Why we draw the line between workfare and volunteering

Keep Volunteering Voluntary exists to make sure that volunteering remains voluntary and to draw the line between volunteering and workfare, mandatory unpaid work for claimants. But voluntary sector umbrella body NCVO says that the campaign “inadvertently risks confusing the issue by appearing to confirm that government compulsory community service schemes are volunteering”. So, should we be concerned?

First, let's look to where any confusion between volunteering and mandatory workfare comes from, and who it benefits. NCVO has itself highlighted that workfare providers are attempting to cast workfare as volunteering in order to source placements. This leaked email repeats the same pattern, with mandatory workfare conscripts described both as “volunteers” and “unpaid employees”.
 
With ever more charities and community organisations pledging to avoid workfare, you can see why DWP sub-contractors are avoiding drawing attention to workfare's fundamentals: compulsion backed by sanctions and the threat of destitution. Instead, they blur the lines between volunteering and workfare to make compulsory unpaid work seem more palatable. The same can be seen from Government too: George Osborne actively encouraged the association with volunteering when he announced that Help to Work placements would involve “putting something back into their community.... working for a local charity”.
 
So on the ground, volunteer managers are faced daily with the offers of “volunteers” who are anything but voluntary. Workfare conscripts are sometimes told they have to complete “volunteer application forms” before their compulsory placement can commence. Given the secrecy and misinformation surrounding workfare, it is left to organisations such as Keep Volunteering Voluntary to provide resources to disentangle the facts for all in the third sector to see. Meanwhile moral cover for unpaid work placements in Tescos, Asda and Poundland is secured by the participation of the voluntary sector in the government's workfare schemes.
 
It is here that the missing piece from NCVO's self-made puzzle stands out: Keep Volunteering Voluntary is not just asserting that volunteering and workfare are totally different. We are asserting that workfare is in direct contravention to the basic values that underpin volunteering; that there is no room for forced unpaid work in the voluntary sector.
 
The horror of sanctions – benefit stoppages which leave people with nothing to live on – is no longer a secret. The queues at foodbanks and terrible health impacts of having the safety net withdrawn are well documented. Just last month, Citizens Advice Scotland called for an immediate moratorium on all sanctions due to their devastating consequences.
 
That's why over 540 voluntary organisations are already making sure that the line is clear: Charities and groups that exist to help people will play no part in the punitive benefit sanctions regime. Instead, we will “Keep Volunteering Voluntary” and avoid all workfare schemes.
 
When we allow the values that should inform our work to illuminate the picture, there is no confusion at all. Informed by its research into the impact of benefit sanctions on service users and third sector organisations, NCVO's Scottish counterpart, SCVO, articulated its view of workfare: "Approaches like this are demeaning, counterproductive and undermine genuine volunteering."

By contrast, NCVO’s current position focuses on semantics; they claim to have “secured commitment from DWP that Community Work Placements will not be conflated with volunteering”. This, however, avoids the heart of the matter: their values. Perhaps NCVO's true agenda is reflected in their “Special Interest Group for Work Programme Sub-contractors” – an interest in participating in government programmes which large numbers of their members oppose. Without an anchor in the charitable values of justice and compassion, NCVO's Justin Davis Smith has himself lost sight of the clear distinction between workfare and volunteering. When asked for his reaction to the Conservative Party's plans to extend compulsory unpaid work for young people post-election, he appeared to give it the green light by commenting on the benefits of volunteering.

NCVO ask "There's a confusion between mandatory community work placements & volunteering - what should be done?” Hundreds of organisations think the answer's simple: The voluntary sector should defend the values that underpin volunteering and not take part in coerced, mandatory unpaid work placements. Without our sector's participation in such schemes, workfare will crumble and many fewer people will face the hunger and hardship of benefit sanctions.
 
Keep Volunteering Voluntary has produced resources to enable third sector organisations and their staff to detect and decline DWP workfare schemes. Download the PDF here.