Today, Boycott Workfare supporters are celebrating a success in their campaign to put a stop to compulsory unpaid work for welfare claimants. Judges at the Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that the regulations underpinning the Coalition’s flagship “workfare” schemes are unlawful.
The verdict in favour of Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson, who objected to their placements on the ‘back to work’ programme, delighted those who consider such schemes little better than slave labour. When Cait Reilly was told at her local Jobcentre that she must take on unpaid work at Poundland for ‘work experience’ or lose her benefits, she had to quit her voluntary work at a local museum. “I came out with nothing; Poundland gained considerably,” she said. “For me, this unpaid labour scheme lasted only two weeks, but some people, as part of the government’s work programme, will have to do such unpaid work for up to six months – longer than the community service orders handed out to many criminals.”
But does the court’s ruling mean Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms are dead in the water? Is it really so heinous to get unemployed people off the dole and into paid work?
Some argue that workfare schemes profit the rich by providing free labour and threaten the poor by taking away their welfare rights if they refuse to work for less than a living wage. It is alleged that some companies use workfare schemes to help themselves to free, state-subsidised labour. Furthermore, there is anecdotal evidence that people who have been made redundant by businesses like Poundland find themselves working for their former employers in workfare placements! Although the government takes workfarers off the unemployed statistics (and the cynic in me suspects this might be a worryingly big factor behind the expansion of the Work Programme), the costs of the scheme are obviously still met by the taxpayer. If businesses are abusing the schemes then that needs to be urgently addressed.
The idea of enhancing work incentives for welfare recipients is not, however, a bad one. Workfare is not a flawed concept per se and it is not necessarily a punitive social policy. The thing is, welfare dependency has become a way of life for some people, particularly since society no longer attaches the same stigma to it as it did in the past. We simply cannot afford to have too many people who are a net financial burden on the state. Jobs offered under workfare schemes will never be ideal and it is just wrong for benefit claimants to scorn placements because they consider them demeaning or unsuited to their skills.
Sensibly, the Court stopped short of upholding the claimants’ contention that, under the European Convention of Human Rights, their placements were “forced or compulsory labour”. So it remains the case in this country that Jobseekers’ Allowance is not a human right, and the state is perfectly entitled to withdraw it from those who refuse to participate in work-for-benefits placements.
But the government should not allow workfare to become a vast subsidy of taxpayers’ money to private companies. Perhaps unemployed people should gain on-the-job experience in public service projects instead. That way, workfare might be fairer all round.