Big businesses have rightly received a lot of criticism for their involvement in workfare. But it isn’t just big businesses. Many of the UK’s best known charities are also involved, which is why they’re the focus of our day of action this weekend. Here are our top 10 reasons to oppose charity workfare:
1. It puts claimants at risk of sanctions
Anyone who refuses to carry out a mandatory workfare placement with a charity (or who fails to attend for any reason) faces the loss of benefits – a sanction. Because of government targets the number of claimants receiving sanctions tripled between 2009 and 2011, to over half a million. Later this year the government plan to make this situation even worse by introducing sanctions that last for 3 years. People are often sanctioned for trivial reasons such as missing appointments or being late. Those charities delivering workfare are at the heart of this process of undermining welfare protection and stripping claimants of their benefits.
2. It perpetuates poverty
By colluding with the government to increase the number of benefit sanctions charities are pushing vulnerable people further into poverty and destitution. Oxfam have refused to take part in workfare because they say it is incompatible with the goal of reducing poverty in the UK. When homelessness charity SHP left the Work Programme earlier this year they warned that sanctions were pushing vulnerable individuals further into poverty and leaving them with little option but to beg and steal. The increase in benefit sanctions is one of the reasons that we are seeing an increase in the use of food banks.
3. It punishes people for being unemployed
The workfare schemes that charities are involved in are mandatory, demeaning and punitive. Forced unpaid work is a punishment that was previously only meted out by our criminal justice system. The four week Mandatory Work Activity scheme is the equivalent of a medium level community service order of the kind that a person might be sentenced to if they were found guilty of drink driving or assault. The maximum community sentence that a judge can hand out is for 300 hours, but claimants on some workfare schemes are being forced to work without pay for 780 hours. The community workfare schemes that charities are supporting literally treat the unemployed as if they were criminals.
4. It puts claimants at risk of bullying
Workfare is part of a government and media narrative which stereotypes and stigmatises claimants as ‘workshy scroungers’. By participating in workfare charities are reinforcing the stigmatisation of those on benefits. We have received several disturbing reports from people who have experienced bullying from staff members and managers whilst on placements with charity shops. Claimants on mandatory work placements under threat of sanctions are in a vulnerable position and understandably may not feel able to challenge bullying or to complain when it happens.
5. It enables commercial workfare
After the controversy surrounding Tesco’s use of workfare earlier this year the government removed some sanctions from commercial workfare schemes. They are now organising workfare programmes so that the commercial schemes are ‘voluntary’ whilst ‘community benefit’ schemes remain mandatory. The government have said that those who refuse to take part in ‘voluntary’ schemes will instead be considered for mandatory work. It is a case of ‘volunteer or be volunteered’.
6. It displaces paid work
The so-called ‘community benefit’ schemes which charities support also involve work placements in the public sector and with private companies. The displacement of paid work may not be as obvious in the charity sector, but will still happen as the government encourage charities to take over the running of services previously provided by other sectors.
7. It undermines the principle of volunteering
Workfare is forced work. As Oxfam have pointed out charity involvement damages the belief people have in the value of genuine voluntary work. People are even being forced to give up doing voluntary work in order to do mandatory workfare with other charities, and charities themselves have complained that they have lost volunteers to workfare schemes.
8. It undermines transparency
Because of the way in which they are funded charities have a duty to be open and honest about their activities. Sadly when it comes to workfare this is not happening because charities know that their involvement is unpopular with their supporters. Charities are refusing to answer questions about which schemes they are involved in, or to say how many placements they provide. Some of the charities involved are now issuing deceitful statements trying to suggest that those on mandatory workfare placements are volunteers.
9. It brings charities into disrepute
Involvement in workfare undermines the good reputation that charities have with the public and alienates their own supporters. For some charities their involvement represents a betrayal of the very people they claim to be supporting. Charities who claim to be campaigning against welfare reforms are at the same time signing up to deliver workfare and refer claimants for sanctions.
10. It doesn’t work
Charities justify their involvement by parroting the government lie that workfare helps the unemployed and provides useful experience. But workfare doesn’t provide useful training and the placements are not chosen to support individual circumstances and needs. Research commissioned by the DWP has shown that workfare doesn’t work, and that it can even reduce employment chances. Unfortunately the government are ideologically committed to ignoring the evidence.
It must stop…
We need to make sure that charities understand that their involvement in workfare is unacceptable and that it will damage their reputation. If you shop with or donate to a workfare charity then please let them know that you oppose their involvement and ask them to withdraw. Please support the Boycott Workfare campaign, and our day of action against charity workfare this Saturday.
Ten workfare charities:
British Heart Foundation
British Trust for Conservation Volunteers
Cancer Research UK
Community Service Volunteers
The following organisations have signed up to the pledge
We the undersigned commit to refusing to participate in compulsory work-for-benefits placements. We want volunteering to remain just that!
- Unite Central London Branch – LE/524
- Hackney City Farm
- International Federation of Iraqi Refugees
- Shiny Ideas
- Unite LE/785 Branch, Community, Youth Workers and Not for Profit Sector
- Staff Shop (Unite), Friends of the Earth – England, Wales and Northern Ireland
- Campaign Against Arms Trade
- Centre for Ethics and Politics at the School of Business and Management, Queen Mary University of London
- PCS East London DWP branch
- Unite Union Shop at the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture
- Shelter from the Storm
- PCS Euston
- Chinese Bookshop
- PCS DWP Wirral Branch
- UNITE Branch LE/460 (Ipswich)
- Labour Representation Committee
- Birmingham Trades Council
- GMB Sussex Branch
- IWW West Midlands
- Ipswich Trades Council
- Brent Trades Council
- Liverpool Against the Cuts
- Cardiff Trades Council
- The Goodship, Kilburn
- Unions 21
- Right to Work
- Education Activist Network
- Bakers Food & Allied Workers Union
- Red Stuff Shop, The Screaming Seagull Press Ltd
- IWW London General Membership Branch
- Haringey Unison Branch
- Wessex Solidarity
- Great Yarmouth and District Trade Union Council
- Tameside Unemployed Workers Alliance
- Tameside Trades Council
- Brighton Trades Council
- Brighton and Hove Unison
- Anti-slavery International
- Community and Youth Workers in Unite
- Salford City Unison
- Unison (Sussex Partnership)
Not just nasty, but incompetently nasty….
The Work Programme Provider Guidance (PDF), which was re-written yet again over the Summer, warns that any community placement lasting over 6 weeks and which comes with a job offer at the end will breach the minimum wage laws.
Astonishingly the DWP don’t even seem sure whether other workfare style schemes are legal, potentially leaving workfare exploiting charities exposed to backdated wage claims running to hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The good news is that the latest guidelines are straight forward – work experience for private companies is voluntary and claimants can leave at any point without the threat of benefit sanctions. The only exception to this is when participants have been judged to have committed gross misconduct. It is yet to…
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Responsible department: Department for Work and Pensions
We want to abolish work for your benefit/workfare schemes in the UK.
People selling their labour should be fairly remunerated for their work at the normal level paid for the tasks they perform and treated in the same way as a standard employee with full rights and representation if requested.
These are the basic rights of any worker in a modern democratic society.
Workfare is effectively forced labour and is therefore illegal in the UK.