Letter to my MP: objection to compulsory unpaid work

UK Parliament (freefoto.com)Dear Mr Luff,

I am writing to inform you of my opposition to schemes run by the DWP and the government which send people to do unpaid work and threaten sanctions for refusal to attend. I oppose the use of sanctions and removal of benefits of any sort to compel people to take part in unpaid work or to continue in unpaid work. I feel strongly that any such work placement must be entirely voluntary on the part of the job seeker. I understand that these schemes are a core Conservative policy, however I am not satisfied that this policy has majority support from the public.

Please be aware that I oppose ALL such schemes, including the work experience scheme, the compulsory work element of the work programme, the community action programme, sector-based academies, and mandatory work activity. I am sure there are others that I have missed. I find it very offensive to be told by Iain Duncan-Smith and Chris Grayling that “these are not the schemes that people are protesting about” when myself and others are very definitely protesting about all of these schemes. Even the spokesman in the DWP press office whom I spoke to in the course of writing about these schemes made this allegation, and it is simply not true. There is widespread objection to people being made to do unpaid work or face loss of benefits.

I believe that work experience can provide useful skills and training to job seekers however I do not believe that this will be found performing manual labour such as restocking shelves or cleaning floors in a supermarket, or, indeed, being sent out as cleaners to clean people’s homes. Such placements merely make use of job seekers as free labour to subsidise already profitable business but the claimants will not learn many useful skills at all, if any. As such I believe that work experience placements must be limited to those where job seekers are provided with a genuine learning opportunity and they are not displacing other paid workers as has happened in the case of Tesco and other supermarkets. (I have evidence for all of these assertions which I will be pleased to provide if you wish to query them.)

Additionally I must draw your attention to the plight of claimants of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) who have been placed in the Work Related Activity Group. As things stand and under the welfare reform bill these people, who have been declared not fit to work at the moment but potentially fit to work in the next 2 to 5 years WITH the right support (by one of the designers of ESA) will be mandated to attend the work programme if Atos has decided that they will be fit to work within 3 months. Since a vast number of people are currently waiting for appeals against their placement in the WRAG rather than the support group, and since such appeals are taking a year or more, and since many people have overturned the decision on appeal, it is highly likely that people who are far to sick to work are being made to take part in the work programme and as part of that are being mandated to attend unpaid work placements. This is clearly not right in a society that claims to support those who are too sick to work. As patron of an ME support group you should be aware that many people with ME are being placed in the WRAG and later moved to the ESA support group on appeal, and these people can suffer serious setbacks as a result of being made to participate in the work programme or even work focussed interviews.

Yesterday employment minister Mr Grayling supposedly made concessions to guarantee there would be no use of sanctions on people withdrawing from the work experience scheme. However I have seen the statement yesterday from the minister in which he stated that “The work experience scheme remains and is totally voluntary.” and also that “The sanction regime remains in place.” As I understand it he has not admitted that whatever the rules may be, job seekers are routinely led to believe that placements are mandatory and threatened with loss of benefits if they fail to start or withdraw from the placement. There may be a small technicality here but in practice such work placements are not optional from the point of view of the job seeker. Again, I have evidence of these allegations taken from the DWP’s own documentation and from several people subject to compulsory work which I can forward to you if you wish.

I therefore would like you to make it plain to the employment minister that he must move towards removing all sanctions for failure to attend work experience placements.

Please do not reply to this email with a standard “everything is fine” letter, as I find these to be rather dismissive and I would be grateful if you could address the points that I have raised here.

Yours Sincerely,



I have heard of cases where job seekers who have declined work experience have been immediately sent for mandatory work activity instead. This seems a vindictive way for job centre advisers to force compliance.

I also have found some of the responses from Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling and David Cameron to be highly offensive. I object to being called “job snobs” “trotskyites” “Anti-capitalist extremists” “unemployed anarchists” and to protests being attributed to the SWP.  These are intended as insults, not arguments, and are not what I expect to hear from government ministers.

Government work placement schemes little more than slave labour

Job ad: permanent unpaid night shift at Tesco
Job ad: permanent unpaid night shift at Tesco

The above image shows a job advertised by Job Centre Plus. (Website link) It involves unspecified night shift work (probably shelf stacking) and the wage is Job Seeker’s Allowance plus expenses. Tesco will pay no wage for this work. It also says that the job is permanent but I think this must be a mistake.

The job appears to be part of Sector-Based Work Academies. (SBWA) The employer guide to the scheme [PDF] says

“The length of a work experience placement is determined at the initial discussion between you and Jobcentre Plus”

SBWA is supposed to guarantee a job interview at the end of the unpaid placement, but so far only about a fifth of people taking part in these schemes have been given a permanent job at the end of it.

The Conservatives are very proud of their efforts to get people back into work, especially their Work Programme. Most of their efforts seem focussed on getting job seekers into unpaid work placements in shops and supermarkets and there are multiple schemes to this end. Many of these people are given no choice in the matter; placements are often chosen for them, and they can lose Job Seeker’s Allowance for 13 weeks to 6 months if they will not go. Some of these placements can last as long as six months. No wages are involved – Job Seeker’s Allowance is paid, and sometimes bus fares.

Unpaid placements are not only bad for the unfortunate people who are forced to do them but they also deprive people of proper paid work. Tesco has been one of the largest users of work placement schemes taking on several thousand unpaid workers over the last year. The work that they do is the same as the paid staff.  Now Tesco are taking unpaid workers for the night shift too, which is a new development. These people are not only working for no pay apart from minimal benefits, now they are being put through the ordeal of working nights without compensation.

It was bad enough that the Job Centre were telling people to do unpaid work placements, it is much worse that placements are being advertised alongside real jobs. The government use the number of jobs advertised by the job centre to gauge the number of jobs available altogether. Do they exclude these unpaid placements from their statistics?

Government statistics have revealed that in all, 24,010 people have been forced to take part in “Mandatory Work Activity” – four weeks at 30 hours per week – between May and November 2011. This whole thing is the modern-day equivalent of indebted servitude. Peonage.

BBC Newsnight covered this story.

Please sign the petition to abolish work for benefit schemes.

I have written more about work programmes in a previous blog post.