Learning to work for nothing

If you want to know what the UK government's 'workfare' schemes really mean, ask the people who are doing them

With their 'workfare' schemes getting some overdue bad press, government ministers have counter-attacked with a campaign of misdirection to convince us things aren't as bad as they look. Veering away from the free-labour-to-multinationals angle, David Cameron described unpaid placements as “a month's learning.” Iain Duncan Smith, writing in the Daily Mail, claimed the placements “give a chance to young people who are looking for a job and help them gain experience of the workplace”.

Corporate Watch has been listening to people who have experienced these placements over the last six months and found that, in practice, they’re not quite as enriching as the government suggests.

Joe Wilson, 21, told us the “learning” part of his six-week placement in Asda's Harrogate store at Christmas amounted to a short video describing how to lift boxes safely. After that it was straight into stacking shelves, cleaning up spilled yoghurt and carrying boxes between warehouses, a diversity of experience that employment minister Chris Grayling was presumably referring to when he told the Today Programme the placements give people a chance to see how “different parts of how the business works”. 

There were 15 people on placements in the store over the Christmas period, meaning paid staff could be sent home early to save on wages. “The manager said they had overspent on stocking Christmas stuff so they’d got people in on placements,” Wilson said.

Similar savings were made in the Argos store in Bristol, which didn't need to hire people on temporary (paid) contracts for the Christmas rush as the work could be done by people sent in on unpaid placements. And before Matalan pulled out, a spokesperson cheerfully told us one of the advantages of the placements was the “extra help” they gave, “especially during busy times”.

When we've asked, companies have been as coy as the government about how many people have been kept on after the placements, rarely giving figures. Holland and Barrett were an exception, saying that of the 250 people who had done an unpaid eight-week placement in its stores, 50 had been offered permanent paid work. This hardly justifies the scheme. These aren't jobs that have been created by the government's programmes. The company would have had to fill them anyway. All that's happened is Holland and Barrett has got 2,000 weeks of work for free.

Ministers say these placements are voluntary. It’s true that an unpaid placement of more than one week is technically not mandatory; under the work experience programme for young people, as the small print says you can leave after a week. But in practice the government's eagerness to “cut the benefits bill” puts Jobcentre managers under pressure to enforce sanctions (ie cut benefits) when people show the slightest sign of being “unwilling to work”.

This makes it very hard to refuse or drop out of a placement, whatever scheme you are on. Many people are explicitly threatened with the loss of benefits. A woman in Surrey was told by her job centre to work unpaid in the freezer and chilled aisles of the local Tesco Metro or risk losing her benefits. To show their appreciation, the store managers denied her the protective gloves and jacket worn by her paid colleagues. She was told only Tesco employees could wear Tesco branded clothing.

The placements are not, therefore, “voluntary work experience” but forced work that doesn't pay. It's hard to think of a worse “introduction to the workplace” than working for a company that's not going to pay you in return. 

While some companies have been forced to distance themselves from some (though not all) of the government's workfare schemes, others are keeping a low profile, hoping their participation won't be noticed. Asda and Holland and Barrett are just two of the major retailers that have so far kept their counsel. The Boycott Workfare campaign has compiled a list of all the organisations taking on workfare, in preparation for the ‘Day of Action’ it has called for Saturday 3rd of March.

As that list shows, it is not just multinational retailers that are benefiting from workfare, and it is not just young people who are suffering from it. The government's flagship Work Programme can place people of all ages in small business, charities and public bodies for as long as six months. It is building on foundations laid by Labour's Flexible New Deal, which quietly introduced workfare under the same “voluntary work experience” cover the government is now using.

And experiences from that scheme suggest workfare doesn’t work, whether the employer is making a profit or not. An employee of Newham Council, for example, told Corporate Watch of her shock at hearing that “one of the most hard-working and genuinely helpful admin staff we'd ever had” had done a £17,000 a year job for six months just for her Jobseekers Allowance and bus fares:

“She'd worked a minimum of 37 hours per week (often more) and been the backbone of service delivery… we assumed this woman would be hired back as proper staff within days [but] 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.”

 

About the author

Richard Whittell works for Corporate Watch. He is the co-author of Resisting Reform: Water Profits and Democracy (Sage, 2010) and Dodgy Development: Films and Interviews Challenging British Aid in India (Corporate Watch, 2011)