Mustard Tree: from workfare exploiter to workfare refuser

12265661_1515689348749285_1701812175792048410_o (1)Mustard Tree is a charity that works with homeless and other disadvantaged people in Greater Manchester. Until recently, it participated in workfare. But thanks to a sustained campaign by Boycott Workfare Greater Manchester, they’re no longer involved!  

Mustard Tree had been part of the government’s Mandatory Work Activity Programme (MWA)  –  4 weeks’ full time unpaid work, carried out under threat of sanctions.   Boycott Workfare Greater Manchester first picketed Mustard Tree in December 2014.  Then again at the end of January 2015, again on March 21st, and again in November.  On January 13th, Mustard Tree updated their position on MWA:

Following further consideration, the board of Trustees of Mustard Tree have decided to withdraw our offer of the 4 week work placements associated with the Mandatory Work Activity element of the Welfare to Work Programme.

This updates their earlier stance. In the previous position statement, from March 2015, they said that:

We believe that the 4 week work experience placement [i.e. MWA – unpaid work] is a wholly proportionate and effective tool for accessing sustainable employment.

Like Haringey Solidarity Group’s campaign against North London Hospice, it shows that sustained campaigns against charities using workfare are effective.  BW Greater Manchester put pressure on Mustard Tree in different ways:

  • they wrote to supporters of the charity, like FC United
  • they kept a dialogue going with Mustard Tree throughout the process,
  • they continued picketing their shops and offering information to people passing about what workfare is and how it links to sanctions.  

On all the demonstrations, people from BW Manchester had a massively positive response from passers by.  Even people who were hearing about workfare for the first time very quickly understood what is wrong with workfare, and especially what is wrong with a charity participating in it.

Protest report: MUSTARD TREE: STOP USING WORKFAREMustard Tree’s Eccles shop, Saturday (14/11/15) at 12 noon.As usual…

Posted by Boycott Workfare Greater Manchester on Saturday, 14 November 2015

Workfare, Sanctions, Homelessness

It was especially contradictory for Mustard Tree to be involved in workfare. Failure to take part in schemes like MWA is now one of the top two reasons people are sanctioned.  A report from Crisis and Sheffield Hallam University in December 2015 found that homeless people were twice as likely to be sanctioned as other claimants. And out of all those who’d been sanctioned:

  • 21% reported becoming homeless as a result;
  • 16% said they had been forced to sleep rough as a result;
  • 77% had gone hungry or skipped meals;
  • 75% said it negatively affected their mental health;
  • 64% had gone without heating;
  • 60% found it harder to look for work

This is why BW Manchester targeted them in the first place: charities whose aim is to help homeless people, or to alleviate poverty, have to realise that taking part in workfare schemes intensifies the hardship and misery which they ostensibly exist to reduce.

Mustard Tree have always said that they recognise some of the key problems with workfare, even stating ‘we oppose some of the core elements of workfare’. In response to the first demonstration against them, the CEO further explained:

We recognise that individuals going through this programme with some providers will have felt exploited and undermined and as result will have been unable to complete the placement and will have suffered sanctions as a consequence. This is deplorable and unacceptable and calls into question the overall value of the workfare system and its ability to deliver what its confessed goals are.

The tenses here are odd: ‘will have felt exploited’, so ‘will have been unable’; why not were exploited and also sanctioned?  But what’s important is that Mustard Tree have realised that you can’t use workfare to help people whom workfare has impoverished and demeaned. Which is what they argued in March 2015:

We use every influence that we have, through the long term relationship that we have with the DWP, to affect the local opportunities available for those claiming JSA and ESA; just as those working on the outside hope to bring change, we too are hopeful that by working from the inside we can play a part in bringing change.

We really hope that we are able to keep this door open to those currently trapped within the system and are subject to compulsory workfare; we would be saddened to have to walk away from them.

It seems Mustard Tree are no longer ‘convinced that the system will continue’. Or they’re convinced that they can’t work within it any more, since the DWP’s welfare-to-work programme as a whole is responsible for a large part of the conditions that they want to alter.  This is about a change in understanding.

It’s clear that there were divisions within the board of trustees of Mustard Tree about being involved in workfare.  As the January 2016 position statement says: ‘At times opinions have fluctuated […]’.  This shows how important it is to keep up pressure against charities, even when they seem strongly committed to workfare.

Why is this significant?

MWA is one of the schemes whose demise was announced in the Autumn Statement: contracts for it will not be renewed after March 2016.  You might think that Mustard Tree’s announcement comes at a convenient time: they get to look good, although they couldn’t have continued to be involved in MWA after April 2016 anyway.  On the other hand, it’s mainly  because so many charities like Mustard Tree keep dropping out of MWA that the government decided to scrap it: numbers of new starts on the scheme have been falling since 2013.

And this is part of a broader pattern. The government has just – at last – released statistics about the performance of the other scheme that’s being scrapped: Community Work Placements (CWP).  These show that only half (35,390) of the 67,000 people referred to CWP actually started a placement. And the whole programme saw only 1,670 ‘job outcomes’. Like MWA, it doesn’t work and the Department for Work and Pensions can’t find charities and other organisations to offer placements.   

What next for Mustard Tree?

Mustard Tree used to offer MWA to people as well as their own programme, called the Freedom Project – ‘a 20 week life skills and work readiness programme’ for people who are homeless, or have mental health issues, or a criminal record, or are recovering from addictions.  They’ll still offer this, but it won’t have any connection to MWA or sanctions – something Boycott Workfare Greater Manchester demanded from the beginning of their campaign.

So, we want to be certain that Mustard Tree withdraws from MWA before contracts for the programme close anyway in April. It looks like that’s what they’ve done [here a tweet Q&A between MT and BWGM embedded]:

But we want to be completely sure.  We would welcome an unambiguous statement from Mustard Tree to this effect.

This still leaves the question: Will Mustard Tree sign up to the Keep Volunteering Voluntary pledge never to participate in government workfare schemes? MWA is going to be finished by April 2016: will Mustard Tree undertake not to be involved in whatever coercive scheme replaces it?

It is becoming increasingly difficult for organisations like Mustard Tree to be involved in workfare. Keep Volunteering Voluntary has over 600 signatories, including major homeless charities like Crisis and Shelter. It is more awkward now than ever before for any charity to be involved in workfare, when so many have publicly said that workfare and sanctions are wrong and incompatible with the principles of charitable organisations.

Future campaigns

We hope that Mustard Tree will now join with other homeless charities and become active in opposing all workfare and sanctions. We’d like to see the whole sector united against the DWP’s coercive and authoritarian welfare-to-work programme. This will become even more necessary with the rolling out of Universal Credit. When it’s fully underway, UC will combine together into a single payment a lot of benefits that at the moment are separate (like JSA, ESA, Housing Benefit and Working Tax Credits). But it also changes the way that sanctions and conditionality work: it changes what benefits can be sanctioned, and it applies sanctions and conditionality to people who are in work.

Under UC, anyone working less than 35 hours a week and not doing enough – in the DWP’s eyes – to find more work, can have the housing benefit element of their UC sanctioned.  Responding to questions about the 2015 Autumn Statement, George Osborne suggested that people only receiving Housing Benefit could be subject to conditionality, and so sanctions:

The additional conditionality […] relates to people who are currently on housing benefit but do not face that conditionality. Housing benefit is becoming part of universal credit, so that is one category of people we can extend the conditionality to.

This means the millions of UK citizens who receive housing benefit could be at the whim of the punitive sanctions regime and therefore at risk of losing their homes should they fail to comply with a DWP demand. These demands might be for a non-full time worker to complete a number of job searches to take their hours up to full time, or to do mandatory training of some description. What’s more, the vulnerability of housing benefit to sanctions makes more likely that landlords will be reluctant to accept people claiming Housing Benefit as tenants, due to this increased possibility of arrears. If these aren’t issues that charities dealing with homelessness and housing need to fight against then what are?

What you can do

Please write to Mustard tree. Or even better, post on their facebook page or  to acknowledge that they’ve withdrawn from workfare.  The more attention we draw to organisations that refuse workfare, the more difficult it will for charities to remain involved and keep their reputations intact.

Let us know through the name and shame form on our website if there are any other homeless charities still using workfare.

And if you’re around Manchester, get in touch with Boycott Workfare Greater Manchester and see what they’re doing next. Boycott Workfare Greater Manchester will be having their next open meeting 12pm, 7th February at Sandbar, 120 Grosvenor Street, M1 7HL. Meetings are open to any individuals or organisations opposed to workfare and sanctions and we always welcome newcomers!

Mustard Tree Withdraws From Mandatory Work Activity (#Workfare component).We have received an email from the CEO of…

Posted by Boycott Workfare Greater Manchester on Monday, 11 January 2016


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Jeff Smith

Excellent result with Mustard Tree. But I wonder if they would have withdrawn from MWA if it were not being scrapped anyway ?
The battle is far from over. Universal Credit allows mandatory 'Work Preparation' as part of the 35 hour a week conditionality. This will open the door to informal workfare, arranged on an individual basis, without any particular time limit. It won't be part of a named scheme like MWA, but in essence it will still be workfare.