Am making my way through several hours of interview recordings that I took earlier this year with three people who were on a six-month forced workfare Community Work Placement (CWP) at a north London charity called Embrace UK. With CWP, these people on jobseekers’ allowance had to work for 30 hours a week for six months on workfare in local charities and organisations. These JSA claimants had no choice. If people refused, they risked benefit sanctions.
Anyway – I thought I’d post the letter below.
This is a letter that JSA claimants on that six-month CWP workfare placement at Embrace UK asked the charity’s managers to write for people to take to their jobcentres in January this year. In these letters, Embrace UK asked jobcentres to allow the letter-holders to stay on at the charity as volunteers when the six-month forced workfare placement ended:
The reason that people on workfare at Embrace UK asked the charity’s managers to produce these letters to take to jobcentres? – they wanted to stay on at Embrace UK because the charity’s managers were civil and the workfare work wasn’t brutal. Staff at Embrace UK treated people on forced workfare decently. Being treated decently as a workfare worker was considered a monumental bonus and something to try and hang on to. The six-month workfare placement at Embrace UK was about to end. People were very worried about being sent on a CWP workfare placement at another charity. They could not be sure that they’d be treated well at a new placement, because they were workfare workers.
None of these people were doormats – quite the reverse – but they knew the odds on this scene. Workfare workers have very little power. They certainly don’t have much by way of workplace protection in reality. These people could complain about bad treatment, or refuse to attend a difficult workfare workplace if they really wanted to, but that sort of response would put people at risk of sanctions. All three people I interviewed in this case had been sanctioned at one point or another for spurious reasons. People knew exactly what it was like to have their benefit money suddenly stopped. Nobody was keen to go through that again if they could help it. That’s why people put a great deal of energy and effort into organising the letters that might convince their jobcentres to let them stay at a charity where they were treated like human beings.
This is the big worry: that people on workfare must hope for – rather than expect – decent work and decent treatment on workfare placements. It’s luck of the draw stuff. I wonder who is meant to monitor these placements for standards, and if they do. On the circuit, stories certainly abound of people on mandatory workfare placements being sent to charities where the work is gruelling and the management nasty. Being sent out in all weathers on charity bucket collection is something people dread (god knows I would): “I’m going out fundraising as well – doing bucket collection. I did a couple of days bucket collection down out the front of the shops,” an older guy called Graham told me when we discussed his workfare placement at the end of last year. His work programme provider, the notoriously unpleasant Urban Futures, had sent him on a CWP stint at a charity where he “worked” as a security guard and also went outside on bucket collections (he had a criminal record, as it happened. He hadn’t been CRB-checked by the charity and thought both jobs were interesting choices for someone with his recent background). The weather was freezing at the time of his placement. I know I wouldn’t have enjoyed being shoved out into the cold with a bucket on a threat of a benefit sanction.
A woman called Bernadette who was on the Embrace UK placement earlier this year had finished a difficult workfare placement in a Marie Curie charity shop at the end of 2014.
Bernadette was 54 and found the work very hard at her age. “We were steaming clothes out the back and standing on the shop floor putting clothes out. We were not doing the sorting, but actually taking the clothes from the door. They put them on the hangers and you put them on the shop floor. Basically, you were on your feet all day and the manager pushing us to work harder and harder there. We weren’t paid. They didn’t pay for our food. We had only half an hour lunch break as CWP placementees.” (Bernadette should never have been on that placement, because Marie Curie was not meant to be participating in compulsory workfare schemes by that stage. When I asked Marie Curie how Bernadette came to be on a mandatory workfare placement in one of its charity shops, Marie Curie said that people on forced workfare sometimes ended up working in its shops by accident – when work programme providers weren’t honest with them, or some such. Go figure).
You get my point. Few people want to do workfare anywhere, but if people are forced to, which they are, they try to hang on to placements at organisations where workfare workers aren’t treated like trash. That’s why people asked Embrace UK to write the letters to take to their jobcentres.
Anyway – I’ve thought a lot about this as I’ve worked my way through the interview recordings that I have (will post those transcripts and stories in the next couple of weeks). I’ve come to the conclusion that workfare is about making sure that people who are unemployed endure the very worst aspects of work without enjoying any of the benefits of work (ie, the pay). In other words – people on JSA must attend a workplace on a full-time basis and put up with rotten tasks and shitty managers if their luck isn’t in, but unlike people in paid roles, they don’t at least get wages in exchange. Not much of an equation, I think.