Cait Reilly and Workfare: some basic maths

Picture of Cait ReillyEarlier today I was listening to the Eddie Nestor show, an evening news phone-in programme on the BBC London station, which was discussing the Cait Reilly case. Reilly had been told, wrongly it now appears, that if she did not do an unpaid work placement at Poundland in Birmingham, she would lose her Jobseekers’ Allowance, despite this being full-time work and requiring her to give up another voluntary work position at a local museum. Another litigant, truck driver Jamie Wilson, had been told to do a six-month unpaid work placement for 30 hours a week, in return for benefits which amount to a day and a half’s pay per week.

Reilly is quoted as saying, “I don’t think I am above working in shops like Poundland. I now work part-time in a supermarket. It is just that I expect to get paid for working”. Nestor quoted this line on his programme and suggested that she also expected to get paid for not working.

There are some basic facts of mathematics that Eddie Nestor seems not to understand here. A working week is five days. If you work for five days, and you are not doing it voluntarily, you expect five days’ pay. Jobseekers’ Allowance is about £71 per week, which is roughly a day and a half’s pay. So, working five days for a day and a half’s pay means doing three and a half days’ pay for nothing.

A caller onto the programme also claimed that people who had been unemployed for some time and been on benefits were paying something back to society by doing work for free. Anyone see what’s so ridiculous about this? You are not “paying society back” by doing unpaid work in a chain store, you are giving services for free to a large corporation to make profits without having to pay anyone wages, wages that would otherwise have been spent in shops, which employ people and pay taxes, and wages which would themselves be taxed. Schemes like this simply deprive people of work and take money out of the economy while enriching a large company and its shareholders. She could better be said to be paying society back with the unpaid work in the museum, which existed to educate people (including children) about something or other.

The whole thing is an example of the British corporate welfare state gone mad: the harnessing of the British curtain-twitching, “we deserve our benefits but they don’t” mentality, to manipulate people into looking the other way or cheering while their jobs are taken away and done by unemployment people in return for benefits that are paid by the government. Nobody objects to short-term placements in which people are trained (although actually, companies pay you while they train you) or demonstrate their competence. Floor sweeping and shelf stacking does not take weeks to train anyone to do. It is a ludicrous scheme which reflects the cynical and contemptuous attitude the present cabinet have for all of us.

Update: The Daily Mail printed a heavily biased article this morning amplifying Iain Duncan Smith’s reaction to the court’s judgement, which he called “utter madness”; he insisted that he would not be paying a penny of compensation to anyone who had been denied benefits for refusing workfare placements. The article directly alleges that Reilly herself has now landed a job at Morrison’s and attributes that to the placement. In fact, she had previous retail experience, so this placement may have had no role in her securing that job.

Regardless of whether anyone has secured similar paid work after being on an unpaid “work experience” scheme, the fact remains that it mostly consists of people doing repetitive low-skill work for no pay from the company. It is not “work experience”; that implies that you are learning about the job, when these are jobs that do not need to be learned about for more than a couple of hours.

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  • 123AmyLou

    I read about this yesterday and found it odd, why the poundstore? Why not something funded by tax payers, at least the ‘forced’ labour would be put back into the welfare state pot. It will be interesting to see the outcome of the appeal.

  • To be honest, I don’t agree with making people do “community service” type work for their benefits either. Most of these jobs ought to be done by paid workers; getting benefit claimants to do it is also a disincentive to pay proper wages and an incentive to sack people. For the same reason, I disagree with making community service people wear jackets saying “Community Payback” - this invites the assumption that anyone doing voluntary “dirty work” is a criminal.

  • Nic

    That was something that really irritated me to; the argument that she was not being forced to work for nothing because she was receiving JSA. As you point out, it’s basic maths. The idea of working for your JSA is far too knotty a debate for me to get into in any great detail here, but just say that it became the norm. You should only have to work the number of hours that would earn you your JSA, no more, no less.

    Workfare is being trumpeted as a scheme that will help the unemployed back into work. If that’s the case, then Cait Reilly and anyone else who is has to undertake it have the right to expect this scheme to be of benefit. They should finish the placement in a stronger position than when they started. This might be a glowing reference, providing they’ve done good work or an interview. It might be new skills or new experience, something that employers are genuinely seeking. But as I see the Cait Reilly case, the only party that stood to benefit was Poundland. No-one’s suggesting that Poundland had her in chains in the broom cupboard and only let her out to stack shelves, but there are different degrees of exploitation.

    It’s also far too easy to label her a job snob. I worked in retail for three years, and you’d better believe that I can recognise a job snob a smile off. Cait Reilly doesn’t fit the profile. She didn’t demand nothing but the most prestigious Graduate Jobs. She didn’t turn down new experience. She didn’t turn down the offer of paid work. She didn’t turn down a placement, having made no arrangements of her own. In fact, all she did was protest against being used. I’m 100% behind her.

  • Nic

    *irritated me too. Not to. My apologies.