It was always absurd that a young person aged between 16-24 was forced to undergo an unpaid work placement for up to 8 weeks on the basis that it was ‘voluntary’, yet if they left for any reason they would suffer the sanction of loss of unemployment benefit for 2 weeks. But what is most revealing about yesterday’s government backdown is:
(1) that it was strongly resisted by the relevant government ministers, Duncan Smith and Grayling;
(2) that the employers didn’t reject work experience under such conditions because it was exploitative, but because it harmed their own reputation to be seen administering such a scheme.
The government only gave way perforce when enough employers threatened to withdraw to have scuppered the whole project.
But exploitation doesn’t end there. Forced unpaid work with punishments attached for non-compliance will still continue in the other two government-run work experience schemes, in the form of the mandatory work activity and community activity programme. It will continue to impact most harshly on disabled and chronically sick people on employment support allowance. No-one doubts the value of work experience if it is poperly designed to be of genuine help to young people, but that doesn’t mean providing free labour for employers or displacing paid staff. The principle of its being unequivocally voluntary is necessary precisely to provide that safeguard.
The government’s obsession with workfare is now seriously unravelling on several counts. The most blatant flaw in the whole scheme is that there are now officially at least 2,640,000 persons unemployed, yet only some 400,000 vacancies, so that for 5 out of every 6 searching for a job can’t find one because it’s not available. What is needed is a change in economic policy – job creation rather than austerity, initially funded by a special levy on the super-rich before it becomes self-funding – not forcing young people or disabled people to jump through impossible hoops.
Then there’s the scandal of privatised welfare-to-work. The success rate has been notoriously low, yet it has generated a fortune for many of the companies offering this privatised service, most notably more than £1 million a year for Emma Harrison, boss of A4e and a particular favourite of Cameron. Now she has been forced to quit because A4e is now subject to a fraud inquiry, as is also one of A4e’s sub-contractors. Further it emerges that civil servants warned ministers to carry out checks on Harrison weeks before she took up her post, but Cameron failed to do so and still appointed her. Shades of Andy Coulson – it’s becoming quite a pattern for Cameron to appoint dodgy people and block normal Whitehall checks.