UK: critics brand govt workfare scheme as “forced unpaid labour”


A campaign by voluntary sector organisations against “forced volunteering” has delayed the planned launch of the UK government’s flagship workfare policy, say activists.

The government’s Community Work Placement (CWP) scheme was required by contract to be up and running by June 2 at the latest. But representatives of the Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign said that CWP looked “unable to get off the ground” due to widespread opposition.

More than 350 charitable organisations have signed the Keep Volunteering Voluntary pledge so far, refusing to take part in CWP due to concerns that mandatory unpaid work contributes to food poverty and homelessness while undermining the value of freely-chosen volunteer work.

The list includes household names such as Oxfam, Christian Aid, Shelter and Scope.

The CWP scheme, which would mean six-month compulsory unpaid work placements for people who are unemployed, requires charity and local council participation for it to be workable.

Ministers say that the scheme aims to help unemployed people get back to work. But it has been described by critics as “nothing more than forced unpaid labour”.

Its launch was originally planned for April 28, but was postponed until May, and then June.

Andy Benson, founder of the National Coalition for Independent Action, which signed the pledge, told Equal Times that the delay in launching CWP was “more evidence that this punitive, botched and poorly thought-out scheme is heading for the rubbish bin of history.”

“Hundreds of voluntary groups have now said they will have nothing to do with it and the number is rising by the day,” he added.

“The government should immediately call a halt to this programme and save wasting £237 million (US$398 million) of the taxpayer’s money.”

The CWP scheme requires that jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) claimants do six months of unpaid work on a placement or risk losing their benefits under tougher new sanctioning (benefit stoppage) rules.

CWP is one of a number of government workfare programmes that involve the removal of benefits including the Work Programme and Mandatory Work Activity schemes, which are already in force.

A huge increase in the number of sanctions under the current coalition government – the highest figures since JSA was introduced in 1996 – has been blamed for a rise in referrals for emergency food supplies at 83 per cent of food banks run by The Trussell Trust, which coordinates that co-ordinates a nationwide network of emergency food centres.

The charity also reported that the number of people in the UK forced to turn to food banks had doubled in the last year.


“Shoddy and abusive”

Around 15 of the UK’s local councils have also pledged not to take part in the CWP scheme. Many of them signed up through Unite, the country’s largest union.

The union is supporting the group of voluntary organisations behind the Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign.

In a statement, Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner described CWP as “shoddy” and “abusive”, and accused the government of “trying to stigmatise job seekers by making them work for nothing.”

“This scheme is nothing more than forced unpaid labour, and there is no evidence that these workfare programmes get people into paid work in the long-term,” he said. “It will displace existing workers and enslave work-seekers, or see them join the food bank queue.”

“The hours demanded by workfare are greater than a community service order you would get for a criminal offence, such as punching someone in the street – this is just bonkers.”

Unite’s representatives in the non-profit sector are asking the bosses of the 200,000 registered charities in the UK to refuse to sign up for the community work placements, which are being promoted by Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

“The government sees cash-starved charities as a soft target for such an obscene scheme,” said Turner.

“This is a warping of the true spirit of volunteering and will force the public to look differently at charities with which they were once proud to be associated.”

Martin Kyndt, Christian Aid‘s Director of Strategy and People Management told Equal Times: “The spirit and intent of volunteering is that people freely give of their time. Volunteering is deeply embedded in the history, ethos and values of Christian Aid. It provides valuable work experience, and many of our former volunteers have gone on to paid work.”

Several UK charities have withdrawn their participation in other government workfare schemes.

Charity participation in workfare could be jeopardised further if the DWP is forced to reveal the names of organisations hosting workfare placements, which could happen if it loses an appeal on June 12.

The government is refusing to publish the names of organisations currently using workfare, and is appealing the Information Commissioner’s ruling that the names should be made public.

Government lawyers wrote in a leaked appeal document: “Put simply, disclosure [of names] would have been likely to have led to the collapse of the MWA [Mandatory Work Activity] scheme.”