Being treated well on workfare is a bonus. Not everybody gets that bonus.

On workfare:

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.

11 thoughts on “Being treated well on workfare is a bonus. Not everybody gets that bonus.

  1. So Embrace UK would like to offer their ‘volunteeer’ (as it states in their letter) a permanent voluntary placement in return for the forced labour. Still no wages then. That’s very big of them, isn’t it?

    • I agree with the comment about Embrace agreeing to keep the volunteers on for another 6 months with no pay, I thought the same, the charity got a bloody cheek.

  2. Really enjoyed this until that woman said at 54 she shouldn’t have to work ‘at her age’. I’m 54 and I’m a teacher, there are lots of us in our 50s. I have 3 children, and a single parent (widow), so a real single parent. I walked in to the bank and there were 2 over 50s working there. My lawyer is 56 and a woman! The PM and many of the Cabinet and shadow cabinet are over 59. Jeremy Corbyn is 66. Need I go on! I assume she is not disabled in any way, because she wouldn’t be on JSA and I’m sure you would make a point of mentioning it, if she was?

    No wonder she’s out of work with that attitude. The pension age has been raised so most of us of 54 will be working until we are 67! She’s expected to work 30 hours sorting clothes! I’m saddened you even let that comment through, says more about the bone idleness of this woman than any other part of this article.

    • Where, specifically, did Bernadette say she shouldn’t be working?

      Reading the above the impression I got was a woman in her mid-50s frustrated with the difficult working conditions she is forced to endure in return for no pay and with virtually none of the usual protections paid employees benefit from.

      I have to say, with the attitude demonstrated by you and millions like you it’s no wonder the Tories are now i a position to punish the unemployed and disabled to their hearts’ content.

      Shame on you.

    • I think you need to re-read the article. Nothing in the article says she shouldn’t be working. It states that Bernadette shouldn’t have been on a placement at Marie Curie because Marie Curie claimed they had left the Workfare scheme prior to that date.

    • It’s worth pointing out that a great many disabled individuals are forced to claim JSA. The DWP’s notorious Work Capability Assessments (carried out by Atos and now Maximus) often deny ESA to sick or disabled individuals, forcing them to claim JSA and attempt to find work against their doctors’ advice.

      Moreover MANY people on ESA are required to undertake “Work Related Activity” despite being too ill to work. Typically this involves full-time heavy unpaid labour in a charity shop – perversely under threat of being sanctioned should they fall sick!

      Not everyone in their 50s enjoys the rudest of health, and disadvantage, poverty and stress all take their toll. The UK has huge inequalities in health and life expectancy, which Lou Lou’s “let them eat cake” judgementalism conveniently ignores. A teacher? Ye gods!

    • The problem with the positions you quote is that no manual labour is required, I find your point patronising and VERY middle class if I may say so.

    • Plenty of disabled people on JSA – you just had to be further back in the queue for assessment. Can’t stand or walk? Fit to work. Suicidal? Fit to work. Chronic fatigue? Fit to work.

      All because the assessor has targets to meet, and had awarded too many people benefits that week. Tough. Manage for long enough to appeal – so months with no money. Would your landlord let you stay if you stopped paying rent for six months or so? I know of people whose appeals took 2 years.

  3. Let’s try to clear up some omissions; Marie Curie ’employed’ my ex on CWP, manual labour is required, lugging large buckets of clothes containers, also many companies that are not charities are involved in CWP placements. They also include heavy manual labour, once again, people commenting on an issue they have no experience of, and don’t bother to fully read or understand the facts of the published story, or are ignorant when hearing the truth from the horses mouth. My last CWP, I complained to the H&S, and shortly after I left the placement, due to ill health, due to the placement, the place was closed down, until their many illegal practices were rectified. I have also been sanctioned 3 times, for nefarious reasons, with two being overturned, and the laws quoted to me that were broken by the DWP in sanctioning me. The 3rd was upheld due to an admin error at DWP.

  4. CWP conscripts don’t have many ‘protections’ it is true, but they do have some, and insisting on them is a legitimate way of opposing Workfare in any of it’s many forms. H&S is one area where there are multiple breaches, and is a valid question to be asked at initial ‘interview’ stage, especially if there are H&S breaches spotted.

    Also good is asking awkward questions about insurance cover for forced workers – there seems to be some considerable doubt as to whether Employer’s Liability Insurance covers anyone other than bona fide employees or genuine volunteers – CWP conscripts are NOT volunteers. (See the ECAP website for more about the insurance issue). Also ask about holiday entitlement… You do actually have a holiday entitlement whilst on CWP, it’s in the regulations, (though insurance isn’t!) As workers, even someone on CWP would benefit by being in a union, and for a CWP conscript only a union such as the IWW would be of any real use, and at a pound a month for full membership for anyone claiming it’s a bit of a bargain. That way you can get your union rep involved, if things start to go awry. And, being the IWW, it’s quite likely that it’d be possible that someone would be prepared to go with the potential conscript to a pre-screening session, or the ‘interview’ as an advocate… after all, we are all sometimes vulnerable, and need an advocate 😉 This way all the relevant and awkward questions that might make an exploiter pass over an otherwise suitable conscript, or, failing that, at least put the exploiter on warning that they are under scrutiny.

    It’s such a sad indictment of the system that people are asking this Workfare exploiter to be allowed to exploit them for a further six months. Understandably people don’t want to end up somewhere worse, but maybe getting even a little bit organised would prevent them being sent on Workfare in the first place. CWP can be challenged effectively, and safely.

  5. I have heard a lot about ‘Hard Labour’ where it has been mass media talking about Corbyn and McDonnell, etc.

    For me, ‘hard labour’ means workfare on JSA rates, having to wait for reimbursement of travel expenses and living in fear of sanctions. Those who drive hard labour are now trying to get vulnerable people’s doctors to trap the patients/claimants into a system in which vulnerable people are more likely to be sanctioned than get the real support they require. How The DWP Is Drafting In Doctors To Promote Iain Duncan Smith’s Warped Ideology

    And regarding GP’s, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has infamously said that Brits should learn to work as hard as the Chinese. Having spent quite some time at my doctor’s surger yesterday trying to book an appointment and get a repeat prescription while the two hardworking receptionists were dealing with back-to-back incoming calls, I would say that the Health Secretary should have a go at being a doctors’ receptionist. Also, if he admires Chinese work practices so much, maybe it would be better for all of us if he were to go and live in China.

    There, he might learn the meaning of the Mandarin Chinese word guolaosi.

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