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Workfare extended to prisoners

The workfare system sees multi-millionaire companies such as Tesco, McDonald’s and Asda exploiting workers by forcing them to take part in “work experience” in order to receive their meagre Job Seekers Allowance. Sally Turner writes

These companies are raking it in – McDonald’s UK saw an 11 per cent rise in profits in the last three months of 2011 to £886 million and made a fortune out of the Olympics – yet they are using unpaid labour while the taxpayer picks up the bill.

The scheme means that workers already on minimum wage could be sacked in favour of workers who cost nothing at all. These people then end up being on Job Seekers Allowance, put on the scheme and the cycle continues.


We have also seen in recent months that it isn’t just the retail industry taking advantage of such schemes, nor only the unemployed who are being exploited. A Cardiff solar panel company, Becoming Green, has sacked workers in favour of getting prison inmates to work for just £3 a day – 6 per cent of the minimum wage!

The Ministry of Justice confirmed that dozens of workers from Prescoed prison in South Wales have done “work experience” for at least two months at the rate of 40p an hour in the company’s call centre.

A hospital trust is also using workfare to deliver patient care on wards. The jobs include “general tidying, welcoming visitors, serving drinks to patients, running errands, reading to patients and assisting with feeding patients”. It is worrying that untrained people are being allowed to assist in aspects of patient care which should involve a high level of training.

Slave labour

A jobless graduate recently went to court, rightly claiming that the unpaid schemes violated Article Four of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits forced labour and slavery. The judge dismissed the claim, saying Ms Reilly had obviously misunderstood that the scheme was “voluntary”.

But the only options available are: do workfare or lose your benefits. In other words, workers are “free” to go on these schemes or “free” to starve to death.

As Karl Marx pointed out, workers under capitalism are free in a double sense: free to choose their employer and freed from any other means of surviving because they own no property. Although we appear free, we are in fact no freer than prisoners or slaves.

Workfare makes this fact more visible than at any time since the days of the Victorian poor house.

We need to force companies to drop out of the schemes and demand the government to scrap workfare altogether. It is no surprise that an upper class judge ruled in favour of workfare – but direct action by unemployed groups, unions and young people can make these schemes unworkable and unite to demand union rates of pay for all.


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