Why workfare won't work
Some thoughts on the government's new idea that people who are long term unemployed could be placed on four week mandatory placements of thirty hours per week doing jobs like cleaning litter and gardening:
1. It is a job killer.
There are lots of people who work as street cleaners, toilet cleaners, gardeners and other unglamorous and poorly paid jobs. If these policies go ahead, they will lose their jobs. No employer in their right mind would pay £6 or £7 per hour to employ street cleaners if they could get an unemployed person to do it for free.
In my local area, residents nominated one of the council's street cleaners as employee of the year. He's been working for more than thirty years, never taken a sick day and people always see him out and about working hard. But our council's got to make £58 million in cuts over the next three years. So instead of getting paid £7.60 per hour for an honest day's work, he'll end up being made redundant - and presumably in due course get one of these "mandatory work placements" doing his old job but without pay.
2. These plans can punish or help - they can't do both.
Government ministers on the telly today said that these plans were intended to help people get jobs, not to punish them. But they are likely to make it harder for people to get jobs, not easier.
If you are an employer, having to choose between hundreds of employees, and you see an applicant's CV which states that he or she has completed a "mandatory work placement", then you know the following things:
- They haven't worked for a long time.
- They were workshy and so had to be forced to do menial jobs with the threat of losing their benefits.
Armed with this information, 99% of employers would throw their CVs in the bin and move on to the next one.
Now, you could have work placements which help people get the skills and experience to make it more likely that they can get a job. But, um, these already exist.
3. These placements don't give people proper experience of work.
Imagine if you turned up for work, and your boss bullied you every day. Or sacked you for being one minute late. Or you thought that something that you were being asked to do was unsafe, or you felt ill. But you couldn't do anything, because if you complained, or objected, then you could lose your job and have to live on nothing for three months. And even if you do a really good job, you don't get paid.
As currently presented, these placements aren't like giving people an experience of what work is like. They are like what work would be like in a world without any protections or rights for working people.
4. Or is it just a gimmick?
This government has already got form for putting forward "symbolic" policies, ones which don't actually achieve much, but which attract lots of media attention and give the impression that they are doing something popular. Think of the constant announcements cracking down on the same few benefit fraudsters (none of whom ever seem to be affected by successive government crackdowns), or the cap on housing benefit, which is just 3% of their cuts to housing benefit.
It would cost billions of pounds to put everyone who is long term unemployed through a four week placement - money which we know that the DWP doesn't have. So maybe the aim is to get a few pictures for the media of long term unemployed people looking like criminals on community service picking up litter - to send a message about the government's approach and use nudge techniques to modify the behaviour of unemployed people or some such.
If this is just a stunt, then the good news is that it won't do much harm - and it is telling that the government hasn't even talked to any of the councils or charities which it says are going to create these placements. But nor will it do anything substantive to reduce unemployment. When the government publishes their plans, we'll be able to see how much money they have allocated for it, and whether it is any more than a piece of spin.
I can see the case, from the government's point of view, for giving employment advisers the power to require people who have no interest in looking for work to do mandatory placements, as a punishment to catch the people working cash in hand and for those who have a bad attitude when they turn up to the Jobcentre.
If the government wants to do this, then they should drop the rhetoric about how this is going to help people - because it's not meant to do that and it won't, and the fantasy that charities will be involved in providing these placements - because charities won't get involved in punishing people because it is against their charitable objects. They should be honest that it will destroy jobs, and honestly argue their case that this is a price worth paying to punish people who are long term unemployed. If they are inspired by the USA, where millions of people have lost all benefits because they've been out of work for 99 weeks, then they should make the case for why they think we should learn from the Repulican Party. Similarly, if this is a symbolic policy which will affect a few hundred people, then be honest about that.
Or they could change this programme so that it actually helps reduce unemployment. They could require that these placements don't duplicate or replace existing jobs, they could incentivise charities to create innovative and rewarding placements which develop people's skills and encourage them to look for work. They could give people experience of real work - with the same protections and rights as every other worker, and experience of earning a proper wage rather than handouts. And they could extend the placements from four weeks to a longer period of time. Like the Future Jobs Fund. Which they scrapped.
If these mandatory placements are about playing politics, a "wedge issue" to get votes from people who don't like scroungers and want to see them punished, then the victims will be low paid manual workers, who will lose their jobs, and people who are unemployed and want to work, who will live with the fear of being forced into placements which will make it even harder for them to work. If they are genuinely intended to help people get jobs, then they haven't been thought through and need big changes.