I first wrote about coalition plans to force unemployed people into unpaid work on fear of losing benefits over a year ago. Now the Government’s Workfare scheme – or Mandatory Work Activity as they call it – is both under pressure from opponents and facing employers leave the scheme in droves.
Social networking sites have been full of the story recently as job adverts from Tesco and even the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) itself have been posted – adverts looking for staff to work full time for just Jobseekers Allowance plus expenses.
Online pressure and demonstrations at stores has seen Tesco call for the government’s scheme to become totally voluntary. And the likes of Sainsbury’s, Waterstones, Matalan, TK Maxx and Maplin Electronics have already withdrawn, causing embarrassment to the government.
Even the discount shop 99p Stores has said it had signed up to the scheme but was withdrawing because of the negative publicity, having not yet taken on a single worker through it.
How does that feel Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg? The 99p Store thinks you are cheap!
And Chris Grayling, a Minister at the Department of Work and Pensions has appeared rather confused about how Mandatory Work Activity (MWA) actually operates. He was quoted as saying that the scheme is purely voluntary (what does the M in MWA stand for again?). He also said that participants are free to leave at any time. Well, if they don’t mind losing all of their Jobseekers Allowance, I suppose.
So how does it really work?
The DWP can exempt jobseekers from national minimum wage laws for up to eight weeks and they are offered placements in supermarkets and other large businesses, often in the retail sector. They work for up to 30 hours a week for eight weeks – and do not get paid. Those who refuse to participate can have their benefits frozen.
DWP officials claim that if jobseekers “express an interest” they must continue to work without pay after a one-week cooling-off period or face having their benefits stopped. But many of those involved have told the media that they were never informed of this cooling off period – and had been led to believe that they had no choice but to take part or lose their benefits.
There is no guarantee of a job at the end of this period of unpaid work, and there appear to be no limit to the number of jobseekers that any employer can take on at the same time. According to the latest figures 34,000 people were put through the scheme between January and November last year.
It’s a great deal for employers – they get free labour after all. But many people have another name for a scheme whereby someone is forced to work for no pay: slavery.
Cait Reilly, a geology graduate from Birmingham, is currently taking legal action, seeking a review of the legality of its forced labour. She was told that she would lose her £53 a week if she refused to stack shelves at Poundland for no pay. Public interest lawyers acting on behalf of Ms Reilly have sent a letter-before-action, the first stage in a potential judicial review, challenging the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise) Regulations 2011
The actions taken by protestors against Tesco show that consumer pressure can have an effect. No company, not even a very large one, likes bad publicity. And Tesco will not want to see any repeat of the demonstrations that brought one London store to a standstill last weekend.
In a statement on Friday night Tesco, which made £3.8bn in profits last year, said it wanted MWA to become free from any sort of sanction. It said that it had engaged with the government in good faith but was now concerned about the compulsory nature of participation.
“We understand the concern that those who stay in the scheme longer than a week risk losing their benefits if they drop out before the end of their placement,” Tesco said. “We have suggested to DWP that to avoid any misunderstanding about the voluntary nature of the scheme, this threat of losing benefit should be removed.”
Waterstones has said that it left because did not want to encourage unpaid work. Sainsbury’s stressed the only back-to-work scheme it was engaging with was entirely voluntary and would try out benefit claimants for an actual job vacancy. And The Guardian has reported that other major high street chains are reconsidering their involvement with MWA.
In Scotland, government officials will not even confirm which employers are involved. The DWP has rejected a Freedom of Information request from The Herald newspaper, arguing that there was no public interest argument for releasing the information.
Meanwhile the DWP does not need to look too far to find evidence that schemes like this one simply do not work. In fact it has already completed its own research report into Workfare schemes. That DWP report concludes:
“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… Workfare is least effective for individuals with multiple barriers to work.”
And if all of this wasn’t bad enough, the government has now announced that it plans to extend this scheme to groups of sick and disabled people, including people with complex conditions, serious mental health issues and those terminally ill with cancer with more than 6 months to live. Now that is taking exploitation to new depths.
Clearly forced labour for zero pay is only in the interests of the companies who benefit from it. So when even they are backing out of the MWA scheme in large numbers it must be time for even this government to realise that a change in policy is required.
But this morning Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith defended the controversial scheme. He dismissed opponents as, “a commentating elite which seems determined to belittle and downgrade any opportunity for young people that doesn’t fit their pre-conceived notion of a ‘worthwhile job’.”
Well, Mr Smith. I have no problems at all with unemployed people gaining any job that they can. If only there were more jobs out there for them to get. But unemployment seems to have a bad habit of rising under Conservative governments, doesn’t it?
Where my problem comes is when unemployed people are forced to work for no pay. That’s cruel and exploitative and the practice should be stopped right now.