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Left Socialist Blog

The Anti-Workfare Campaign: Reflections.

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Emma Harrison with Benefits from the Unemployed.

Unpaid ‘Work experience’ in major retailers has been in the news all week.

As companies have pulled out government Ministers have defended the scheme for the under-25s.

Emma Harrison, of A4E, has also been under attack, not only for the £8 million pounds she made personally out of the unemployed, but for allegations about A4E fraud .

She has resigned as Chair of the company.

The Work Programme, and its workfare plans, looks vulnerable to popular opposition.

This is the time for some thought about the policies of successive governments towards the unemployed and building an alternative.

  • Tony Blair and Gordon Brown introduced the New Deal, and then the Flexible New Deal. These involved unpaid ‘placements’ for the out-of-work. These, with courses designed to make people employable (CV writing, interview techniques), were going to help. Their ‘one-size-fits-all’ basis was a major barrier to making this effective  from the start. Behind this was the assumption that the problem of unemployment was the result of people not actively seeking work, and that they had to be made to do so, “equiped to compete on the global market”.
  • The Trades Councils Conference of 2008 passed a resolution condemning the workfare side of these programmes. I wrote the original of this resolution (cited in Chartist here). It also criticised the way the New Deal providers operated. People before or without placements were often left for 35 hours a week in front of computer screens doing ‘job search’. Those on them could be bullied and had few rights. Companies could take advantage (financially) of the system. The low-level  ‘training’ equiped nobody to get decent jobs.
  • These programmes introduced a growing lobby for further Welfare ‘reform’:  handing over greater aspects of the Welfare state, and notably the parts to do with unemployment, to private firms. They promised that ‘social’ enterprises and charities would be included. Private Eye notes A4E boasts, “we have continued to continue to government policy development”, while “seeking to “establish a reputation as a thought leader in political circles around public sector reform”.  (22.1.12).
  • However the New Deal and the Flexible New Deal went ahead – the latter only reducing the time of the placements (which were drying up anyway). The Coalition Government introduced the Work Programme.
  • The ‘thought leaders’  included key adviser Lord Freud. He worked for Labour’s Work and Pensions Minster James Purnell and moved smoothly to the Conservatives in 2009. A former Work and Pensions  Minister David Blunkett deserves a special mention. Having lobbied for private companies to get involved in welfare-to-work delivery he was rewarded with a paid post in A4e (Guardian). Private Eye says that A4E also employs Sir Robin Young, a former chief at the Department of Trade, and former Tory Policy Unit Jonty Olliff Cooper. No doubt other welfare-to-work businessmen have a similar recruits.  They have helped establish the consensus that unemployment  and particular the large ‘residue’ of the long-term workless had to be handled by the private sector. The public sector is largely cut out of the profitable  welfare-to-work industry. Despite previous promises  ‘social’ bodies play a minor role, as sub-contractors.
  • The Work Programme introduces a menu of changes. Contractors are only paid for by results (previously this was a ‘bonus’). For the unemployed the most important aspect is that they have to carry out any job-related activity their adviser tells them to do. These can mean trivial tasks, such as making endless nuisance calls to companies about possible vacancies, to attending lectures. If they are thought to be unwilling they may be sent on 6 weeks Mandatory Work Activity (MWA), or (at present in pilot form) the Community Action Programme (CAP). The CAP is full-blown workfare for 6 months: 30 hours of unpaid labour, and 10 hours compulsory ‘job seeking activity’. To repeat: these are in no respect whatsoever voluntary at all – not that Work Experience for the under-25s is, in reality, always a choice either.

The Anti-Workfare Campaign.

  • Opposition to workfare has, by the process which translates Trades Council Motions and the input of the Unemployed Workers’ Centres Combine into policy, become Trades Union Congress policy. But the TUC has  tended to give priority to issues such as changes in Disability benefits, and  poverty, made worse by  cuts in Housing Benefit.
  • There is a reluctance to admit that the Coalition’s Work Programme has built on, and not broken with, the Labour Government’s welfare-to-work strategy. The principle that the out-of-work should be farmed out to private Providers, and encouraged, that is to say, mandated, to take up ‘Placements’ – working for benefits – remains. The Community Action Programme continues to claim that working unpaid for 6 months will “give customers the opportunity to update and develop their knowledge and skills and provides a more recent work experience history.” 
  •  The people who actively campaigned against the New Deal and the Flexible New Deal published our criticisms in small circulation left journals, such as Labour Briefing and Chartist.  The Liberal-Conservative Coalition’s welfare reforms were more widely criticised. We set up Ipswich Unemployed Action’s Blog as a forum where people could speak freely about their experiences on these programmes, to offer criticisms of them, and to develop alternatives. Others have done the same. We found a growing echo.  Now the national media is taking an interest in these issues. The Government’s Workfare schemes have faced widespread opposition.
  • Pride of Place has to go the Boycott Workfare initiative and to Cait Reilly for her brave stand. They have brought campaigning to a wider audience. In recent days a ‘social network’ campaign, such as Respect for the Unemployed and others (which we have participated in through Ipswich Unemployed Action) has taken off. Tesco’s involvement in unpaid Work experience brought in a range of campaigners. Right to Work’s occupation of Tesco shops got national attention .
  • The SWP-led Right to Work’s action, and the Socialist Party’s campaign on Youth Unemployment (Youth Fight for Jobs)  are welcome initiatives. But they represent only one section of the movement. The TUC, campaigning unions and the  broader left need to be involved.
  • There is now mass unemployment, with a pool of people excluded from proper jobs. No government will challenge the market that’s created this. Everything has to adapt to business, and the unemployment business is part of the problem.
  • The misery created for the many by unemployment has to be tackled. For this we need to have a clear set of demands.

Ipswich Unemployed Action campaigns for:

  • Decent benefits for all – a raise so people are not forced into poverty and debt.
  • No compulsion on back-t0-work schemes.
  • Measures to stop the bullying and exploitation of claimants.
  • Genuine training  – not just the endless ‘job preparation’ courses that we all get.
  • If we can’t find work the government should create real jobs of community use, paid for at the minimum wage, and the ‘rate for the job’.

We have to oppose  private companies running welfare-to-work.

Stop Mandatory Work Activity and Close Down the Community Action Programme! (more here).

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Written by Andrew Coates

February 25, 2012 at 12:09 pm

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