Workfare: fair work with a clear benefit

by Peter Watt

Once again Labour has discovered its self-destructive sense of self-righteousness. It seems that sometimes we really can’t help ourselves. This time the issue is workfare where some in the party seem determined to reinforce the image of Labour as the party of the workshy.

But let’s get real. We need to start being honest and stop sending mixed messages. We have said that we are in favour of supporting people into work and of investing in supporting the long-term unemployed. We have said that we support reforming the welfare system so that welfare is not a lifestyle choice. And we have said that we must support hard working families who are struggling as costs go up. But then we go and spoil it by seeming to take pleasure in attacking companies who agree to take on the unemployed as part of a package of back to work support.

But “hang on”, I hear you say. Of course we oppose workfare. It makes people work for nothing. It compels people to work against their will. It allows bloated profit makers to exploit poor people as they don’t have to pay them for their work. And it forces people who would otherwise have to be paid out of a job. Quite frankly we might as well put the unemployed in orange boiler suits, spray “soap-dodger” on their back and make them dig ditches.

Except of course it isn’t true.

One of the impacts of being unemployed, particularly if you are very young, is that you can’t demonstrate any experience of work. For a prospective employer to take someone on in these circumstances they have to take a leap of faith. There is no previous employer reference and no evidence that someone is up to the discipline and routine of holding down a job. There is no opportunity to demonstrate acumen or enthusiasm. And at a time when there is a glut of potential employees, most employers will simply not take the risk. Why should they? It is for this very reason that plenty of middle class young people seek out internships and work experience placements. Perfectly sensible, and an investment in their own future.

So for the government to arrange for time limited work experience placements for those unemployed who want them is a very sensible measure. It may not be the ideal, which is full time employment, but it is hardly unpaid – you still get your benefits. The only compulsion appears to be that if you choose to start a placement and then finish it prematurely, for no good reason, then you can be temporarily docked benefits.

The employer may or may not offer a job at the end of the placement, but as the placements are time limited they will have to invest in the regular churn of work experience staff. We all know that any new member of staff takes time to become fully cost effective as they need training, support and supervision and things simply take longer. So a series of short placements hardly constitutes state subsidy for multinationals to further expand their bloating profits.

Now it may well be that there are real practical concerns with the current scheme, and that in fact it needs serious overhaul. It may well be that there needs to be greater oversight by the local jobcentres and careers service. There may or may not be a need to have more stringent minimum standards for each placement. But any or all of this hardly constitutes a fundamental objection to the principle. Labour campaigners could have set out and demanded these improvements. And yet instead, many in the Labour party have chosen to indulge themselves in a great outpouring of misplaced moral outrage. Meanwhile the public look on and see their fears about Labour confirmed. To most people, asking those on benefits to work for their benefits is not unreasonable; in fact many would probably be happy with compulsion. And yet here we have Labour members running a campaign to force employers to end offering voluntary work experience to avoid putting their corporate reputations at risk.

Once again we are sending mixed messages on an issue that most of the public feel strongly about. And ironically on an issue that if we just stepped back and thought about, we would support the public on. But instead we seem to be saying exactly the opposite. We may not mean it, but we are giving the impression that we would prefer people on benefits to do nothing and be idle. That people should be somehow allowed to not look for work. Worse, we appear to be denying unemployed young people the chance to experience work. Not a great position to be in for the party of those who labour.

Perhaps opponents would have felt differently if the schemes on offer were all based in colleges? Or perhaps in high tech industry, lawyers offices or in the media? But no, they are in fast food outlets and supermarkets; so snobbery allows people to say that they aren’t real jobs at all. And Labour’s self-destructive sense of self-righteousness is allowed once again to find its voice.

We really can’t help ourselves.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.

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20 Responses to “Workfare: fair work with a clear benefit”

  1. Mike Homfray says:

    I find it amusing that this individual was the general secretary of a socialist party, given that the views expressed above are undiluted toryism

    If a job exists, then people should be paid for it. They are offered by profit making organisations who are effectively being subsidised by slave labour.

    if you can’t see why that’s wrong, it really does suggest you are in the wrong party. And if the public think as you do, that is no reason for us to change – if people want Tory policies, then they will vote Tory. Its our role to offer an alternative to those who don’t

  2. BenM says:

    Totally and utterly wrong.

    Every sentence seems ripped from the Tory spin machine.

    You are ignoring documented issues of job displacement, the fact workfare has failed everywhere it’s tried, the fact much unemployment is itself short term anyway, the immorality of allowing commercial companies to freeload off the state (again).

    Mike Homfray above is right. If a job really needs doing, it should be paid for fairly by those benefiting, not subsidised by the taxpayer.

    Of course the only sustainable way of lowering unemployment would be for government to pump prime the economy. But, surprise-surprise the Tory loving Blairites have bought the failing cuts agenda too. So they’re stymied there.

    Get a grip.

  3. Dean Parker says:

    Surely the point is not whether people are paid nothing or still getting their benefits, but that in a country which legislates for a minimum wage, a scheme run by the government is allowing companies to employ people for less than that wage? Just making these companies top up the difference would be better than nothing.

  4. Alison Charlton (@chuzzlit) says:

    I don’t call 8 weeks, followed by the offer of further weeks unpaid work in some examples, as ‘temporary’. I could agree with most of the article if work experience was limited to 2-3 weeks – which is long enough shelf-stacking or serving fries to get the hang of it (I’ve done both).

    But it would be preferable for the government to back existing good work experience schemes like Sainsbury’s, instead of pushing employers to use a government-run scheme.

  5. Nicolas says:

    I haven’t heard the soundbites. From the headline here, Labour undoubtedly made itself look silly. But the fundamental argument against the work experience scheme the way it has been run until now is sound.

    While sentiment may says people should work for their benefits, gain experience, this experience has to valuable. As Alison says, work experience of shelf-stacking is exploitation.

    Peter, this is not a question of snobbery. Internships in high-tech and law help candidates acquire valuable skills. This internship pays for itself afterwards in high earnings. On the other hand, work experience at Tesco, followed only maybe by a minimum wage job is exploitation. And even then, more people on “work experience” can be brought in.

    The difference is painfully clear. The only problem is populist soundbites don’t make the difference.

  6. paul barker says:

    Mr watt, dont you ever get tired of defending your Party, only to have other members calling you a Tory ?
    Have you thought that maybe you are in the wrong Party ? You obviously arent a Tory,( not that Conservatism isnt a reasonable attitude ) but have you considered The Libdems ? Im asking quite seriously.

  7. Martin Wood says:

    So, let me get this right, you think it is a good idea for governments to encourage businesses to reduce the hours of their employees and be paid by the Governement to give work experience to the unemployed… Perhaps they should take that a stage further and lay their existing workforce off so that they can take them back on again as claimants!

  8. Peter says:

    Blimey, I didn’t realise that being in favour of offering valuable work experience to young unemployed people was ‘Tory’ . I thought it was straight from the play book of the party for working people. My mistake – but rest assured that ‘this individual’ is ver comfortable with being a member of the Prty, a Party I have been in for over 25 years.

    Nicholas, I agree to be honest, that experience in lots of varied environments would be ideal. But that doesn’t mean that experience in retail is not.

  9. John D Clare says:

    The problem is not with the desire to get young people into work.

    The problem is that two-nights of shelf-stacking at Tesco on a SBWA placement are NOT going to allow young people to ‘demonstrate any experience of work’ on their CV. The attack has to be on the fault-ridden, inadequate schemes the government is floating.
    NOBODY is saying that young people have a right to laze about on the dole; that is the hyperbole of the right.

    The sad thing is that these firms genuinely did want to help unemployed young people. The problem was the cheap-and-nasty get-rich-quick schemes floated by the fancy commissioning-firms the Tories let loose on our young people.

    We have to be allowed to attack the mechanics of Tory legislation without being accused of being loonies.

  10. Paul says:

    I agree with you Peter.

    Both in your analysis of what “the public” think and in that Labour should have come out promoting changes that make the schemes better rather than simply attacking these employers.

    There are lots of things to fix in the country and there will be more once this government have finished, but it is nevertheless true that excluded groups. like young people with no, or almost no, work experience need to be able to experience first hand what it is like to work and evidence that before most employers would even consider them for a job.

    I totally disagree that your comments paint you as a “tory”

  11. Robin Thorpe says:

    To be fair to Peter he does have a point when he states that the majority of the public feel strongly that the unemployed should be encouraged to do something for their benefits; it is probable that this is true. This is, however, probably a consequence of the tory dominated media and conservative MPs trotting out stories of benefit fraud allied with the natural conservatism of a large swathe of the british population.
    Peter appears to be supporting this work-experience programme because it might be popular; I’m not sure that this should be the central concern of policy debate, however the point remains that in order to increase their chances of employment people do need relevant work experience. I am not an expert in the benefit system but I am under the impression that if an individual takes on permanent voluntary work then it can effect their benefit status as it precludes them from taking paid work (jobseekers allowance is based on the premise that you are willing to take any suitable job offered to you). This situation therefore mitigates against the poorer sections of society who can’t rely on wealthy relatives to subsidise their internship.
    The problem of controlling unemployment in an economy that is predicated on an efficient (lean) workforce has been predicted for many years. The perception is that the last Labour government tried to mitigate this by creating jobs in “the public sector”, whether this is factually accurate or not is irrelevant as it is now not politically convenient for the government itself to directly create jobs. The paradox is of course that higher unemployment results in higher benefits payments, reduced taxes and increased healthcare costs (research has shown that long-term unemployed have significantly reduced health and fitness).
    I agree with most of the comments that compelling those on JSA to work for highly profitable companies without appropriate remuneration is tantamount to exploitation, however none of the commentors here or elsewhere seem to give a viable alternative.
    Perhaps it should be made easier to take on temporary work placements without effecting benefit payments? Perhaps local job-centres could act as employment agencies to this effect. For this to be effective however job-centres would need to be staffed sufficiently (I believe cuts have been made to their budget – sorry efficiency savings). I don’t expect that this would be popular with private recruitment agencies however.

  12. Joe Roberts says:

    I’m someone on the right of the party and it is too easy for people just to shout ‘Tory’ at anyone who is slightly closer to the centre than them. But Peter – every time I read your articles, they are attacking Labour people for criticising the Conservatives’ policies. Are there any of this Government’s policies that you actually disagree with? What do you think the role of the Official Opposition should be? To act as a cheerleading team on behalf of the Coalition?

    Peoples’ political views change gradually over time – often so gradually that they don’t realise they’ve changed themselves. I suspect you have been on a political and ideological journey for some time, and that your political journey could well end in the Conservative Party. I don’t like the rather sectarian tone of some of the posts above, and am always sad to see people leave our party, but at the end of the day people involved in politics should be in a party that reflects their political outlook. Does Labour reflect your outlook? Are you still a Labour man?

    I have two concerns about the workfare scheme. The first is that less scrupulous firms may see it as an opportunity to cut costs by using unpaid labour – causing jobs to be lost. The other is that companies like Tesco already make lots of money for their shareholders. At a time when public sector budgets are under real pressure, is it right that public money is being used to subsidise highly profitable commercial enterprises by providing free labour? I’m glad that firms like Tesco have said that they think sanctions should be removed from those who do not participate. They have shown a degree of pragmatism and common sense that is absent from your typically impassioned defence of the Conservative-led government.

  13. Amanda says:

    I see that giving people work experience can’t be distinguished from indentured servitude for up to 30 hours per week. What about sanctions!!! What about tailoring the work experience to the needs of the unemployed person rather than a source of labour turnover for the business? Financial globalisation destroys jobs just as well as technological change and more needs to be done to address out-sourcing title, tax, profits and jobs!!!!

  14. Amanda says:


  15. eileen says:

    I totally agree with Amanda. My daughter has an offer to start work for not much more than she is getting on JSA and is prepared to take it with both hands because it is a real job and the firm will be paying her. it’s not about being work-shy, it’s about being treated with respect and doing work for which the young person is suited. And leaving the shelf-stacking jobs for people who genuinely need them and want them

  16. Peter says:

    Joe, I don’t agree with the Government I agree with the principle of giving people work experience. It was a principle started by the last Labour Government. As an opposition we need to define what we stand for and my point is that we are in danger of appearing to be anti the principle of offering work experience with our hysteria in opposition to this scheme.

    As for the companies involved being both unscrupulous and self interested. Firstly they’re are all big respectable companies. And second let me quote someone I spoke to yesterday who worked for the last labour government and was involved in setting up work experience schemes:

    ‘I was on the team designing some of the  jobcentre plus pilots and early New Deal interventions, and the particular problem with work experience (as opposed to longer placements) was always getting enough employers to take part. No-one wanted the hassle of having the very short term work experience people tooling around in the office for such short periods.’

  17. G. Day says:

    Working for benefits might get more cooperation if people didn’t have to do a full weeks work, working alongside people getting twice as much and more for the same effort.
    Let them do twelve hours, fifteen hours. Even then they are underpaid, but at least more fairly so.

    (The very idea that Tesco would do anything for the public good. If Tesco gives a penny it expects two pence back.)

  18. John P Reid says:

    Mike ,you miss the point there’s no job that exists, that ‘job’ was created especially to show those unemployed what they could be doing if a job becomes avialable

    If work experience was called apprentaship, the left would be wild about it,
    I recall having students come down for work experience and we didnt need them it caused more problems than it was worth, but we were shoiwng people what was available.

  19. Oliver says:

    Again, I read something on Labour Uncut that amounts to nothing more than ‘to win the election and the trust of the public, we need to out-Tory the Tories’. All these schemes, whether under New Labour or under this Coalition, are just a sop to those lucky enough to be employed who are angry with those unlucky enough not to be employed, or even worse, unlucky enough to have physical or mental impairments.

    The justification behind any of the current schemes is a nonsense. ‘Temporary’ work experience offers no real experience. They are not an apprenticeship with skills built-up over time. It’s not a Bauhaus-style education where someone ‘samples’ elements from various parts of a firm. The reality is that what will be learned on the scheme – whether it’s 2, 3 or 8 weeks – will be learned on the first morning (or night shift).

    Even the ‘soft skills’ argument is ridiculous as the nature of what most people do on these schemes – mainly in the retail sector – don’t allow for the nurturing of ‘soft skills’. They are generally left to their own devices and aren’t supervised, so there’s nothing to rectify any alleged lack of ‘communication skills’. The idea that these people need to learn ‘attendance’ is a nonsense; most are already trained to jump through hoops held by the Job Centre et al already. Arguably, the real soft skill learned through regular work – keeping your head down and chin-up month after month and just being thankful for a pay cheque – will never be learned on a short-term unpaid scheme.

    The idea that this makes people more employable, frankly, is fucking laughable. Something similar happened in nursing: at one time voluntary ward experience before application made a potential nurse stand-out from the other applications. Then, it became ‘typical’ then it became expected and then it became a necessity. Now, as all nursing applicants have this same experience, they’re now judged on something else. All the applicants having the same experience just cancelled each other out.

    It’s basic maths. To make an equation more manageable, you take out the commonalities and work with what’s left. If Tesco, ASDA, Mega-Corp or whoever all have 10,000 applicants for a temporary, part-time shelf-stacking job and they’ve all got experience doing exactly the same things because they’ve all been sent on the same schemes by their local job centres, then what’s *really* gained? The applicants are no better better off as they are all still in the same position, the employers are no better off as no one stands out and they’re aware of what ‘experience’ these people really have and how they came to that experience. The only ‘winner’ here is the government who keeps on massaging employment figures and appease the ‘working angry’.

    As for “big respectable companies” – honestly? Are you unaware of the Tesco’s tax, planning issues and ‘Tescopoly? What about ASDA-WALMARTS take on worker’s rights in America &c.? How about Boots and their tax issues?

    Also, it’s nice to see yet another politico – even if he’s wearing a red tie rather than a blue or yellow – ignoring the other ‘workfare’ schemes. These, of course, are not voluntary and are not “temporary”, but let’s not spoil your argument, eh, Peter?

    This need for (New) Labour to fawn to floating voters who feel no loyalty to the Labour party is sickening. I’d rather a Labour party that pandered to some kind of real, left wing principle as – and I know this might come as a shock to those that don’t really care where the votes come from – but sometimes the “public” are very wrong. It wasn’t so very long ago that the general public had very different thoughts about “niggers”, “coons” and “wogs” and that women should ‘shut up and get back in the kitchen’. It was only people taking a stand and pushing a better, decent, alternative to this kind of thinking that progress in these areas has been made.

    I hope we have enough left of a humane society in the future to allow us to look back on what’s happening now and think “WTF?!?” in the same way anyone with an ounce of decency now looks at the history of racism in this country. However, I think all mainstream parties seem intent on continuing to demonise the unemployed and the disabled, we’ll probably go backwards as a society.

    You want to get the unemployed in work? Then do it. I’m sure 99% of them want work and will have no problem turning up and grafting. What they’re lacking are jobs – real jobs. Not shitty, useless schemes with no job at the end. All that does is exploit the labour of the unemployed (whether it’s the under 24s on ‘temporary’ or the older ones on longer, mandatory schemes as well as the disabled on permanent schemes) whilst still allowing the public to take pot shots at them for being “spongers”.

    Even the idea of ‘well, they get benefits’ is ridiculous and the same ‘be grateful for scraps’ stance beloved of the Tories. Minimum wage isn’t enough to live on these days – hence working tax credits (subsidising the likes of these “respectable” firms) and the idea of a real Living Wage – but we’re now being told to be happy with JSA &c.? No wonder social mobility went down in real terms under New Labour!


    Peter, instead of chasing right wing voters, why don’t you try regaining some of the left wing voters you’ve lost over the years? The numbers will stack-up and you’ll get the election. The problem might be having to stop out-Torying the Tories, and that seems to be all (New) Labour have up their sleeve these days.

  20. Gillian Kalter says:

    Yet another person (surprisingly a Labour supporter) who has got work experience and exploitation confused. The only kind of acceptable unpaid work experience is shadowing a professional for a few days. In the case of any kind of basic work experience, the young person will be productive in some way within a day and should be paid a living wage. Unemployment benefit is not meant to remunerate people for work done. The amount is minute and is hardly enough to survive on but is better than nothing while they look for work. It is unethical and immoral to claim that because job-seekers are in receipt of benefits, they can be asked to do any job for free under the guise of “work experience”. This foolish attitude makes them the prey of every greedy “employer” out there. Do you really think job seekers are given work experience for altruistic reasons? My sons both had plenty of work experience and it looked good on their CVs but at no time were they ever asked to work for nothing or for a pittance. If they had, I would have advised them against accepting. Unfortunately, many young people are not in a position to protect their personal dignity and their rights and feel obliged to accept what is pure exploitation. It is a very serious precedent particularly under a government which is currently not serving in the interest of its people.

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