Forced labour for the unemployed?

By Savi Hensman
November 8, 2010

UK government minister Iain Duncan Smith has announced that unemployed people may be forced to do compulsory work in the community, for instance picking up litter or gardening.

Under the plan, claimants thought to need “'experience of the habits and routines of working life” could be ordered to take part. If they refuse or fail to turn up on time, they may have their £65 Jobseekers' Allowance stopped for three months. "The message will go across - play ball or it is going to be difficult," declared Duncan Smith.

This is the latest in a series of government measures targeted at making life more miserable for the poorest and most marginalised in British society.

It is strange that, in the midst of an economic crisis that many believe is being worsened by state policies, those in charge should threaten to treat unemployed people like criminals sentenced to undertake community service.

The idea was floated under the previous government but was not taken forward, perhaps because it was too politically sensitive.

To treat others as you would like them to treat you (Matthew 7.12) maybe requires too great a leap of the imagination for many of those who run the country, but – at least out of self-interest – those in charge might want to think carefully about pursuing such policies.

In the current economic climate, many people are aware that they, or their family members or friends, might find themselves out of work, struggling to cope with life on the poverty line. The thought they might then be publicly humiliated by being treated like thieves or vandals would not make them at all happy with the politicians who came up with this idea.

And those already cleaning the streets or doing gardening or other manual jobs might worry about being displaced by forced labour, and ending up unemployed themselves. The proposals are not only unjust and unkind but also extremely unwise.


(c) Savi Hensman works in the social care sector. She is a long-standing Christian commentator on public affairs and an Ekklesia associate.

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