Chris Grayling should respond to criticism of workfare, not smear the critics

Izzy Koksal debunks Chris Grayling’s defence of workfare - or rather, his attacks on the critics of workfare.


By Izzy Koksal

Over the weekend, employment minister Chris Grayling attempted to defend his government’s workfare program; but he did so with smears, falsehoods and distractions. Nearly every point he makes can, and should, be rebutted.

He attempts to hide the widespread public outrage that there is about workfare by suggesting that it is ‘misguided left-wing commentators, newspapers, broadcasters, trade unions and lawyers’ who are the ones who are driving the campaign against workfare.

In fact, last week it was concerned citizens who used their Twitter and Facebook accounts to bombard Tesco with calls to end their involvement in government workfare schemes. Actions against workfare are being organised up and down the country for a national day of action on March 3rd.

Yet he is clearly too afraid to acknowledge that the campaign is supported and being driven by the public.

He goes on to claim that the groups he identifies as behind the outcry against workfare are harming the job prospects of the young unemployed.

I am one of the one million young unemployed people, and I have been involved in the campaign group Boycott Workfare – the idea that by challenging workfare I am harming my own and others job prospects is ludicrous.

By challenging workfare, we are saying that forcing people to work for no pay is simply wrong.

Not only is it wrong, but it may actually reduce young people’s job prospects – workfare placements reduce the amount of time that job seekers can search for a real paid job and forced labour is hardly a positive addition to one’s CV.

Workfare threatens those who are already in paid jobs as companies take on free labour from the Job Centre reducing the need for them to employ people or give overtime.

Grayling claims the work experience scheme is:

“An entirely voluntary scheme; no one is obliged to take part.”

However, the young person finds themselves quickly obliged/ forced to take part.

Once a young person has ‘expressed an interest’ in a work experience placement, they must complete the 8 week placement, with a one week grace period during which they can leave. After this first week, the job seeker’s attendance is then compulsory or else they face the threat of sanctions.

Furthermore, if a young job seeker refuses a work experience placement they may be considered for another of the government’s workfare schemes, ‘mandatory work activity’ in which the job seeker must work for up to 30 hours a week over a four week period or else face sanctions.

The coercion in this scheme is quite blatant – the DWP’s own documents make this quite clear, stating:

“Attendance will become mandatory.”

He goes on to emphasise:

“We won’t and don’t force anyone to take a work experience placement.”

However, under another government scheme, the work programme, private providers have the power to force young people to do workfare, this time for up to six months, or else face sanctions. In this instance then, the mandating of workfare to the job seeker is being outsourced to private companies at great cost to the tax payer.

Grayling then goes on to attack the Guardian and BBC as ‘work snobs’, highlighting the unpaid work experience that they offer. But here he confuses the issues at hand.

Yes, unpaid work experience placements or internships are an important issue that must be addressed as they prevent working class young people from entering the professions which now require you to have done an internship, but this is different from workfare, in which people are forced to work for their benefits.

The Guardian and the BBC have not signed up to the government’s workfare programmes and therefore are not complicit with taking on workers whom they know could face losing their benefits if they decided to withdraw from the placement. The Guardian and the BBC therefore do not employ forced unpaid labour, although their use of unpaid labour is still morally and ethically dubious.

Finally, Grayling is notably silent on another workfare issue highlighted last week; forcing disabled people onto workfare for an unlimited time period. Clearly, he cannot even come up with a botched argument to put to this indefensible act.

To be a little generous to him, Grayling does get one point right: He claims that if the government did happen to mandate people to work for a big company, they would not take the mandated labour. And this is increasingly the case: Waterstones, Sainsburys, TK Maxx, Maplin, and the 99p stores have all withdrawn from the government’s workfare schemes.

Grayling’s response to those concerned about workfare was not just a sickening read because of its patronising and smug tone, but because of the clear falsehoods that it contained. The real hypocrisy is a government who claims to be acting in the interests of young people, when in fact it is forcing them into unpaid work with the threat of destitution if they do not comply.

See also:

Tesco’s unpaid labour shows the flaw at the heart of workfareAlex Hern, February 16th 2012

Five reasons Clegg can’t stand on his social mobility recordAlex Hern, January 12th 2012

2012: The year ahead for young peopleAlex Hern, January 7th 2012

Why workfare won’t workStephen Evans, November 8th 2010

Alexander: Welfare reform is meaningless amidst jobless recoveryLiam R Thompson, November 5th 2010

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