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Why We’re Supporting Boycott Workfare Campaign In Birmingham

Birmingham Against The Cuts | 20.01.2012 16:59 | Workfare | Public sector cuts | Social Struggles | Workers' Movements | Birmingham

Since the beginning of the year, Birmingham Trades Council and Brighton GMB Branch have signed the pledge to Boycott Workfare. The campaign also has the support of Birmingham Against Cuts who have written this statement…

Workfare is a government scheme where people who have been on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) for 6 months or more are made to take a “work experience” position at a company for a period of up to 6 weeks.

Common placements are at Poundland, Tesco and other retail businesses, where people will do jobs such as sweeping/cleaning and shelf stacking.

Workfare was first brought in as part of the Flexible New Deal, under Labour, and is being expanded by the ConDem coalition. Worryingly, there are now moves being put into place to create placements of up to 6 months for long term unemployed.

During the period you are working for the company, you receive your benefits and travel expenses. There is no extra pay, and people on the work experience do a full 30-35hour week for up to £67.50 of benefits (younger people will get less, with £53.75 being a lower rate). This means that people are often earning less than £2/hr for their work – well below the minimum wage.

The companies they are working for do not pay anything, instead the taxpayer covers the cost of their “wages”.

Boycott Workfare are a campaign group who have been working to end these schemes. They approached us before Christmas as they will be starting to campaign around the West Midlands this year. This coincided with the start of a legal challenge to Workfare by local firm Public Interest Lawyers (who regularly attend Birmingham Against The Cuts meetings), and a story in the Guardian about workfare, which included details from Cait Reilly, who was made to give up her voluntary position at the Birmingham Pen Museum, in order to do a placement at Poundland in Kings Heath.

We have decided to support the campaign in Birmingham, and will be helping to organise a meeting in the city centre sometime in March, along with Birmingham Trades Council and Boycott Workfare. We will of course publicise this meeting when there are firm details. There will also be meetings held around Birmingham and the West Midlands.

If you want to get involved with the campaign, or want to know if there will be a meeting near you, please email us at or comment on this post, and we’ll pass your details on / get back to you.

We are supporting this campaign not just in solidarity with benefits claimants or the people who lose their jobs and are replaced with workfare placements, but because we consider this to be an anti-cuts issue.

There are many reasons to oppose workfare – the fact that it is a subsidy for big business wage bills, that for many jobseekers the work experience will be of little or no value, that anyone on workfare is getting paid well below minimum wage, that there is no training budget attached to the scheme and that it will discourage businesses from taking on paid employees (why would they when they can get them for free?) which in turn will mean that unemployment will rise, not fall. In this post I will explain what it has to do with public sector cuts and austerity.
Before that, it is worth mentioning that in 2008, the DWP did a study of workfare (PDF), and concluded:

"There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers."

So workfare doesn’t even work, and may in fact make it harder for people to find work.

At the moment, workfare appears to be almost entirely within the retail sector. Right now councils and other government bodies are not taking part in these schemes, but how long will it be before they do?

With cuts in public sector spending there will be gaps in the provision of services. In Birmingham for instance, the parks and gardening service is being cut. From what we hear, this is being achieved through “natural wastage” – ie: when people leave they are not being replaced. Sooner or later, this will lead to a situation in which there are not enough people to cover all the work required, so the grass in parks will not be getting cut as often as desired.

The next move for the council is not to hire paid staff, thus reducing unemployment in the area, increasing tax revenue and generally helping the economic situation. Instead it is to go to DWP and sign up for workfare schemes, getting people in for a month to cut the grass, trim the hedges and water the flowers. A position which right now is paid becomes unpaid.

Think about all the unskilled jobs in the council, from data entry to street sweeping, and that all of these could be replaced with people on work placements, unpaid.

Already we know from London that tube wardens were made redundant a couple of years ago. These have since been replaced with workfare placement positions. In the USA, where workfare schemes have run for years, it is not uncommon to lose a job, only to be told to go back to it on a workfare placement.

The same effect is true in the private sector of course, with paid jobs being replaced with unpaid jobs – in this way, workfare threatens jobs, and is thus an issue for workers, as well as benefit claimants.

For the public sector, workfare represents a chance to cover for cuts. For the private sector it is a way to cut the wage bill and further marginalise the workforce.

For the economy it is another piece of the austerity agenda – a way to put further downward pressure on average wages. Workfare will not reduce unemployment, it will increase it. For many people who take part in the scheme, it will not improve their chances of finding work. For businesses it is a great way to reduce wage bills.

For the government it is a way to enforce the Big Society, and to cover for the gaps they are creating in provision of services to taxpayers. For all the reasons mentioned in this post, and because this links in to the cuts and austerity agenda, we oppose this scheme and hope that you will come along to a meeting and to demonstrations & events that happen in the future.

Birmingham Against The Cuts
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