Workfare scheme: "People deserve better"
Whether loyal royalists or republican naysayers, few people with time off work would have failed to enjoy the four-day holiday. But for some the Jubilee promised a different kind of break.
Work, of a kind, was on offer. A group of 80 unemployed people from Bristol, Bath and Plymouth were coached in to work as stewards for the Thames’ river pageant, only to find the big day was not quite as they imagined.
Some of them didn’t find out they wouldn’t be paid until they boarded the bus (the stint would be considered “work experience” on the vague promise there might be paid stewarding jobs available at the Olympics).
They arrived in London at 3am, were shown under London Bridge and told to camp until their shifts began at 5.30am. Despite their fears of benefit sanctions, some called relatives in tears the next day, unable to finish the ‘shift’ after 36 damp hours without sleep.
The London Bridge incident – as it has now become known – raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions about the ethics and effectiveness of government schemes to get the unemployed into work.
Ministers have attempted to dismiss campaigning critics as leftie “job snobs”, but as once-supportive businesses and charities continue to pull out of welfare-to-work programmes, the system appears to be in an almighty mess.
Launched in June 2011, the Work Programme was aimed at finding work experience placements for those at risk of sinking into long-term unemployment. Extending the Labour government’s desire to involve the private sector, billions of pounds have been made available to training companies and smaller third-sector organisations in an effort to harness their expertise.
Providers are rewarded by results: payment comes when a participant has been in work for three-to-six months. The government has taken a hands-off approach to how each provider manages its jobseekers, whether it’s choosing to sub-contract on to others, involving employers, such as high-street stores, or tailoring work placements to the local labour market.
Ministers want everyone to reach into a “black box” of ideas to innovate and compete. Unfortunately, the black box seems full of unpleasant things. There would seem to be inevitability about employers abusing the idea of on-the-job training to get free, short-term labour.
Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP for Bristol, believes the London Bridge incident (which involved some of her constituents) has revealed the deep flaws in the process. She says there is a crisis of accountability as jobseekers are moved from one contracted organisation to another, leaving far too much room for exploitation.
“If a sub-contacted charity is trying to put people through an NVQ and wants to get people work experience, then another company can see the chance to use them for work without paying them,” she says. “The charity ticks its box… and the company gets cheap labour.
But for the people on the programme, are they actually getting decent training? Are they getting decent opportunities? If people are working and the company can afford to pay them, why not put the hand in the pocket and actually pay them? There’s very little scrutiny about quality here.”
Nicola Smith, head of economic and social affairs at the TUC, says the Work Programme has boosted cowboy practices at the bottom of the labour market. “There is a role for good-quality, short-term work experience, if there is proper training and a genuine opportunity at the end of it all, but the way the government’s programmes operate is leading to exploitative practices as well as displacing other workers who may have received a minimum wage for the same work.”
Smith hopes “an agreed principal of co-operation” between the TUC and London Olympics organisers on treatment of site workers will mean we don’t see more people sleeping outside unpaid, but she doesn’t sound too optimistic.
“There is a real worry that, with the levels of temporary work at the highest they’ve been for many years, it’s likely we’re going to see… more extremely poor treatment at the bottom of the labour market,” she says.
The growing unpopularity of the workfare scheme makes its ability to function more awkward. Major businesses – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waterstones and TK Maxx – have pulled out in recent months, at least in part because of all the negative publicity.
The battered reputation of A4e – one of the prime skills and training firms given millions in government contracts that was caught up in a raft of fraud allegations (founder Emma Harrison paid herself a bonus of £8.4m last year) – has not helped matters either.
“It’s not a serious way to tackle unemployment,” says Mark Dunk, a campaigner at the Right to Work protest group. “We’re cycling people through months and months of placements of essentially unpaid labour.
"If businesses are refusing to invest in proper training and are exploiting the chance to get free labour, then the government needs to make sure proper investment in people is there. People deserve better.”
Those at the other end of the political spectrum have concerns that a well intentioned plan is coming unstuck. Phillip Blond, author of Red Tory and a strategist who influenced the Big Society framework, despairs of the fact that the profit motive of big skills and training firms is trumping the central drive to find meaningful work for those on the margins. As he wrote last week: “It is desperately unfortunate that volunteering and free work experience is now taken as a euphemism for exploitation… there is a wide professional consensus that the Workfare Programme has not practised the ‘Big Society’ vision.”
"The whole thing is insane"
One 22-year-old, who would rather remain anonymous, told The Big Issue about his recent experience of working unpaid at an Argos branch in England...
I recently finished a mandatory four-week work experience stint stacking shelves at Argos. For the first week I worked 30 hours unpaid, and it was only when I phoned up Seetec (the company contracted to find placements) and complained about the amount of extra hours we were doing – 10 hours more than any member of staff at our level – that they cut it down to 16 hours.
As soon as we started at Argos, they told us there were no vacancies and there probably wouldn’t be at the end of the process.
The whole thing is insane to me, because if you’re working 30 hours you don’t actually have time to get about and look for proper jobs that might actually last.
We understand there are concerns about our involvement in the government’s work experience programme.
Argos stores have clear principles for helping young people into work: offering six-week placements only where there is the prospect of a permanent job; providing a training plan that helps them secure a job (either within the business or elsewhere); ensuring they work alongside, not replace, paid colleagues.
For work placements, our policy is to only use JobCentre Plus as a partner and ensure we work within very clear criteria. We will investigate where another supplier has been used and support our stores to work in line with our principles.
By Adam Forrest