What's wrong with workfare?

1 It undermines genuine volunteering

Workfare is forced labour  – the opposite of volunteering. As Oxfam has pointed out, “These schemes involve forced volunteering, which is not only an oxymoron, but undermines people’s belief in the enormous value of genuine voluntary work.”

The one in three unemployed people who volunteer are increasingly being forced to give up volunteering because they have been sent on workfare placements. Bryn Tudor, managing director of Mobility Advice Line, told Third Sector that he lost five volunteers in six months to workfare schemes: "We invest a lot of money in training our volunteers, and I can't continue like this.”

 

2 It doesn’t help people find jobs

There is no evidence that workfare helps people get real jobs. Even the Department of Work and Pensions’s own research has concluded that "there is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work”. 

In fact workfare reduces claimants' chances of finding a real job - people whose income is less than the equivalent of £2 an hour on full-time workfare schemes don’t have the time or resources to look for work or take up training or volunteering opportunities. Only 3.2% of the 1.5 million people sent on the Work Programme since its launch in 2011 have found long-term jobs, less than would have been expected to find stable employment if left alone to do so.

 

3 It puts claimants at risk of sanctions and destitution

A claimant who does not take a workfare placement, or who fails to meet strict criteria during their placement, can have their benefits stopped – be 'sanctioned' in the language of workfare. Sanctions can be imposed for absurd reasons and leave claimants without even a subsistence income for between four weeks and three years. Any charity involved with workfare is responsible for reporting claimants for sanctioning.

Sanctions are on the increase and getting tougher - you are  twice as likely to be sanctioned on a workfare scheme than get a job at the end of it. Some companies managing workfare placements refer 45% of people on them for sanctions. 

The increase in sanctions is one of the key contributors to the huge increase in demand for foodbanksReligious leaders have condemned the ‘terrible rise in hunger in Britain’ as  a 'national crisis’.

Manchester Citizens Advice Bureau has found that 71% of sanctioned claimants cut down on food, 49% cut down on heating and 24% applied for a food parcel. Some scrounge for food from skips or bins, or resort to begging to feed themselves.

Homelessness charity SHP left the Work Programme warning that sanctions were pushing vulnerable individuals further into poverty and leaving them with little option but to beg and steal.

Oxfam has refused to take part in workfare schemes because they “are incompatible with our goal of reducing poverty in the UK.”

 

4 It undermines core charitable values

Involvement in workfare can undermine a charity’s reputation for acting according to its charitable aims and values. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations suggests that charities consider reputational risk, alongside financial risk, before offering workfare placements. The Directory of Social Change has suggested that “charities need to consider the element of coercion involved, and whether treating people in poverty and the vulnerable as free labour and engaging in forced unpaid work schemes is charitable activity.”

Liverpool Volunteering Centre suggests charities “ask yourself if, in all good conscience, you could report someone for not turning up or being late, knowing that their benefits will then be stopped?”

Independence and the right to speak out on issues of concern are fundamental charitable values. Charities involved in delivering workfare programmes are increasingly being forced to sign gagging clauses preventing them from saying anything about their experience of workfare "which may attract adverse publicity". Charities "shall not make any press announcement or publicise the contract in any way" without government approval.

 

5 It undermines real job creation and supports exploitation

While workfare does little to help claimants find work, it actively increases unemployment by offering free labour to companies who prefer not to pay wages to their employees.

Companies such as Argos, Asda and Superdrug have used workfare labour to cover seasonal demand over the Christmas period instead of hiring extra staff or offering overtime. One company sacked 350 workers in Leicester, then moved production of its pizza toppings to Nottingham, where it took on 100 benefit claimants "to give them an idea of what it’s like to work in the food sector".

The Trade Union Congress has described workfare as “a failed policy” that exploits those taking part and threatens the jobs and pay rates of workers. “These programmes presume that unemployed people have a 'motivation problem' and that the answer is to make unemployment even more unattractive than it already is - the same attitude that inspired the workhouse.”