direct action. The anti-poll tax movement is a good example of a successful direct action at a national level.
• SolFed have selected Holland & Barrett as their principal target in campaigning against retailers involved in workfare. Reasons for this include: H&B have the brand image of being an ‘ethical’ company, so their involvement in workfare can be highlighted as being at odds with their corporate persona; H&B have small shopfronts, making their stores easier to cover with protestors and to encourage potential customers to turn away (as compared to, for example, Tesco); H&B are open on Saturdays, which allows for greater numbers of people to attend actions against them on these days; H&B are one of the worst offenders in workfare, stating their aim to get approximately a quarter of their workforce through the scheme; being a smaller company, H&B are easier to effectively campaign against, and their withdrawal from workfare is likely to prompt other companies to also pull out.
• For anyone involved in actions against H&B, it is recommended that they hand workers in the stores a letter explaining how the company is the target, not themselves. It should also note how workfare undermines the wages, overtime availability and job prospects of workers overall.
• A proposal is made – and later supported by the conference overall – for a week of coordinated action starting July 7th, initiated with pickets against stores, and continued with a communications blockade via telephone, email etc.
The Department for Work and Pensions’ own report says: ‘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… Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high’.
A list of companies both currently and previously involved in workfare can be found here. Those who have left have been prompted to do so as the result of campaigning against them. Keep it up!
Information here is useful for anyone planning action against retailers involved in workfare in their local area.
Further background to the opposition against workfare can be seen by looking at how it has been previously used in other countries. In the US, Canada and Australia, it has been shown that such programmes lower jobseeker’s chances of finding a job.
In the US in 1996, Clinton put forward legislation to ‘end welfare’. Following this, mayor Giuliani of New York aimed to get rid of welfare by 2000. This resulted in welfare recipients being required to work on minimum wage in city agencies and non-profit organisations, but without the rights and benefits held by city employees. This scheme was called the Work Experience Programme (WEP), a stated aim being to help ‘improve the quality of life for the city in return for their welfare cheques’.
The claim was made early on that WEP gave good experience and would lead to other jobs. But it didn’t. Instead, many WEP workers found themselves working full time for minimum wage, while non-WEP workers could frequently be found doing the same jobs for regular pay.
The growing attitude among employers was that people on WEP were lazy, welfare scum, so WEPs going for regular jobs often avoided mentioning they were on it – which rather undermined the claim that it was good work experience.
Giuliani vetoed attempts to pass bills against WEP. In 2000, the city council overrode this, and enacted the bills into law. However, the Giuliani administration refused to enforce the laws.