Workfare critics DO care about its impact on workers

The war on workfare is worse than workfare itself | Brendan O’Neill | spiked

This article dresses up a familiar argument of the present government and its supporters in the right-wing press — that their “work-experience” scheme in which young unemployed people are expected to do several weeks of unpaid work, usually for large retail companies, just for their benefits and expenses, helps them get out of the “unemployed lifestyle” and back into work, by dressing it up in lefty language and alleging:

these campaigners – well-fed, middle-class, utterly removed from the condition in which many working-class young people find themselves today – relate to these people’s problems entirely through the vicarious prism of pity rather than through the lived and shared political category of solidarity. Viewing working-class youth more like lobsters in a restaurant tank whom they want to save rather than individuals capable of fighting and striving for work and a better life, they employ that most self-flattering, luxuriant emotion known to man – pity, the aloof projection of a highly condescending sorrow on to people of whom they know little. And as that ancient proverb says: ‘Friends help; others pity.’

Perhaps I am writing this a bit late as many of the big corporate players in the scheme have pulled out and there has been some climbdown by the government, but O’Neill’s article uses a bit of traditionally left-wing vocabulary, claiming that the anti-workfare protests are “more reactionary than anything proposed by the government itself” and accusing those who are campaigning against “reforms” to the NHS of “conservatism” in trying to preserve an “authoritarian” NHS. His history is with the same clique which used to run Living Marxism (which he wrote for), a group of former Marxists who became libertarian capitalists en masse in the late 1980s. The rhetoric is much like that of the American neo-conservatives who were formerly liberals but are now right-wing Republicans, claiming to be the true progressives and accusing liberals of being reactionary.

He makes one obvious error in accusing the campaigners of not caring about its impact on other workers:

However, the noisy and shrill critics of workfare are attacking the scheme for all the wrong reasons – not on the basis that it might harm existing workers, but on the basis that it is somehow harmful to ask unemployed yoof, those apparently fragile creatures, to work in return for some of society’s resources, for the monies they currently receive from the state.

The fact is that in several articles criticising the scheme, the point has been made that it will relieve large companies of hiring workers or paying existing staff overtime when they are themselves crying out for it. I have said this myself less than a week ago, and Polly Toynbee was seen saying this on breakfast TV this morning or yesterday morning. So his claim is just not true. The above quote leads to another major theme in his article: that welfare fosters “an unhealthy relationship of reliance with the state” and that young people should be expected to make a contribution to the society they live in:

It is in fact entirely reasonable to expect able-minded, able-bodied people, anyone who is not a child or disabled or sick or old, to do something in return for resources, to make some practical, real-world contribution to their communities or the running of society. Of course, it would be ideal if they could be provided with gainful and fruitful employment, but where that is not possible it is quite legitimate to request that individuals contribute to the upkeep of their communities in return for monetary sustenance. This is especially the case with the young, with people who are loosening their ties with their families and entering for the first time into proper social and community life. Absolutely the worst thing society could do for this section of society – for the 16- to 24-year-olds whom workfare is aimed at – is communicate to them the idea that society will sustain and reward you for doing nothing, for simply existing.

The impact of that message on youth is likely to be dire: it will inflame today’s already existing culture of entitlement, and further alienate youth from both their communities and their peers, encouraging them to suckle at the teat of the state rather than to use their own resourcefulness to strike up relationships with people and institutions in their communities.

The problem is that stacking shelves in Tesco for no pay is not “contributing to the upkeep of their communities”, it’s providing assistance to a profit-making company who should be paying proper wages. Again, if there was a training value to the period of unpaid work, it would be different, but learning to stack shelves or operate a till does not take weeks. It enriches the company’s shareholders while taking food out of the mouths of the people in their communities by depriving people of work, and existing workers of hours. Working for a charity or on some local improvement project might fit this description, but even then, the hours should not exceed the benefit attained: jobseekers’ allowance pays roughly a day and a half’s pay per week, so the hours people should be expected to work should not go beyond that, particularly if they are meant to be job seekers, i.e. looking for permanent work, as the name of the benefit implies.

The article also echoes the Tory press narrative that there are huge numbers of unemployed youth who want to just sit around all day and claim benefits. The fact is that the JSA does not pay nearly as much as a full-time job would (I know this as I was on it for two years after the economy collapsed in 2008) and certainly does not pay for the lifestyle many young people expect (expensive clothes, sports shoes, mobile phones, cars and the like). Admittedly, some of them have parents and other family that can pay for some of these things, but they are likely to have jobs rather than simply be on benefits. Young people always have done low-skill jobs, particularly part-time, to make ends meet or support their lifestyle: the problem with this is that it only seems to push people into low-skill jobs, not develop anyone’s skills or actually try to develop industries that provide manual jobs other than burger-flipping and shelf-stacking. Furthermore, the scheme as currently applied takes no account of whether the claimant actually has the relevant job experience or should really be looking for something that uses the skills they have: it works on the assumption that unemployed people don’t have jobs because they don’t have the discipline and will to works.

Lectures about getting on your bike and how the world doesn’t owe you a living, along with wasteful schemes channelling people through pointless programmes run by companies that exist solely to profit from government make-work contracts, do not change the fact that there is a shortage of real jobs with prospects, primarily because the economy went down the chute after several large banks went bust due to their own irresponsible lending practices. This country has long been too dependent on the financial services industry which has failed to invest in textile and manufacturing industries in this country while former industrial workers found little or no new work to replace what was destroyed in the 1980s. Not everyone can work in IT or the financial services industry and those who can’t won’t all be able to find work in the fast food or retail industries.

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