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Workfare: London Bridge is the tip of the iceberg

The more the job market shrinks, the more the government is revving up its programme to force the jobless to work for nothing. Like so much else, it started with New Labour, but the Tories have now expanded the project of payless work out of all proportion. It operates either by threats (loss of benefits if you refuse) or inducements that turn out to be imaginary (unpaid work will improve their CV or lead to a real job with the same employer). Or the welfare-to-work privateers (G4S, Serco, A4E) provide ‘work experience’ in their own offices, while the High Street supermarkets take on unemployed people as unpaid temporary workers. Even hospital trusts take on jobless people to do ‘general tidying’ or ‘assisting with feeding patients’.

Another impact of this so-called Work Programme is that employers cut back on paid work in order to absorb more unpaid workers who do the job for nothing. The paid staff lose all overtime pay, a very necessary addition if you’re on the minimum wage (and many paid workers, though the number is unknown, are paid well short of the £6.08 hourly minimum wage), and have their shift hours reduced – in Argos, for example, down to just 4 hours.

It’s high time Labour took a much more aggressive line against unpaid work being forced on hundreds of thousands of the young unemployed, rather than leaving it to resistance organisations like Boycott Workfare to take the lead, including organising judicial review cases in the High Court with the attendant financial risk. One such case to be hear at the end of this month concerns a geology graduate forced to leave voluntary work in a museum in order to work unpaid in a Poundland shop in Birmingham. This still continues, and indeed is expanding fast, despite the government in February being compelled to pledge that any participation was voluntary after a huge public furore when it was revealed that unemployed persons under 25 were told to accept 8 weeks of ‘work experience’ or risk losing their benefits.

Last month the government announced they were doubling the number of unemployed people forced to work unpaid for 4 weeks at a time and up to 30 hours a week if they were not to forfeit benefit, i.e. jobseeker’s allowance at £56.25 a week, not exactly a princely sum. This could mean about 80,000 placements a year of unpaid mandatory work activity.

The government has gone further still. Under their Work Programme, to which 565,000 people were referred in the first 6 months of these scheme since it was introduced in June last year, the welfare-to-work private companies which cream off large multi-million government contracts, have discretion as to how long they keep participants on unpaid work experience, in one case (the multi-national company Ingeus) extending to 6 months. This parallels a new ’community action programme’ which requires up to 30 hours of unpaid work per week for 6 months.

What a relief in Tory Britain, where there’s such a lack of paid work, there seems to be such an endless supply of the unpaid version. Welcome back to the workhouse and sweatshop.

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