New Internationalist

Goodbye welfare, hello workfare

Issue 453

The world’s richest countries are coercing their citizens to ‘donate’ their labour to big businesses and other organizations in return for welfare payments. Warren Clark is not impressed.

nateOne Under a CC Licence
nateOne Under a CC Licence

You lose your job. You claim welfare and are offered a job almost immediately. But the job does not pay wages (despite being with a company which can afford to pay them) and if you refuse to accept this ‘opportunity’, your welfare payments are stopped and you therefore face destitution. Welcome to a life on workfare, which is now the reality for millions of people across the world.

As should be expected with a powerless workforce, exploitation abounds. In Britain, people have been made to work without safety equipment and used as cleaners in the houses of the rich. The country which gave the world workhouses may now force people with terminal illnesses to do workfare. In Israel, people have been compelled to carry out work on Israeli Defense Force bases. When workfare arrived in New York, people were put to work in the mayor’s garden, where one person dropped dead. When the policy was introduced in Canada, the general counsel of the Civil Liberties Union called it ‘conscripting labour in a free society’. New Yorkers on workfare sum it up in one word: ‘slavery’.

The 1990s saw workfare rolled out in Australia, Canada, Britain and the US. Despite research in Australia concluding that it has an insignificant effect on reducing long-term unemployment1 and is ‘ineffective in helping participants find sustainable employment’,2 it continues to be implemented. In the US and Canada this has been on a state-by-state basis, with some schemes requiring work in not-for-profits and others taking place in private companies. Taking its impetus from the previous Labour government’s New Deal, the current coalition government in Britain is intensifying workfare with five draconian schemes.

Workfare serves as a reminder that discrimination intersects with poverty. In the US and Australia, those bearing the brunt are African Americans and indigenous people respectively. And workfare increases poverty, as US Professor M Katz attests: ‘Workfare is a non-response to the structural sources of poverty in America. It addresses the politics of poverty, not its roots.’

Big business

One of the similarities between these countries’ workfare schemes is that the transnational companies directly profiting from them share a business model which depends on acquiring public funds from government contracts. US-owned Maximus boasts that its clients include government agencies throughout Australia, the US, Britain, Canada and Israel. A4e, which, along with other British providers, is currently being investigated for fraud, has contracts in Australia, South Africa, Germany, Poland and France.

In his bid for re-election as French president, Nicolas Sarkozy announced workfare as a key policy initiative. Perhaps no-one has told him that it neither increases people’s chances of employment nor creates jobs. If anything, workfare undermines the pay and conditions of other workers, whether in the private or public sector. In the US and Canada, unions have actively fought against workfare, highlighting that it replaces paid public sector jobs, and in New Zealand/Aotearoa last year, a British government minister on a visit to promote workfare was met with protests.

Britain’s workfare policy has triggered a media furore and demonstrations in 40 towns. The campaign has forced some companies, including Burger King, to pull out. Others, such as McDonald’s and Tesco, have not. Some politicians have voiced fears about the very real prospect of ‘job substitution’, citing examples from their own constituencies. Staff in at least one branch of supermarket chain Asda (owned by US giant Walmart), have seen overtime disappear with the hiring of workfare staff. After all, why pay wages if you can get a free workforce?

Even Oxfam was contributing to poverty in Britain through its involvement in workfare schemes, until a public backlash caused it to reconsider.

Social contract

The social contract between state and individual is being rewritten. Aided by media rhetoric of ‘dole queens’ and ‘benefit scroungers’, workfare is part of a wider narrative arguing that countries can no longer guarantee the welfare of their citizens. This narrative exposes the real thinking behind workfare: to deter people from claiming welfare and reduce welfare expenditure. Unemployment is no longer a consequence of competition for jobs in a globalized market, or the failure of governments’ economic policies. Instead, it is the personal failure of the individual to gain employment, regardless of financial crisis or recession. Yet blaming the individual looks increasingly weak. The International Labour Organization recently issued a report which concluded that the global economy needs to create 600 million jobs in response to the employment crisis.

As workfare decreases paid employment, it also undermines economic recovery. This creates a paradox: while the concept of welfare is eroded and those who receive it are expected to get less for doing more, companies involved in workfare benefit from higher profits without employing more people. Tesco has acknowledged that it has profited from approximately 300,000 hours of unpaid work from 1,400 placements in ‘recent months’. Neoliberal governments and the workfare industry are actively intervening to restructure the labour market by suppressing wages and increasing the pressure on people to accept low-paid work.

The labour market is becoming a workfare market.

Warren Clark is a freelance journalist and writer, specializing in welfare rights.

  1. G Marston and C McDonald, ’Assessing the policy trajectory of welfare reform in Australia’, in Benefits, Vol 15, 2007
  2. Australian Council of Social Service, ’Does Work for the Dole lead to work for wages?’, New South Wales, 2003.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Goodbye welfare, hello workfare

Leave your comment


  • Maximum characters allowed: 5000
  • Simple HTML allowed: bold, italic, and links

Registration is quick and easy. Plus you won’t have to re-type the blurry words to comment!
Register | Login

  1. #1 Andy 18 Jun 12

    Have a look at this - this US think tank seems to think that ’voluntary slavery’ (whatever that is) makes a good substitute for the welfare state:

    Is there no end to the evil of neoliberalism?

  2. #2 Bill Kruse 18 Jun 12

    ’why pay wages if you can get a free workforce?’ Because wages thata ren't paid can't be spent. Every working person who isn't waged represents one less customer, this in a time when demand is going through the floor and businesses need all the customers they can get. The effect of workfare on any economy is to shrink it; less money earned means less spent so there's less economic activity overall. It's a disaster for any country practicing it. How stupid are people they can't see that?

  3. #3 Eric Greenwood 18 Jun 12

    I think the author of this story will be interested in this story a Staff member at Maximus UK.. forcing people to go self employed then Lie to the taxman about it..

  4. #4 lloyd edwards 15 Jun 13

    Why don't you once use the proper catch-all phrase Employer of Last Resort (ELR) so that readers can contrast and compare programmes. ELR is also the accepted phrase used by economists and most thinktanks. Also curious as to why you use ’Welfare’ to mean ’Benefits’ sometimes? REALLY sloppy!

  5. #5 TeaPartyPatriot 03 Dec 13

    The author of this diatribe makes the case for not forcing the unemployed into work camps. However the author does not seem to recognize that the unemployed have a choice. They can find work on their own and become independent or they can live at a lower standard if they so choose. No one is forcing them into labor camps. The question I have for the author is: Is it more fair to tax the working person who receives no benefit from this taxation than it is to require the unemployed to find some means to earn their sustenance. How about requiring the unemployed to work for the taxpayer (like doing yard work or household chores)in return for their sustenance. That way both the gainfully employed and the welfare recipient can have some leisure time. It is not fair that the taxpayer has to spend his time earning a living and maintaining a residence while the welfare recipient sits on his ass crying that he is not getting enough assistance/food/healthcare.

  6. #6 rarooks 03 Dec 13

    Yes, there are some who abuse this marvalous benefit, but more are helped and shortly leave to do bigger things. In these days, for whatever reason, companies don't stay around for long. Should we punish the owners for their mistakeds also? WHen they fold, do we make them do ’supervisory’ duties for another company? Never mention that!
    It sounds more like someon is angry, miserable and ’jealous’ of what someone else has. It may look good on the out side, but there is very little freedom inside while waiting for a check. Pay bills, buy food. That's it. Everything planned to the last cent. No spontenaity. Always on the verge of disaster. It sucks and ’workfare’ only adds to it.
    We have a ’constitution’ to protect the people from being oppressed. It is carefully worded, not due to penmanship, but due to natural human behavior. The writters have lived through leaders, who have been seduced by power and became tyrants. That's just the way most people are. Very few can handle it....

  7. #7 rabrooks 03 Dec 13

    Besides, that ’no more social contract’; the beginnings of tyranny
    and both ways

  8. #8 Lillian 14 Apr 14

    But if the places that contract with the government are non-profits, or government/community agencies, wouldn't workfare be a great thing?
    Instead of being the jobs described above, the jobs being given are those of usual volunteer work, such as picking up the sides of the roads or beaches, sorting recycling at recycling plants and the like. or if they supplemented the workforce at the postal office, then the government could not only improve the community, but save money on wages and benefits that they'd have to pay the workers, because they'd be getting 'paid' by their wellfare.
    Such volunteering is usually a perk on any resume, and it'd get people who have become stagnant a chance to get out of the house and develop skills.
    Besides, having such a system in place would quickly eliminate those who are milking the system. I'm not saying most people on wellfare are, I'm saying if there was noone doing it, then we'd all benefit.

  9. #9 A 20 Feb 16

    Then it's time to rise up and kill all these slavers. There is no freedom with these scum in power.

  10. #10 Roger12345 06 Dec 16

    Boycott any corporation or industry that employs a slave workforce. Too bad the world governments that sack their respective economies with failed policies and liberal immigration need to dump blame on the victims of this corruption.
    More lives and livelyhoods are destroyed by corrupt judiciary and crooked lawyers and illegal laws and prohibitions than any other factor. Welfare is the place these crooks dump their victims.

Subscribe to Comments for this articleArticle Comment Feed RSS 2.0

Guidelines: Please be respectful of others when posting your reply.

This article was originally published in issue 453

New Internationalist Magazine issue 453
Issue 453

More articles from this issue

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.

– Emma Thompson –

A subscription to suit you

Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.