One of the numerous job creation schemes of the Thatcher years was known officially as Employment Training, although the acronym was colloquially translated into ‘Extra Tenner’, because that was how much it paid on top of the dole.
These days, it seems, even an additional ten quid a week is a bit much to ask. Many of Britain’s most profitable employers are securing staff for nothing, with the state picking up the tab for Jobseekers’ Allowance and a bus pass.
When I did my six month stint on ET, my employer provided me with what turned out to be useful training as a press officer for a voluntary organisation. I guess there is not quite so much to learn about the finer nuances of night time shelf stacking.
But the current controversy has sparked widespread outrage and a bit of argy-bargy at a Tesco store in Westminster, and this morning the rightwing press has gone onto the defensive, with numerous articles in defence of workfare.
It was Labour that introduced the practice in the first place, says Philip Johnson in the Telegraph. Nonsense; workfare was commonplace in the Tory 1980s, it’s just that it wasn’t called that at the time, and Labour still had sufficient courage to oppose it.
It shouldn’t even be called workfare, Iain Duncan Smith tells the Daily Mail, before setting out what looks awfully like a distinction without a difference, and then proving how it all turned out well in the end for a woman from Neath. Opponents of the work experience programme are betraying the young, he maintains.
Employment minister Chris Grayling has even coined the term ‘job snob’, mendaciously asserting that the objection here is to the nature of the work rather than the principle involved.
Nobody I know from a working class background looks down on anybody undertaking less than glamorous tasks to earn a living. We have all done that ourselves. In my experience, ‘she’s only a shopgirl, Henry’ sneers more typically emanate from those who consider themselves above all that.
At a time when youth unemployment tops 20%, of course the state should take measures to bolster the chances of those who have been out of work for an extended period.
But I’m not convinced that the current scheme is the way to go about it. Indeed, it is actually a disincentive to job creation. Why employ anybody on a contract when the local Jobcentre will send you an uninterrupted stream of expendable labour power at no cost whatsoever?
If the work needs doing then there is a vacancy. And if there is a vacancy, it should be filled at an appropriate rate of pay.
The definition of appropriate rate of pay will vary according to taste. For me, that means union rates. Given the current weakness of the labour movement, others will regard the local average for similar work as good enough.
But at the non-negotiable very least, it has to mean the minimum wage. The clue is in the name here; if thousands of people are working for less than that, it no longer does what it says on the tin.
Widespread workfare will then exert a downward pressure on what everybody else takes home. And don’t tell the Tories hadn’t thought of that one, either.