New Internationalist

Government forced to back down on workfare

Campaigners against workfare are celebrating a small but significant victory after a response to a freedom of information request revealed that sanctions on three of five of the government’s workfare schemes have been temporarily suspended.

Back in February – after enormous public pressure to end workfare resulted in up to a dozen high street stores and charities withdrawing from the schemes – employment minister Chris Grayling announced that sanctions would be removed from the work experience scheme so that it was now voluntary. This statement came after weeks of him insisting that work experience was voluntary, so the statement was a public admission of his lies.

The freedom of information request reveals, however, that sanctions have also been temporarily suspended from two other workfare schemes: claimants can withdraw from work placements in the sector-based work academies and the work programme (the government’s multi-billion pound flagship unemployment programme that is looking ever closer to collapse) without fear of losing their benefits.

Of course, there are numerous caveats to this apparent government retreat. While Grayling et al have certainly been forced to change their workfare policy as a result of public anger and action, they are simply hoping to shuffle things around.

Indeed, the government is not about to back down without a fight. Instead, it has brought in this temporary suspension while it rebrands its workfare policy and waits for the results of two court cases that will challenge the government under the Human Rights Act which bans forced labour.

In a House of Commons Work and Pension Committee meeting on the work programme, Grayling recently hinted at the new face of workfare in the UK. He states that workfare schemes in the work programme and at Job Centre Plus will have ‘the same rules across the board’ – work placements in commercial organizations will be ‘voluntary’, while staff will have the power to mandate claimants onto ‘community benefit projects’. This move is likely to be an attempt to outwit campaigners – occupying and protesting at your local dogs’ home or library against the use of workfare is clearly not as easy a narrative as targeting the usual corporate criminals.

Grayling is hoping that people will find ‘community workfare’ more acceptable and the fuss will die down. But the corporate companies won’t get off so lightly – ‘voluntary’ in the context of the Job Centre and the Work Programme still often involves coercion. Furthermore, these ‘voluntary’ schemes will be backed up by the mandatory placements. The Guardian has revealed that this is already the case – if you don’t volunteer, you’ll get threatened with a mandatory placement.

But alongside the rebranding of workfare that we can expect after the suspension of sanctions is ended, there will no doubt be a continued strong resistance. There has been an upsurge of creative actions against workfare across the country over the last couple of months. This has seen protesters occupying stores, holding workfare walks of shame along their high street, sticking ‘Boycott Workfare’ post-it notes onto products in Tesco, and claimants organizing for their rights.

Future actions are planned, including a ‘Farewell Emma, Farewell A4e’ party to send Emma Harrison (who recently resigned as chair of welfare-to-work firm A4e) and her fraudulent company on their way, and a counter conference to a ‘welfare to work’ conference in Birmingham (details for both of these coming soon on the Boycott Workfare website). Direct action in London against stores taking on workfare is also planned after the Mayday protest.

Through these various actions we have seen high street stores and charities fully withdraw from government workfare schemes, and have achieved this temporary suspension of sanctions. This is an embarrassment for the government who are currently witnessing their workfare schemes collapsing around them.

It is important for campaigners to seize this forced concession, informing those on work placements that they now have the right to leave if they wish, and to take confidence that we can interfere with government policy and reclaim our rights – we can make their plans unworkable (although the government are pretty good at doing this themselves!) and embarrass them into retreat. We’ve achieved a temporary suspension of sanctions – our aim is to make it permanent, so that no-one is forced into the degrading act of working for their benefits.  

Izzy Köksal (with thanks to @consentmeuk)

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