I spent several hours today with a group of people who are just about to finish their first six-month stint on 30-hour-a-week workfare Community Work Placements (CWP). CWP began last year as part of George Osborne’s pointless, punitive Help To Work scheme. With CWP, people on JSA are forced to work for 30 hours a week for six months in charities and local organisations. They have no choice. Refuse to work for free – you’ll be sanctioned.
The people I spoke with today have spent the last six months at Haringey charity Embrace UK where they have worked on – among other things – data sorting and entry, administration, sexual health advice for young people (no DBS/CRB checks – I wrote about that here), youth development schemes (ditto), presentations for new arrivals and homeless groups, marketing support, IT development and radio production. This is a huge range of jobs for which people should be properly paid. The fact that so many tasks are now being done by people who are made to do those tasks on workfare schemes ought to be of concern for everyone. I’ve said it before: paid work as a concept is under real threat as people who are forced to work for nothing carry out more and more jobs. As one of the men on CWP at Embrace UK said to me when we spoke late last year – people in so-called white-collar work may not be particularly aware that “their” kind of job is being done now for nothing. “They’ll have doctors and lawyers on workfare soon,” he said. You laugh, but you wonder as well. As I’ve said before as well, I think people who aren’t yet affected by these things have a vague (and snobbish) idea that workfare means a bit of weeding in public parks (a job that also should be properly paid, by the way). I don’t think everyone grasps the reach that workfare increasingly has.
Anyway. The people I spoke with this morning had one big question. They wanted to know what would happen to them when this first six-month placement ended. Nobody I spoke to had a paid job to go to (CWP = another winning government welfare-to-work scheme. Not). Their concern was that their nasty workfare-placement company Urban Futures would shove them into a new placement with another charity. They worried that the next place would be extremely unpleasant – that the work would be filthy and hard (which is no joke, particularly when you’re in your 50s) and the management cruel. There is reason to fear, if you ask me. I’ve spoken with people on CWP workfare at Haringey charities who are sent into the streets to do bucket collections. They must stand outside in all weathers with buckets and collect money. “I did a couple of days charity bucket collection down out the front of the shops,” a guy called Graham told me outside Urban Futures just before Christmas.
Another person I spoke to today had spent time on CWP at the Marie Curie charity shop at Highbury and Islington (Marie Curie, as we know, supposedly pulled out of workfare in 2012, but seems now to take people on CWP by – erm, accident. Marie Curie no longer answers my questions about this. Ahem. They’ll keep. More on them soon). That person (aged in their 50s) had to “steam clothes and stand on the shop floor putting clothes out. You were on your feet all day, with the manager pushing us to work harder and harder.”
Others on CWP at Embrace UK had asked Embrace managers to write to their jobcentres to ask if they could stay at Embrace, because Embrace at least treated people who were on CWP workfare decently.
“I have always said that they (people on CWP) must be treated with dignity,” Embrace UK executive Alem Gebrehiwot told me recently when we spoke at length about Embrace UK’s participation in CWP. But here’s the thing. People should surely be treated with dignity whatever job they’re in. Why should people who claim JSA just have to hope that people will be reasonable to them? Why should being treated with dignity be a bonus, not something to expect? Why should an executive director at a charity throw that out like it’s a selling point? I tell you this. I’m hearing talk of two-tier employment situations developing at some places – better working hours and conditions for “proper” volunteers than for people on CWP placements. That is one to watch closely while all this is going on. Only last week, I spent a couple of hours with a group of JSA claimants who were told they weren’t allowed to use the jobcentre toilets, even though they were stuck in the building for several hours. It’s almost as though you can do whatever you like to someone who claims JSA.
I’ve got interviews to post on this, so more soon.