Opposition to the government’s “work for your JSA” schemes has continued to grow. Companies from Burger King to Poundland have pulled out of programmes that make “jobseekers” (that’s unemployed people to you and me) carry out work placements for no money.
And new revelations have shown that exploitation runs beyond just stacking shelves, while there are doubts that the workfare scheme actually has any real benefit at all.
Before I get into the details, a word for Employment Minister Chris Grayling if he happens to be reading. The views set out in this post are my own, not those of the Socialist Workers Party or some other far left group. I don’t belong to a political party at all, in fact.
It might be convenient for you Tories to attack all opposition by using McCarthyite tactics and smears, but the reality is that many ordinary, independent minded people oppose what you are doing. And an awful lot of us take the simple view that those who work should be paid for their labour.
So far much of the opposition to workfare schemes has concentrated on the retail sector, where the unemployed have been offered opportunities to gain experience in such high skill areas as stacking shelves or sweeping floors – or been mandated to swell the profits of supermarkets by working for nothing if you prefer.
It turns out there are other sectors involved too. Take another high skill industry: cleaning.
The Guardian has used Freedom of Information requests to establish that several cleaning companies, including a major government contractor, Avanta, have used jobseekers as unpaid cleaners in houses, flats and offices across the UK.
But surely they must get a lot of high quality training that will help them to gain full time employment? No, according to one company which was asked if they were job shadowing, the reply was that “they are actually doing” cleaning.
And all of this was revealed just days after reports surfaced that A4E, one of the biggest private sector providers of such scheme, had compelled jobseekers to work unpaid in its own offices.
That’s the same A4E currently being investigated by the police for allegations of fraudulent business practices. The same A4E that has already had to pay money back to the government for several breaches of rules. The same A4E that was founded by Emma Harrison, who has now stepped down as David Cameron’s “families tsar” and from the board of the company.
It has also been reported that the Social Security Advisory Committee, an impartial body set up to advise the DWP on welfare policy, has expressed concerns that some unscrupulous employers are using workfare schemes for their own benefits. Well, who would have thought?
Some companies reportedly took on unpaid staff through various government programmes to cope with the busy Christmas period before deciding come January that there were actually no jobs available. Others reduced the overtime paid to existing staff because they could get free labour instead.
And the Committee’s chair, Paul Gray, has asked the DWP to take further action to prevent work experience roles taking over paid jobs: “He said that the committee had voiced some serious concerns around the potential for exploitation of the work experience scheme”.
But surely the bottom line is that these schemes do actually get people into work? No less an authority than the Prime Minister has said that half of those involved go into employment, hasn’t he?
And the Work and Pensions Secretary, Ian Duncan Smith, has said the same: “The fact is that 13 weeks after starting their placements, around 50 per cent of those taking part have either taken up permanent posts or have stopped claiming benefits.”
Well, the reality is a little different.
For a start leaving JSA does not necessarily mean going into a full time job. Some people leave because they go into education, get sick, have a baby, start to look after an ill or elderly relative or even die.
Jonathan Portes, the Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, has said that the general figures for those leaving Jobseekers Allowance are high: “almost 60% of claimants leave within three months and almost 80% leave within six months of making their claim.”
So there you are. Workfare is exploitative and unfair. And it doesn’t even work.
Perhaps if government ministers were to spend rather less time on personal attacks of their opponents and more time on coming up with ways to create more jobs then they might manage to dig themselves out of their current hole. A hole, it has to be said, that is entirely of their own making.