(Originally published in the ASLEF Journal)
I have directly asked a number of Tory MP's about the Workfare scheme. Whilst some are admirable in their willingness to debate, they are either evasive, or worryingly vague in the answers they give about the detail. Regardless of the merits of individual MPs in their defence of it, the coalition’s response to growing criticism of workfare has been soaked in fear, mistruth, and predictable disdain for organised workers.
For anyone reading this who thinks workfare is a good thing, let's just stop and examine what we can only assume to be happening given the government's unwillingness to properly engage in debate. Benefit claimants are being sent to work for a defined period of time to gain work experience. As ministers are too busy side stepping legitimate questions, we can only surmise that this is to fill a position that is vacant within that organisation.
The important point here is that there is a job available.
At the end of the programme, the company are under no obligation to offer work, regardless of suitability or performance. They are, therefore, perfectly at liberty to ask for another participant under the scheme and repeat the cycle.
Without descending into levelling unqualified charges at companies, it is easy to see the attraction of installing a 'workfare merry-go-round' where once there was an HR department who actually give people real jobs for a real wage.
That understandable capitalist strategy aside, whilst the Tories have dined on the right wing media's thirst for hardline welfare reform, they seriously miss the point. If these companies are allowing benefit claimants to develop experience by shadowing staff, and are not filling empty jobs with workfare participants, that is one thing, and could prove enormously positive if monitored and managed in the right way. If these companies are using benefit claimants to staff their stores and factories, they are frustrating and stifling an already choked jobs market. Undoubtedly some participants will find jobs at the end, but that is not sufficient evidence to counter the argument.
Had it not been for workfare, these jobs would have been advertised through job centres and websites. People would have applied, been interviewed and selected. They'd have done the job and received the wage, moved away from benefits, and contributed to the economy.
I fail to see how workfare improves this process.
Admittedly, this scheme, touted as a 'route to hope from despair' amid other hyperbolic terms, is supposedly aimed at those with no work experience. But even if this scheme does introduce inexperienced job seekers into work, it is doing so at the expense of others who are claiming JSA and looking for a job. All this scheme does is take the stick with which job seekers and benefit claimants have been whacked , and replace it with a double edged sword.
If there are jobs to filled, let them be advertised. Let benefit claimants apply for them. Let the successful candidates earn a fair wage for their labour. Why allow rich, multi-national companies to nurture their considerable profits on the back of unpaid labour provided by a clueless government? The very people who would apply for these jobs are the same ones who the government target by insinuating laziness and lack of work ethic.
All workfare does is provide a cycle of unpaid labour for the country's most profitable organisations whilst preventing the scheme's participants from permanently accessing the same vacancy they're forced to occupy on a temporary basis, and receiving the commensurate wage. At best it shoe-horns an inexperienced person into a role that could be taken by another benefit claimant who does have experience. It generates good headline for the Tories within their press and media buddies, panders to the doctrine of divide and rule perpetrated by big business and government, and needlessly diverts jobs away from one part of the job market to another.
Far from being a fresh initiative that increases the access to jobs for the unemployed, it is actually the equivalent of standing in time of almost biblical drought, trying to turn public opinion against competing components of the water cycle, rather than cutting the rhetoric, listening to the voice of reason, and cracking on with digging a well.
People on benefits are struggling in a suffocated jobs market. They don't need the finger of foolish millionaires wagged needlessly at them.
What people on benefits need is responsible government that helps them to find work by guiding the economy to growth, rather than chopping at its bones. They need job centres that channel them toward REAL jobs rather than unpaid labour, and they need welfare reform targeted at improving quality of life for the poorest and most vulnerable, not just the Tory party approval rating in the eyes of the Murdoch press.