Workfare: Hurting the poor, helping the rich

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
23 Mar 2013

When I was a child in the early eighties, my father joined the ranks of the unemployed after being made redundant from car factories. He struggled to find work while Margaret Thatcher attacked British industry. My mother got a part-time job delivering newspapers to help us to make ends meet. She began each day by sorting them all out on the living room floor.

I saw regular headlines portraying unemployed people as lazy cheats. As my father literally cycled around to find work, my mother's job had exposed me to the reality of newspapers that demonise people receiving benefits.

It's doubtful that the current coalition government could have pushed through its vicious cuts programme without the support of newspapers such as these. They are demonising people in poverty like never before.

As ministers slash disability benefits, media stories have portrayed disabled people as fraudsters and charities such as Scope have recorded a sharp rise in disability hate crime. Working people struggling to pay the bills are encouraged to blame their unemployed neighbours at a time when unemployment has risen due to an economic crisis. Right-wing papers scream about the cost of welfare, overlooking corporate tax-dodging and massive military expenditure.

When it comes to cutting the deficit, this government seems to have ruled out any methods that would make things even slightly more difficult for the rich. People in the middle are expected to suffer - but the poorest are suffering the most.

Nothing represents Cameron's class war more than workfare schemes - or "mandatory work placements" as they are more formally known. These schemes, quite simply, demand that people work without pay. If they refuse to participate, their benefits are cut.

Workfare has received more media attention recently, partly because of Cait Reilly, who went to court after being forced to work for four weeks in Poundland and receive only benefits in return. Cait didn't object to working in Poundland (she's now working in a supermarket). She objected to working there without pay.

A partial court victory has now been overturned by MPs (the vast majority of whom have never experienced unemployment). Their workfare bill was passed this week by the votes of Tory and LibDem MPs, helped by the Labour Party's decision to abstain. A small but honourable group of Labour rebels joined Plaid Cymru, SNP, Green and Northern Irish MPs (both unionist and nationalist) in voting against.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Tories' most vehement class warrior, has suggested that opponents of workfare think they are above shelf-stacking and other menial jobs. This is not true. What we object to is work without wages. "The worker is worthy of his pay," as Jesus is recorded as saying.

In a rather desperate attempt to justify workfare, some have portrayed the schemes as a sort of voluntary work to gain skills. But voluntary work is (this could hardly be clearer) voluntary. "Compulsory voluntary work" is a contradiction in terms.

This is particularly relevant when it comes to charities that are making use of workfare labour. I am very sad to say that they include Christian organisations such as the YMCA and the Salvation Army.

They say that they are trying to help people gain the skills needed to find work. This misses the point completely. If charities recruit people to do voluntary work, giving them training and skills, this is great. But that is not what is happening. This is not voluntary work. Christian charities are benefitting from forced unpaid labour. Not only is this wrong in itself, but by participating in workfare they are helping to provide these schemes with the appearance of social and moral legitimacy.

There are at least two other good reasons for opposing workfare.

Firstly, it is increasing unemployment. If companies can use workfare labour, they will need to recruit fewer staff. Workfare workers are taking the place of paid workers.

Secondly, workfare is yet another way of requiring taxpayers to subsidise private companies. Someone on a workfare scheme at (for example) Asda is not being paid a wage by Asda but a benefit by taxpayers. This is not only unfair on the worker concerned. It is unfair on the rest of us who are effectively subsidising Asda through our taxes.

This is one of many ways in which the welfare system benefits the rich rather than the poor. Tax credits subsidise employers who should be paying higher wages, while housing benefit goes into the pockets of landlords who face no legal limits on how much rent they can charge.

Challenging the companies that use workfare has been remarkably successful. Indeed, Boycott Workfare has arguably been one of the most effective British campaigning groups of the last year. A string of businesses have either withdrawn from workfare schemes or refused to use them at all. They range from Waterstone's and Sainsbury's to TK Maxx and the 99p Stores. This week, in the midst of a week of action against workfare, Superdrug joined the ranks of those to give up on the scheme.

It is appalling that charities such as the YMCA and the Salvation Army seem to be operating with lower ethical standards than Sainsbury's and Superdrug. I strongly believe that the Salvation Army genuinely do a great deal of good work with people in poverty. I respect the Salvation Army a lot and it pains me to find myself campaigning against them.

I am encouraged because I know for a fact that there are people within the Salvation Army who are as opposed to workfare as I am. While groups such as Christianity Uncut and Boycott Workfare are publicly campaigning for change, the Salvation Army's leadership is also facing lobbying from within.

In their latest statement on the issue, the Salvation Army said that they cannot "sit on the sidelines" when unemployed people need help. Participating in workfare is worse than sitting on the sidelines. Those who participate are helping to perpetuate a policy that is pushing more and more people into unemployment and poverty. They are - however unwittingly - actively colluding in the government's class war.

As Christians, let's not sit on the sidelines, mistake charity for justice or satisfy ourselves with occasional critical comments about cuts. Jesus took the side of the poor. We should, too.

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(c) Symon Hill is an Ekklesia associate and a founding member of Christianity Uncut, a network of Christians campaigning against the UK government's cuts agenda. For more on Christianity Uncut, please see http://www.christianityuncut.wordpress.com.

Symon's latest book, Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age, is published by New Internationalist and can be ordered at http://newint.org/books/politics/digital-revolutions.

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