On 27 February, the Daily Mail issued a front page rallying call to British business to save the government’s workfare programme.
Quoting Sir Stuart Rose, former Executive Chairman of Marks & Spencer, the paper ordered firms to “show some backbone”.
The Mail is responding to a wave of companies and charities refusing to take up the so-called “work experience” scheme. The list grows everyday and now includes TK Maxx, Sainsbury's, Waterstones, Shelter and Oxfam.
In the Daily Mail article Rose recounts his humble beginnings, shelf-stacking and sweeping floors. He was however a management trainee! People on that M&S scheme have a starting salary of £18,000 a year, rising to £24,000 with a managerial appointment. Yet Rose feels able to self-righteously contrast his own great work ethic to people on the dole. Does he not imagine that being “employed” on a “wage” of just £53.45-£67.50 and having no prospect of a decent job at the end of the “work experience” might account for a difference in attitude?
We also have to challenge the presentation of the facts about workfare.
The Daily Mail claims that half of those who have taken part in the “voluntary” work experience programme have come off benefits. But the Boycott Workfare campaign has shown this statistic falls apart under scrutiny.
People stop receiving Job Seekers’ Allowance for many reasons — if they fall ill for example. Also there is no information on what new jobs might be — are they part-time, short-term, or full-time?
In November 2011 the Centre for Economic and Social Injustice concluded that the youth work experience scheme had no impact on the speed at which young people leave benefits, and even lead to longer periods on benefits.
None of this concerns the Mail, who are happy to decry a “tiny cabal of extremists” who are leading a misleading campaign.
In fact workfare has met with a wall of broad resistance and sustained criticism from the left-liberal press to organised activists.
It is important to maintain the pressure. Workfare forces workers to take jobs they don’t want for benefits rather than wages. It reduces the number of jobs available at a time of high unemployment. It will push down the conditions of those already employed.
The Boycott Workfare campaign is organising a day of action on 3 March. Many demonstrations are already planned.
• More info here
CWU and workfare
In Solidarity 235, we wrote that the Communication Workers’ Union was supporting a “workfare” scheme in Royal Mail, its main base of industrial strength.
In fact, the CWU is still negotiating with Royal Mail bosses about the scheme. In a letter to CWU branches, deputy general secretary Dave Ward says the union is insisting any scheme is completely voluntary with the right for participants to leave at any time.
However, the question remains: why is CWU participating in this process at all, especially when the government is on the back foot on this issue? Instead of negotiating terms for a workfare scheme, the CWU could mount a militant campaign to end the widespread use of casual labour in the postal service and for casuals to be taken on with levelled-up terms and conditions.
Participating in “workfare”, even a “good” scheme that treats participants better than, say, Tesco, helps galvanise the scheme and will exacerbate existing problems with casualisation within Royal Mail.