Roll up! Roll up! The first oral evidence session for the Works and Pensions Committee inquiry on ‘in-work progression in Universal Credit’ began on 3 February. This is all about ‘in-work conditionality’, where low-earning workers receiving top-up benefits such as Working Tax Credit and Housing Benefit will be subject to the tender attentions currently enjoyed by unemployed claimants. We previously covered this in Workfare: Don’t Think a Job Means You’re Safe and Suggestions, They Want? Now, with Universal Credit due to be ‘rolled out’ in more areas, we can enjoy another round of parliamentary mumbling.
Despite the limited terms of reference, Boycott Workfare made a written submission to this inquiry. Given that we campaign against sanctions imposed on unemployed people, we naturally oppose sanctions against working claimants. Extending conditionality – which will include sanctions – to working claimants extends these harms to a wider population and will only punish people on the receiving end of the UK’s low-pay no-pay precarious labour market. Small rises in the national minimum wage will not make these concerns go away: with the imposition of conditionality for workers, a higher minimum wage will simply mean a higher conditionality threshold and the use of the minimum wage as a stick to hit workers who are not earning ‘enough’.
We have already stated our opposition to all sanctions in our previous submission to the same committee, and oppose any attempt to extend the regime that has been described as Britain’s ‘secret penal system’.
The inquiry’s terms of reference and assumptions ignore the structural reasons for low pay and underemployment. These are linked to exploitive employers, zero-hour contracts and part-time contracts as well as wider barriers such as the high cost of childcare. It is not a result of individual failings or lack of the suitable ‘attitude’.
One of the few evidence-based approaches to the problems of underemployment is based on ‘improving the rights’ of workers. We suggest that the committee take advice on this approach from unions and others fighting for improved pay and conditions for workers in low-pay sectors.
Furthermore, workfare and the forced labour practices of the DWP itself has contributed to a decline in available hours and overtime in sectors such as retail and hospitality. Many people come to us with complaints of employers who tell them: why hire someone when I can get a worker for free? Here’s just a sampling of stories from our website. Below is an extract from a comment on the Channel 4 website illustrating how workfare is used to cover the Christmas rush, a traditional time for low-paid retail workers to take on extra hours.
The inquiry first asks for feedback on how the in-work conditionality pilots that started in April 2015 should be evaluated. Well, releasing information about them to the public would be a good start! The rationale behind this suppression of information is that airing the results would jeopardise the research results. Just how it would do this hasn’t been explained. Perhaps a well-informed public might decide that this supposedly ‘revolutionary’ step is just more of the same time-wasting, impoverishing, soul-destroying hoop-jumping imposed on a wider group of people.
The regulations creating these pilots are in effect for three years and can even be extended indefinitely, which means there is a virtual ban on information about them. An article published by Disabled People Against the Cuts lists a series of Freedom of Information requests that have been turned down, including a very valid query about the number of sanctions imposed during the first few months of the pilots. The article also points to unethical treatment of disabled people called in to interviews, who should have been left alone at the outset according to the project’s guidance.
The rest of the submissions make interesting reading. Groups opposed to sanctions against working claimants or expressing criticism of the regime include Oxfam, the Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow and surprisingly the PCS (DWP staff union), who write: “PCS believes that under no circumstances would it be appropriate to sanction an in-work claimant.” But what about claimants who aren’t in work?
It’s been suggested that PCS takes this stand because its members could very well end up sanctioning each other under the new regime. Previous PCS conferences have passed resolutions of non-compliance with sanctions against its own members, but suppressed discussion of non-cooperation with all sanctions, despite the motions made by local branches.
In 2014 Boycott Workfare, DPAC and Black Triangle issued this statement calling on PCS to hold a ballot on non-cooperation with workfare and all sanctions. It’s a good thing we haven’t been holding our breath while awaiting the ‘industrial leadership’, and carry on with claimant-led organising against sanctions and workfare.
As we move on from the good, the OK and the questionable to the downright ugly, let’s check out Learndirect: these Work Programme profiteers urge wider conditionality than that already imposed by the in-work pilots. “If Universal Credit is to be truly ‘universal’ then no claimant groups should be exempt. The biggest consideration needs to be if the pilots are to be voluntary or mandatory as both routes have pro’s (sic) and con’s (sic).”
Pro’s and con’s, indeed? Don’t Learndirect’s PR hacks know anything about the correct use of apostrophes? And this is a company that once specialised in adult education and literacy. We can only hope that any unfortunate part-time proofreaders or sub-editors who fall into Learndirect’s clutches will give the company a very hard time indeed.
The Learndirect submission also moots unabashed cherry-picking of claimants near the conditionality threshold. What claimant groups should be targeted under the new conditionality regime? “Those close to the maximum threshold i.e. those that, with additional support, could cease claiming Universal Credit.”
Given that many working claimants have variable incomes, the pickings for profiteers will be ripe and additional outcome fees will be reaped when higher-earning claimants find more work by their own efforts. And when their income goes down… well, that means another referral to a profiteering provider.
With the nature of ‘providers’ still an open question, it looks like quite a few cars could be added to the ‘welfare-to-work’ gravy train if it expands to include work-to-more-and-more-work elements. With this inquiry, we can already hear the gravy train pulling into the station: choo-choo, woo-woo, incentivise, incentivise!
So how will we derail the juggernaut? We can begin by forging closer links between low-paid workers and non-working claimants. One example is the Sgint claimants union in Wales, which explicitly includes employed claimants who receive housing benefit, working tax credits or elements of Universal Credit.
Another strategy would be joint actions by low-paid workers and claimants. On 31 October 2015, Boycott Workfare joined forces with United Voices of the World to call for a living wage for cleaners from the contractor MITIE and an end to its workfare scheme (see video below). Where we find low pay, we are likely to find workfare… It is often those moving from unemployment who end up in precarious or low-paid work; and likewise these low-paid workers who are most likely to find themselves unemployed or at the sharp end of Universal Credit’s conditionality.
This action brought up the issue of workfare to new people and connected it with low pay. As the state continues in its attempts to isolate and demonise claimants, alliances like this will become even more vital. The myth of ‘striver vs scrounger’ underlies all conditionality regimes, with increasing numbers of working people shuffled into the scrounger camp simply for having a low income. But we will reject these categories and strive to put an end to the regime that perpetuates them.