It is reported that sanctions have been removed from the DWP’s “Work Experience” scheme, which is one of five workfare schemes which compel people to work without pay on threat of welfare sanctions. But is this another example of the DWP’s willingness to mislead the public?
There is no sign that sanctions have been lifted in the DWP’s press release which states: “The sanction regime remains in place.” Chris Grayling seems to be painting a murkier picture in TV interviews. Speaking to Sky, he first claimed “If somebody sits down with [the employer] after a couple of weeks and says ‘This really isn’t working out, I don’t want to carry on’, they wouldn’t be sanctioned. I was happy to agree to that.” But by the end of the interview, he offers an example which suggests that it will be in exceptional cases only that sanctions won’t be applied.
With workfare, the devil is in the detail, and until the DWP publishes some we’re inclined not to trust a department which this week has edited official documents to remove references to workfare being mandatory. If DWP Work Experience were no longer compulsory on threat of benefit sanction, then this would be a big step in the right direction, and we could expect jobseekers to receive letters like this one (currently sent to 16-17 year olds who are not mandated to take part) rather than its usual letter. But it does not seem that this is the case and either way we should beware that George Osborne said of the scheme: “Young people who don’t engage with this offer will be considered for mandatory work activity”.
Thousands of people of all ages are still forced to take part in workfare schemes that compel people to work unpaid. 850,000 people are expected to be referred to the Work Programme, which can include six months of workfare, by the end of this year alone. Another 24,000 people have already been placed on Mandatory Work Activity, and the Community Action Programme criminalises the unemployed by sentencing them to six months of unpaid community service. It is not at all clear whether today’s news affects the Work Experience component of the Sector Based Work Academies, a fifth mandatory scheme.
Importantly, today DWP also reported that they would expect people on ESA – a benefit for sick and disabled people – to begin on the Work Programme within 3 months. People placed in the “Work Related Assessment Group” by ATOS can face unlimited workfare placements.
Most people have two problems with workfare: that it is forced and that it is unpaid. There is evidence that workfare replaces paid work and no evidence that workfare schemes have created a single new job. The companies who continue involvement with the government’s schemes can afford to pay the people doing the work but they choose not to.
In fact, businesses should beware that legally they may owe jobseekers working in their stores the minimum wage. Until the last week’s cover-up, the government advice for Work Programme providers stated: “Where you are providing support for JSA participants, which is work experience you must mandate participants to this activity. This is to avoid the National Minimum Wage Regulations, which will apply if JSA participants are not mandated.” (See the chapter 3, point 14 of the guidance before and after.)
The government is clearly under pressure: in the last two weeks, thousands of people have taken action to end forced unpaid work in the UK and the campaign continues to gather momentum. Workfare affects all of us: it is replacing paid work and undermining the minimum wage. That is why this issue will not go away.
Thirty actions against workfare are taking place across the UK on Saturday 3rd March. Asda, Barnardos, British Heart Foundation, Holiday Inn, Pizza Hut, Savers and Wilkinsons are using workfare through the Work Programme. There are hundreds of others. Take action with us!