Opinion: An attempt to bring a calm and rational solution to the workfare issue

There’s been a lot of controversy around the “workfare” issue. However, while individual members have expressed clear opinions on it, our party is yet to take an official stance on the issue. With a policy paper on youth unemployment to be debated this weekend at conference we have an opportunity to decide where we stand on the issue.

I propose that we make the system fairer and ease the controversy by securing the following three compromises from the Tories:

1) Ensuring jobseekers aren’t misled into voluntary work schemes.

Although the scheme is voluntary, many jobseekers report being misled by Job Centres. Some are given a vague promise of “a week’s training followed by a guaranteed interview”, only to find after the week that they’re committed to the scheme and have no way to opt out. Others are told more directly that they have to accept a work experience placement or lose their benefits.

Now the government has removed sanctions for opting out, this change isn’t quite as desperate as it was before. We should still push for it, though. If a jobseeker does four weeks of unpaid work in the hope of a paid job that was never there, then they’re going to, quite rightly, feel conned.

Solution: Ensure that jobseekers are fully informed about what these voluntary placements involve, are fully aware of their rights to refuse a placement or withdraw from it, and are given an accurate idea of the prospects of it leading to paid work.

2) Ensure that mandatory work pays the minimum wage.

As well as voluntary work experience, Job Centres can also force jobseekers to take up unpaid placements like in the Mandatory Work Activity scheme. The idea is to get the long term unemployed working again, to foster working habits and increase their experience and employability.

The problem is, forcing someone to work for less than the minimum wage is going to be a humiliating, rather than constructive, experience. In addition, the main reason for unemployment right now is a lack of jobs due to the recession. If being unable to find work isn’t frustrating enough, how about then being forced to work for less than minimum wage? It’s little wonder this has made people angry!

Solution: If we’re going to coerce someone into working, we need to, at least, make sure that they’re paid the minimum wage. We could do this by limiting their hours so their unemployment benefit (JSA, housing and council tax benefit) matches the minimum wage for their hours worked. Or, perhaps, give them a top-up payment for any additional hours worked. – So long, as they received the minimum wage for their work.

3) Ensuring these rights and safeguards apply to all jobseekers.

Government Job Centres aren’t the only ones administering voluntary and mandatory work placements. Private providers, through the Work Programme, are also able to administer such placements. We need to make sure that these rights and safeguards extend to all jobseekers, whichever scheme they’re enrolled in, including those in the Work Programme.

I am proposing an amendment that will add a paragraph to the policy paper, adding these proposed solutions to party policy. I believe that these changes would make the work schemes a lot fairer on jobseekers, and thereby ease the controversy surrounding it.

For this reason I ask you to support this amendment to the youth unemployment policy paper at conference.

If any delegates would like to support it, please send your name and membership number to [email protected]

The wording of the admendment is:

After line 31 insert:

“Except to strengthen the protection of young people from being forced or misled into unpaid work, in light of recent controversies over various government programmes, by the addition of a new paragraph after 3.3.4 of the policy document and renumbering, to say
‘3.3.5 When volunteering or work experience is offered or expected, to ensure that:
i) before being enrolled onto a voluntary work scheme jobseekers are given full information about it; including what it involves, their rights of refusal and withdrawal, how many paid jobs the placement company are offering and how many jobseekers/volunteers will be competing for them.
ii) mandated work pays a minimum wage either by limiting hours to match the jobseeker’s unemployment benefits or by topping up the difference.
iii) these rights and safeguards are extended to all jobseekers, whichever scheme they are enrolled in, including those being handled by external Work Programme providers.

* Daniel is the chair of Leicester Liberal Democrats

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15 Comments

  • I’d suggest that the employer should be obliged to pay the minimum wage to the employee whether the scheme is voluntary or not. Otherwise the state will be funding free labour for private companies, and there will be a natural tendency for the companies to reduce the number of paid employees accordingly.

  • Generally wise. However, I think it’s worth noting that there have been studies done on work-fare (five minutes on Google will find you one from the DWP itself) and generally systems similar to those currently set up in the UK have not performed well in actually getting the claimants into work. The number of claimants decreases but the data suggests it simply acts as a deterrent. I would propose actually dropping the current system of work-fare altogether and going back to the drawing board, but your proposals certainly improve a bad lot significantly.

    What the DWP paper suggested had a better success rate was actually generating government jobs at the minimum wage rather than encouraging or forcing (depending on the setup) claimants to take voluntary work for benefits. Not perhaps very intuitive, perhaps a bit social democratic but it apparently produced far better results. Perhaps this is a more fruitful avenue to go down?

    As an aside, I would actually also like to add that there is a strange contradiction in the whole setup of JSA regarding work experience – on the one hand unskilled work experience (i.e. workfare) is encouraged, possibly even required for long-term claimants. However it is actually quite difficult to undergo unpaid skilled work experience without losing your benefits, withdrawing voluntarily from them or lying about availability to interview. I have fallen victim to this myself, when I had arranged skilled work experience where I could not realistically drop everything to attend an interview within 48 hours and as a result of being honest about this I was unable to continue claiming JSA.

  • Andrew Suffield 5th Mar '12 - 11:48am

    Good luck on #1. It’s a good and very obvious idea, but the simple fact is that people on JSA are frequently misled by front-line jobcentre staff who don’t really have any idea what they’re talking about and tend to push their own opinions instead of the facts, and this is not at all unusual.

    If you want to add “Do something about bureaucratic incompetence in jobcentres” to the list then I’m all for that, but the obvious question is “…do what?”

  • Malcolm Todd 5th Mar '12 - 1:00pm

    Can we have some workfare equivalent of Godwin’s Law that concerns how long it takes before someone states or implies that all government-mandated unpaid work experience is shelf-stacking? (We’ll leave aside the generally unstated assumption that shelf-stacking is a job you can learn to do properly in half an hour.)

  • David Allen 5th Mar '12 - 1:30pm

    These may be steps forward, but as Andrew Suffield points out, #1 is not much more than a pious hope, at least unless we get the jobsworths out of Jobcentres.

    How about taking action with the work providers as well? At the moment, the likes of Tesco are getting an over-generous deal from the taxpayer. Free labour, subsidised by the taxpayer who supports the labourer on benefits. Also, a chance to get potential recruits on free trial. They can take on a few of the brightest and let the rest go back onto the discard pile, and their trial of potential employees is all paid for by us the taxpayers. Why not demand that Tesco pay the lion’s share of the benefits bill back to the Treasury? And how about requiring Tesco to tell their work experience recruits in advance what fraction of them will be offered a permanent job, so that they can see that they have something real to aim for?

  • Daniel,

    While I would support the suggested amendments, I would echo the comments of the the other respondents s here.

    DunKhan has pointed to the DWP paper on workfare that concludes that there is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work and that subsidesed (“Transitional”) job schemes can be more effective.
    The Charity and social enterprise sector has suffered a massive loss of funding and the staff cutbacks are double the rate of job losses in the public sector. This is a area that could benefit greatly from subsidised job schemes. See Ruth Bright’s post on council care homes Care-dilemmas for us all for the desperate need for additional staff in council care homes. There is a fuller discussion at Job guarantees.

  • David Allen – “At the moment, the likes of Tesco are getting an over-generous deal from the taxpayer. Free labour, subsidised by the taxpayer who supports the labourer on benefits. Also, a chance to get potential recruits on free trial.”

    I’m not sure this is as black and white as you have it. If you’ve ever recruited anyone, you’ll know that they are actually a drain on your resources at the start of their employment. They require training and supervision and time-input from people who are taken away from their usual productive work. As efficient organisations, we would also assume that companies in the scheme do not actually need the surplus labour they are taking on at this point (leaving aside the issue of churn).

    I concede your final point, but you could call that the quid pro quo for offering work experience to some potentially quite difficult employment cases.

  • Daniel Henry 5th Mar '12 - 3:33pm

    Thanks for the replies guys.

    In response to concerns about (1), a way to do it would be to ensure that the Jobseekers signed a form with the information given to them, and that the form had to be signed before they could be put on the placement.
    I would have put it on the amendment itself but was advised not to go into too specific detail. Perhaps I should put it object the explanatory notes.

    I also sympathise with those who have bigger objections with them scheme and wanted a more radical alternative. I’d like to see us come up with a radical alternative too but that’s not what this amendment is for.

    This is designed to be a “quick fix” compromise that the Tories are likely to accept ASAP. I don’t think we have the clout to radically change the policy but we can put in small safeguards to prevent the abuses listed above.

    That’s what this amendment is for.

  • Stuart Mitchell 5th Mar '12 - 7:26pm

    Daniel, your suggestions are mostly excellent, but need to go just a tiny bit further. I think there would be something utterly distasteful about a mega-profitable company like Tesco using unpaid labour however “voluntary” and well-explained the scheme was. It just should not happen. Either make Tesco pay the minimum wage, OR only place youths with charities or other voluntary organisations and let the government pay the minimum wage.

  • Daniel Henry 5th Mar '12 - 8:54pm

    You’re right Stuart and if this was for a Lib Dem majority I’d hope we would have addressed that too. Seeing as this is coalition and we need to compromise, I decided to focus on at least protecting job seekers from being forced to world for less than minimum wage.

    If you agree with the need to protect Jobseekers (even if you feel we should raise other objections as well) thebsame I ask you to support this amendment. 🙂

  • Daniel Henry 5th Mar '12 - 8:57pm

    @DunKhan
    Regarding what you said about how people should be free to find their own work experience, you’ll be pleased to know that is already in the policy paper.

  • Good proposals.

  • Your proposals are to be welcomed Daniel.
    The issues are, unfortunately, far broader than the discussions that any political party appears willing to discuss openly. Of particular concern are the facts that changes to the benefit system are going to push many disabled people into poverty and workfare simultaneously. ATOS is not fit for purpose . I doubt that a private agency with a profit motive in finding people fit for work will ever be the best judge of whether a sick or disabled person is actually fit for work. There are press stories circulating online related to people forced into the workplace when they were not ready (some suicide, a heart attack…). Last time I saw. The death count stood at 19!
    I think it important that all 5 workfare schemes are brought into any open discussion.
    All morality aside it is well-documented that workfare programmes do not work at times of high unemployment so from a practical standpoint these schemes need reining in rather than the broadening that the DWP are pushing. It is hard not to view the government stance on this as ideological rather than practical.
    I fully understand that work experience is useful. It is how I got into the industry in which I have worked the past 16 years. I also take people in for 2-week unpaid placements, on an entirely voluntary basis. They approach me. For more than 2 weeks and especially if not voluntary then people need to be paid. The minimum wage is not a living wage so anything less is open to accusations of ‘forced labour’ that may prove tough to defend with sincerity.
    Good luck!

  • Daniel Henry 24th Mar '12 - 12:18am

    Cheers Andrew!
    Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get enough conference reps behind the amendment to get it debated at conference. If the issue is still live at Autumn conference I might give it another crack.

    You’re quite right that there’s numerous problems with welfare policy, espeically surrounding ATOS and disability benefits. Are you aware of George Potter’s campaign on it? Google “Potter Blogger” if you’re interested. I think his campaign highlights many of the difficulties we’re facing in government, many of them stemming from a lack of two-way communication between grassroots and ministers.

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