Where is Ireland’s welfare system headed? It’s clear where the Irish government want it to go. They have been explicit about what it is that they want: something that looks like the UK system. The reforms point to what now exists here: the same multinational companies (G4S, Serco, etc.) are bidding for contracts; similar unwaged work schemes, like the already existing internship programme JobBridge, are set to play a prominent role; and the use of benefit sanctions is set to increase.
The reforms are already underway. The winning contracts for Jobpath, the welfare-to-work scheme for those unemployed over a year, modelled on the UK’s disastrous Work Programme, will be announced shortly for four Contract Package Areas across Ireland. Private employment service providers such as Ingeus are set to create a welfare industry with themselves at the head of supply chains and the taxpayer footing the bill. Below them, they will aim for a host of subcontractors from the voluntary and charity sectors, as well as smaller private providers.
Ireland’s government has ignored the vast evidence of the welfare to work industry’s failure in the UK, and instead are on a path to repeat the same mistakes. We know, for example, that a harsher system of sanctions creates destitution and hunger. We know that forced, unpaid work placements lead not to more jobs but to more misery. We know that companies take advantage of free labour and that workfare fuels the precarious elements of the labour market. We know that big private employment and training companies are good at churning the unemployed through their programmes but not at securing them good, lasting jobs. We also know that workfare schemes mask the real level of unemployment.
The advantage of a copycat system of welfare-to-work, however, is that we also know the cracks and weaknesses in workfare that claimants and campaigners in the UK have been able to exploit. Already, campaigns in Ireland like Scambridge have highlighted the exploitation of workfare and demanded alternatives. The internship scheme, JobBridge, is increasingly seen as a scam and a farce, ‘a free-for-all for any company that wants free labour’ as one website puts it. Coalitions are forming against workfare and organising demonstrations that call for an end to the schemes already in existence. As a network of resistance emerges in Ireland, possibilities for co-ordinated international action could undermine workfare still further.
Campaigns against workfare in the UK can count several successes. Workfare schemes rely on retailers and charities like Marks & Spencer and the YMCA to host claimants in their shops. But campaigning by groups like Boycott Workfare has seen these shops attract such bad publicity for using forced, unpaid labour that many have pulled out of the scheme. Awareness of the devastating effects of benefit sanctions has meant even commentators supportive of the UK coalition government have raised their concerns. Grassroots claimant activists count among their successes:
“The government believes our campaign could make the schemes “collapse”
We have made tens of high street brands and charities withdraw from workfare
We have shaped the language of the debate
We have shrunk the number of workfare placements
We have reduced the threat of sanctions on some schemes
We have helped people defend their rights”
Workfare is increasingly questioned in the press and nearly 400 signatories, including unions, charities and voluntary sector organisations, have pledged not to engage with the government’s latest “Help to Work” scheme and to Keep Volunteering Voluntary.
It’s not just in the UK that workfare is under threat: New York has recently abandoned its disastrous WEP workfare programme. It may have taken 20 years, but it goes to show it’s never too late to challenge workfare.
The success of these campaigns is built on the clarity of their messages: forced, unpaid work is unjust; sanctions are punitive. They are exploiting a fundamental weakness in the system: for forced work placements to take place, businesses and organisations need to be willing to host them. They also draw strength from being led by unemployed people who have been affected by the policies. The hope is that grassroots campaigns set to challenge the imminent expansion of workfare in Ireland can capitalize on these successes. The network of groups involved in Boycott Workfare in Britain will stand in solidarity with those challenging the same unjust policies in Ireland.