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Workfare – No Way!

Joy Macready reports on the exciting campaign against workfare

Anti-workfare protests across the country have forced a number of high-profile corporations to pull out of the government’s “work experience” scheme: Tesco, Poundland, TK Maxx, Waterstones, Burger King and Matalan to name a few. These companies fear that their reputations will drop through the floor for being involved in slave labour – and rightly so.

These companies make hundreds of millions – McDonald’s UK saw an 11 per cent rise in profits in the last three months of 2011 to £886m – yet they are using unpaid labour while the taxpayer picks up the bill. Under this scheme, 16-24 year olds on Jobseeker’s Allowance are doing up to eight weeks’ “free” work.

This has a direct effect on workers’ pay. ASDA sent paid staff home early over Christmas and used workfare to fill the gaps. Argos stated that “Christmas is our busiest time of year and we are pleased to provide the opportunity for work experience during this time”; while a Holland and Barrett worker informed Corporate Watch that workfare has replaced overtime that used to be available to staff.

Although the government has repeatedly stated that the work experience scheme is voluntary, many dole offices have told claimants otherwise. Plus, prior to the government’s climbdown, youth who left the programme after more than a week ran the risk of seeing their benefits cut. Even now they could still lose benefits in cases of “gross misconduct”, according to Chris Grayling, the Employment Minister.

Boycott Workfare, Right to Work, Youth Fight for Jobs and the newly formed South London Anticapitalist Network, among others, have taken to the high streets to name and shame the culprits. Many of the organisations involved have been vilified in the right-wing press and labelled extremists by Tories from David Cameron down. Former Marks & Spencer chief executive Sir Stuart Rose accused demonstrators of “sabotage”. Yet it is precisely these protests that have made the government scrap the punitive measures of the scheme and forced Tesco to offer real jobs and pay real wages to young people. This shows the importance of street agitation.

However, the battle against workfare is far from over. On the back of a number of companies pulling out, the government announced that three more large companies – Hewlett-Packard, Airbus and Center Parcs – are keen to be part of the scheme, plus over 200 small and medium-sized firms.

In addition, “work experience” is only one scheme among many. In many other workfare schemes, the threat of sanctions has yet to be removed. The Work Programme is another one of these schemes in which job seekers will be forced to work unpaid in high street stores, including for well-known charities. Not only can job seekers be forced to work unpaid for six months, but also disabled people will find themselves fast tracked onto this scheme after only three months of unemployment.

Work Experience?
It important to counter the idea that workfare is the only way to address unemployment and the “lost generation” of youth that are not in education, training or work – which currently stands at 1.04 million people aged 16 to 24 in the UK. Workfare proponent Nick Clegg said: “I cannot for the life of me understand the kind of messed-up sense of priorities of people who want to prevent young people from finding opportunities to get into permanent work.”
The “opportunities” he is talking about are stacking shelves for Tesco or flipping burgers for McDonald’s. Forced to work a minimum 30-hour week in return for benefits of £67.50 (£53 for under-25s), they earn just £2.25 (or £1.76) an hour – less than half the legal minimum wage.

This is slave labour and will hardly give the next generation of young people the skills they need to be successful in life.

The problem of unemployment in Britain is not caused by a lack of work experience; it is caused by a lack of jobs.

Fight back against Workfare
There are a number of different fronts we need to fight on. We need to fight for free university education, so that youth that want to continue in education do not hit a barrier of £9,000 a year tuition fees. Trade apprenticeships should also be an option and paid a decent living wage during training. Education maintenance allowance (EMA) needs to be reinstated so that young people have the choice to go to college.

At a time when unemployment is nearing the 3 million mark, we need to fight for a mass programme of public works so that people are employed in socially useful work, not low skilled, dead end jobs. To end unemployment, we demand that companies cut the hours not the jobs, with no loss of pay and a living wage for all.

To achieve this, we need to unite the different anti-workfare campaigns, drawing in the trade unions and making them fight for the mass of the unemployed, in the process building an unemployed workers’ movement across the country that can take militant action, such as occupying dole offices or headquarters of companies that continue to use slave labour.

The unions will play a crucial role in this movement. The civil service union PCS and the University and College Union have backed the anti-workfare campaigns, yet scandalously the postal union CWU was supporting workfare. A CWU Leeds motion, which was passed without opposition at its AGM, has turned this around and is making the rounds at other branches. The biggest unions Unite and GMB must step into the fray, organise the unemployed and fight.

Stop Remploy Closures
The government has decided to close two in three of the remaining Remploy factories for disabled workers with the loss of more than 1,700 jobs, including 1,518 people with disabilities. UK Minister for Disabled People Maria Miller said that disabled people should not be corralled in an employment ghetto – instead they can be unemployed like the rest of us. A few dozen Remploy factories were shut down by Labour in 2008 and 85 per cent of those affected are still out of work.

Remploy workers staged their first ever strike earlier this year in Glasgow and Chesterfield against privatisation. Now the GMB should ballot every Remploy member and call a national strike.

Get out of Jail – and into Workfare
Up to 30,000 prisoners leaving jail each year, who then claim Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), will be referred immediately to the government’s Work Programme, and lose benefit if they refuse to cooperate. Jobcentre Plus staff will process benefit claims in prison, fast tracking the process and making immediate referrals to the programme. It is difficult enough to reintegrate into society and regain your dignity after a spell inside – forcing ex-offenders into crap jobs with the threat of destitution hanging over their heads is not rehabilitation

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