Workfare versus compulsory work: When is it right and wrong to mandate labour?

Richard Exell looks at the tricky issues dividing workfare (bad) from mandating paid work (good). Is there a line that can be drawn?


Cait Reilly is one of my heroes. Her challenge to “work experience” that gave her no alternative to working for a fortnight for just her Jobseeker’s Allowance has got the left in an uproar about workfare.

Workfare is wrong on four counts:

• It is unfair to unemployed people

• It is unfair to employees

• It doesn’t work

• It is based on a mistaken understanding of unemployment

Workfare is unfair to unemployed people because it makes them work in return for derisory wages. Working full-time in return for JSA of £67.50 a week (£53.45 if you’re under 25) can lead to pay rates under £2 an hour.

Even when an unemployed person is getting higher benefits (for children, partner, rent) it is very unlikely that the hourly rate will come near the minimum wage.

The benefit of that work accrues almost entirely to the employer – you don’t need to believe in the theory of surplus value to see this as exploitation.

Workfare doesn’t just exploit the participants. Where participants do economic work – work the employer would have needed to pay for otherwise – some people would have been recruited to do these tasks, or would have gained extra hours or overtime.

They lose out because now that work is being done free of charge. And all workers lose out because this competition undermines their pay and conditions. (This labour subsidy is also a threat to businesses competing with workfare employers – one day the business lobby is going to work out that workfare threatens the free market.)

Crucially, workfare is bad labour market policy. I often find that people whose instinct is to like the idea often have second thoughts when you point out that people doing a full week’s workfare don’t have time to look for jobs.

Four years ago the Department for Work and Pensions commissioned research into workfare in the USA, Canada and Australia, and found:

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.”

The government seems unable to give up the idea that there’s “plenty of work out there” and we need workfare to motivate unemployed people.

I’ve lost count of the number of times politicians (from all parties) have quoted from Beveridge’s report the line about his proposal being:

“…to make unemployment benefit after a certain period conditional upon attendance at a work or training centre.”

In my experience they never go on to quote his next sentence:

“But this proposal is impractical if it has to be applied to men by the million or the hundred thousand.”

When there are nearly six unemployed people chasing every job vacancy, it doesn’t matter how successful workfare is at motivating them, that is not the answer to unemployment.

So it’s great news that charities and businesses are getting cold feet about involvement in the government’s programmes. (See this article by my colleague Nicola Smith for a great exposition of the compulsory work elements of different schemes.) Is that it? Is it always wrong to make work compulsory? Is work experience always a bad idea?

I don’t think so.

For one thing, the benefit rules that require unemployed people to be available for work go right back to the Lloyd George benefit system and have always had widespread support from trades unionists and the Left more generally. The case law that availability is “not a passive condition”, that there’s an obligation to try to get work, has also been widely accepted.

For another, positive work experience can help people get jobs if it is well-designed. Paul Gregg, who advised the last government on conditionality, draws a distinction between two types of work experience programme.

On the one hand, there is the punitive approach exemplified by workfare, which he rejects.

But the other type is the “intermediate labour market” approach, which is aimed at long-term unemployed people and others with serious disadvantages, provide childcare and other necessary adjustments, include training and jobsearch support and ideally (crucially in my view) offer a wage rather than benefits.

He points out that the last government ran a number of smallish work experience programmes (like Work Trials and the Job Introduction Scheme) which had a good record of getting people into jobs.

The key point is that these programmes try to overcome the most crushing disadvantage unemployed people face in competing for jobs: their lack of recent relevant experience and the stereotypical or other inaccurate perceptions of many employers.

The future jobs fund – in my view, the best employment programme for a generation – embodied this approach. It was voluntary, it paid a wage rather than benefits and there were serious safeguards to stop it undermining the pay and conditions of other workers.

But would it have been unacceptable if it hadn’t been voluntary? Labour went into the last election with a promise to extend the FJF approach, but I doubt if it would have remained a voluntary programme and I think that would have been reasonable.

There’s a proviso here. At a time like this, with mass unemployment, the number of volunteers for a high quality programme like the future jobs fund is likely to exceed the number of places, but at a future point we might find ourselves in a position where there are spare places and long-term unemployed people who aren’t volunteering.

My personal view is that it would not be wrong in such circumstances to make this sort of work experience compulsory.

“Work or full maintenance.”

Harry Pollitt’s old demand – one of the key slogans of the 1930s National Unemployed Workers’ Movement – suggests this position. This demand – either jobs or benefit rates that will lift us out of poverty – represents a clear working class understanding of reciprocity; if the market fails to provide jobs then we have a right to adequate benefits.

But that works both ways. If we can achieve a programme that guarantees a job with a decent wage the same reciprocity says we should take it or lose the benefit. A job guarantee would be a huge advance; this is a responsibility we should demand.

See also:

The information you need to end workfare – Alex Hern, February 22nd 2012

Chris Grayling should respond to criticism of workfare, not smear the critics – Izzy Koksal, February 21st 2012

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

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

2012: The year ahead for young people – Alex Hern, January 7th 2012

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52 Responses to “Workfare versus compulsory work: When is it right and wrong to mandate labour?”

  1. clarebelz

    No one here is disputing that people should work where there are jobs available ‘LordBlagger’, but the point is that there aren’t enough jobs. In a situation like that, people should not be penalized when they are doing everything possible to find work. That said, where people flatly refuse to engage in looking for work or attending proper training programmes, there is something to be said for an element of sanction being applied.

    As I was corrected on other sites however, even the feckless need food. It is worrying that people who have never been in trouble before are commenting on sites saying that they would rather come off benefits and start thieving than to be forced onto unfair work programmes. If that is how they are thinking, it makes you wonder what will happen on the many sink estates that contain problem families. There are a few people like this on our estate, but honestly, they are so damaged psychologically either through alcohol or drug addiction, that it is unlikely that they will ever be well enough to work or mentally capable of it. Places in rehab are very hard to come by, as I found out from one particular woman. I used to work side by side with her; she had her own car and house, and had always worked, but her marriage broke up and she fell into addiction. She is completely destroyed now mentally, especially after a subsequent relationship where she was seriously physically abused. The amount of money that would have to be spent on her now to rehabilitate her completely would be enormous, and it would take many many years. I don’t think the government would commit themselves to spending that sort of money on people; it’s easier to punish them.

    If the current legislation forces certain groups of the unemployed (and seriously disabled) into workfare (I wish IDS would stop lying like he did on the ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio Four, about the mandatory nature of these programmes, which are NOT just for the young unemployed, and DO last for more than four weeks), they should pay the appropriate rate equivalent to JSA, which would mean people would work around 10 hours a week, leaving them plenty of opportunity to look for permanent work, and make the most of additional training courses that should be offered to them. If the schemes were administered like this, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with that.

    Certain people who comment on various sites state that those on workfare also receive free housing and council tax on top of JSA. The fact is though that so do a large majority of working people, and in most areas JSA,HB, and CTB do not amount to working 40 hours at minimum wage. Therefore working for 10 hours in return for JSA is largely fair. And, it should not be an endless placement of stacking shelves either; the way that could affect the free market as stated in the article above, and evidence of working peoples’ hours being cut is very concerning. Even if this was not the case, whilst plenty of people work stacking shelves (nothing wrong with that), long term placements where individual is working for less than minimum wage, just isn’t ethical and it is soul destroying for them. Rather, the original ideas, whereby placements are community based, is a much better option, but not when people will be forced to work alongside ex offenders on ‘community payback’ schemes, which is what the Community Action Programme documentation states, as well as it being ‘open ended’. Also do participants get holidays during the rolling 26 week programme? The government documentation regarding that says nothing about people being allowed a break.

    The government need to rethink their whole approach of these schemes. Where applied fairly and appropriately, work experience that is tailored to a claimant so that they can do something they enjoy whilst being paid for it, gives them a sense of dignity and self worth. What is happening now however, is making people miserable.

  2. TracyFishwick

    Couldn't agree more with @RichardExell piece on #workfare vs. compulsory work: (inc. ref. to @InclusionCESI FJF eval)

  3. Liz Sewell

    Brilliant piece by @RichardExell explaining that workfare is bad policy but mandatory work experience can be justified:

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