David Cameron is very proud of his Work Programme. Whenever the question of jobs and the number of unemployed is raised he answers that The Work Programme will help 2.5 million people. He claims:
“This is about ensuring that we have better education, a welfare system that helps people into work and a Work programme that provides not phoney jobs, as the future jobs fund did, but real work for real young people.” [Hansard 12 Oct 2011 Column 332]
The problem is that The Work Programme (a name which sounds really ominous to me) hasn’t actually helped all that many people. It turns out that only 1 in 5 people on the programme have managed to get a permanent job out of it, and BBC research indicates that it could be even lower. Even the DWP only estimated that 2 in 5 would do so. Given that the Future Jobs Fund was achieving a 54% success rate at getting people into work and The Work Programme was only ever expected to achieve 40% it seems like it was replaced purely out of ideology or “not invented here” syndrome. The low success rate of The Work Programme has not been helped by hiring A4e as one of the contractors to implement the scheme. Their previous efforts in the Pathways to Work Programme achieved 9% of people into work out of an expected 30%. The DWP ignored this record when considering contractors because some other contractors had no previous record to judge.
The Work Programme doesn’t seem to be all bad. This video made by The Guardian about a provider called Cheshire Training shows some positive aspects of the programme such as providing job application sessions, CV workshops, advice and some structure to keep people from giving up or being worn down by the lack of activity that is often involved in unemployment. I think such services could easily have been provided by the Job Centre rather than being outsourced, and in fact, some were or are.
(Bear in mind that the people interviewed were chosen by the Department of Work and Pensions and are not unbiased.)
While there are some positive aspects highlighted in the above video there are some rather larger down sides to the programme – forced labour being the biggest problem. There are two schemes that take place before the work programme itself: The Work Experience Scheme and Mandatory Work Activity Scheme. They involve being sent to work – usually full time – in a business that is paid to provide work experience. The placement usually lasts between two and eight weeks. Taking part in the scheme is not optional. If an adviser at the Job Centre Plus or in a provider of the work programme has decided that you must do some work experience, then you will have your benefits cut for at least 13 weeks and potentially 26 weeks if you do not. (And up to three years under the Welfare Reform Bill.) This is made worse by the fact that the job seeker does not get to choose their placement, they will be sent wherever the private contractor wants to send them. Not only that, but the work placements for the most part involve no training, only basic unskilled labour such as stacking shelves and washing floors. The Work Programme itself involves placements that can last up to six months and job seekers can be assigned to the programme for two years.
People sent on these placements are often doing the same jobs as people paid a full time minimum wage, except that is becoming rarer because many businesses that take part in the scheme have laid of temporary and part time staff in favour of free labour from the scheme. Instead of paying their staff, these big businesses are getting paid to put people to work. This might perhaps be just about acceptable if the people on the schemes were given a job at the end of the placement, but the norm is for them to be sent back to the job centre and a new unemployed person put to work in an endless cycle of free labour. It is baffling why our government thinks that paying businesses money to exploit people and making people work a full time job to the benefit of private industry for just their £53 per week job seekers allowance is a good idea. Even if the DWP do require people to work in return for their benefits (And I don’t think that fits the ideal of ensuring that no one is destitute) I do not think they should be required to work for more hours than they receive the equivalent money for at minimum wage. Indeed, it may well be illegal for these people not to be paid minimum wage and I hope that there are some successful legal cases against the scheme soon.
Cait Reilly is a good example of how the work experience scheme is at best unhelpful. She willingly attended an open day for people looking for retail work, work that she was quite prepared to take. However, after attending that open day she was then forced into a work experience placement at Poundland.
“I explained to my adviser my reservations about taking part: I was already in the middle of a work experience placement that I had organised for myself (and which was more relevant to the museum career I hope to pursue), and I already had retail experience.”
“I thought the “training” was optional, and it came as a shock to be told I was required to attend or risk cancellation or reduction of my £53 per week jobseekers’ allowance – despite the fact I have always actively sought paid work. So I began the “placement” with Poundland – it was not training, but two weeks’ unpaid work stacking shelves and cleaning floors. I came out with nothing; Poundland gained considerably.” [Comment at The Guardian]
The above scenario of businesses taking on free labour for busy periods is not uncommon. We also have this example of a woman who worked for six months at Newham Council alongside colleagues who though that she was a permanent paid employee.
I went to [her] leaving do … We were all so sorry to see her go. She was an older lady and was one of the most hard-working and genuinely helpful admin staff we’d ever had. Worked her hours plus more and nothing was ever too much trouble for her. We honestly didn’t know why she was leaving after only six months. She’d worked a minimum of 37 hours per week (often more) and been the backbone of service delivery. The basic starting wage for that level is around £17,000 but for the work she was doing I would have expected her to be started at a few thousand more. Yet all she was getting was JSA and the fares for her lengthy bus journeys, while people doing identical work were getting a salary, paid leave and pension contributions. We were horrified.
Wrongly, we assumed this woman would be hired back as proper staff within days. The role was needed, she’d proven herself to be a fantastic worker, was well regarded and knew the systems. But no, the post was suddenly deemed no longer required and this lady never came back to us. She did exactly the same job as paid staff, yet didn’t get the same salary. This is illegal if the reason is age or race, but perfectly acceptable if someone has claimed a state benefit. It’s exploitation and it’s repellent. [Quote taken from Coporate Watch]
Perhaps government ministers don’t understand why unpaid labour is a problem because they are in the habit of finding unpaid internships and eventually real jobs for their own children through their family and business connections. Many even pay the employers to take on interns – £200 per day isn’t unknown. This is all very well for the rich, but most people who receive Job Seekers Allowance can barely afford food and rent. For those who are rich enough, paying for an internship at a bank at least provides useful experience for future employment in that industry, while being sent to stack shelves at Tesco or wash floors at Poundland for months at a time does not provide much for a CV in my opinion. It seems unlikely that a useful reference would come from such a placement, if the manager could even remember one person among such a high turnover. Volunteering for a charity is a positive thing that will tell an employer something about the job applicant. Being forced to wash floors for three months doesn’t say much about them at all.
It seems that opinion is turning against this exploitation. Waterstones recently pulled out of the work experience scheme and some other companies that were accused of taking part, like Sainsbury’s, denied it quite strenuously and were keen to distance themselves. (Despite their denials Sainsbury’s are still involved in the scheme.) Cait Reilly who was mentioned above is persuing a legal case against the government. There is also a growing call for interns to be paid minimum wage.
I don’t object to work experience. It is quite reasonable for an unemployed person to spend one or two weeks in a relevant job learning useful skills for future employment. The Work Programme does not provide this. Instead it sends free labour to profitable businesses, and pays them for the privilege. These people do not receive useful training but simply replace paid staff in doing hard repetitive work. Most of the businesses taking part are profitable, in fact Tesco made a profit of £14,000 per employee last year. If they have work to be done then they should pay people to do that work. It’s that simple. People being sent for work experience should not be replacing staff, they should be shadowing them, assisting them and learning.
What is even more scary is that the government are systematically destroying workers’ rights making people more likely to become unemployed. Examples such as this call to Give firms freedom to sack unproductive workers soon add up to a worrying lack of job security. Is it really the Tory plan to have so many people sacked and working for free?
Please sign the petition to abolish work for benefit schemes.