The post below – based on Kyla’s story (named changed) – is an excerpt from a collection I’m working on.
The project collects interviews I’ve made since 2014 with people directly affected by benefit cuts and welfare reform.
This collection is being made possible thanks to a Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust grant. I’m posting extracts from this collection here as I work on it.
Workfare: how government gets something for nothing out of people in deep poverty
This article is about workfare – that failed (for workfare workers), but electorally-popular concept where benefit claimants must work for unemployment benefits.
Tory, coalition and Labour (and American, Australian and Canadian) governments have been keen advocates of workfare schemes for decades – even in very recent decades, when the widespread failure of workfare as a means of placing people in ongoing paid jobs has been extensively reported.
To my mind, politicians persist with workfare schemes for one reason when it comes down to it: harsh workfare programmes, with their punitive street-cleaning and charity-shop workfare placements, and tough benefit sanctions for non-compliance, give politicians a chance to crack down on the unemployed for show. Governments are desperate to prove to welfare-skeptic electorates that people who claim unemployment benefits are made to toil for their dole.
“Toughlove,” is the word that workfare’s advocates like to use when they talk about forcing people who are out of work into gruelling workfare jobs on the threat of sanctions.
A Clinton government would “end welfare as we know it,” pledged Bill Clinton on a campaign promise which led to the game-changing (not in a good way for the poorest social security recipients in particular) Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act with its exacting work-for-welfare conditions in 1996.
Clinton said that as though ending welfare as people knew it was a good thing. The reality was that PRWORA, with its strict time limits for social security eligibility and tough workfare and sanction conditions pushed thousands off welfare rolls and into dire poverty. Workfare schemes such as the Wisconsin (W2) programme and the New York (WEP) scheme became notorious for such exclusion, particularly as millennium recession deepened. Lockout from social security was no joke as escape from poverty through any type of paid work became harder.
Workfare’s champions didn’t care. They didn’t care where society’s poorest went as they were excluded from much-needed state support. No matter that society’s poorest went into dangerous and illegal activities such as selling blood and food stamps, skipping meals, shoplifting, scavenging and returning to violent partners to make ends meet. Social security is a numbers game for movers and shakers in the modern age. All that mattered and matters is that the number of people claiming support drops.
Workfare in the UK
This article is based on in-depth interviews with forced participants in a recent failed UK workfare scheme: George Osborne’s Help to Work programme with its Community Work Placements.
Community Work Placements – CWP – were workfare placements, mostly in charities, aimed at people who were long-term unemployed and thought short of workplace skills, whatever that meant. Actually, the people I interviewed on CWP tended to be older and short of decent work opportunities, rather than skills, but government didn’t talk much about that.
Neither did government talk much about learning from the failure of American workfare schemes, or about the dangers of imposing strict workfare schemes and benefit sanctions on in-need people in a recession.
CWP was rough. It wasn’t tailored to meet people’s circumstances and needs. Some participants I spoke with were older people who were pushed into hard physical work from which they gained nothing, except confirmation of their own suspicions that they were being punished. That “work” included walking around with charity collection buckets in freezing cold weather, or standing all day to sort and clean donated clothes in charity shops.
CWP was memorable for the two reasons that such blunt workfare schemes so often are.
The first was that it was launched at great cost (£300m) with a shifty and strident politician (Osborne) banging on in the foreground about long-term unemployment being a fault of a widespread benefit claimant sense of entitlement (“no something-for-nothing any more“), rather than the economy.
The second was that it failed spectacularly. Launched into jobcentres in 2014, CWP was shut down just two years later after falling short most of the way along of its own modest targets for workfare placement companies to place 15% of CWP “graduates” in jobs. CWP was ditched not long before Osborne was.
Workfare never goes away, though. The hardline political infatuation with workfare – that fetish for proving that benefit claimants are made to toil and made to hurt – dies hard.
Which is why, in my many cynical hours, I think about the ways in which CWP-type workfare schemes might become widespread to Universal Credit conditions.
I wonder we’ll see CWP-type workfare schemes spread after Brexit – if government and business will force benefit claimants to take up the agricultural, cleaning and care work that business has been screwing out of EU migrants for a pittance.
No doubt arrangements will be made to keep those sectors supplied with poorly-paid migrant workers, but it is very possible to imagine Universal Credit claimants on forced workfare in the mix. It’s certainly easy to imagine how such schemes would operate. Charlatan private companies will be paid millions to source workfare jobs. Those companies will manage relationships between the DWP and unscrupulous businesses which don’t have to pay claimants wages and can do whatever they like with workfare workers.
I’ve seen how recent workfare schemes operate. The template is already there.
That’s why I wanted to show you CWP.
Kyla, Help to Work Community Work Placement at Marie Curie, 2014.
This description of CWP follows Kyla’s experience of workfare at a Marie Curie charity shop.
This part of Kyla’s story has it all (there’s a second part about another workfare placement which we’ll get to).
Kyla’s experience at Marie Curie incorporated every one of workfare’s major drawbacks: a physically gruelling workfare placement, bullying at the hands of one of the aggressive private companies to which the management of CWP was outsourced, the ever-present threat of benefit sanctions, and, most importantly, her powerlessness as a workfare worker to change the situation.
Nobody involved in administering CWP during this leg of it cared a fig for Kyla, or for her prospects: whether she learned genuine job skills, or found paid work after the placement, or even if the job physically hurt her. She was a means to everyone else’s end. She was absolutely irrelevant as a person as charities, workfare placement companies and the DWP battled for points and spoils.
That’s what I wanted you to see.
Kyla, 54, was one of three long-term unemployed East Londoners I interviewed at length about workfare in 2014 and 2015.
All three were forced workfare participants in CWP.
Like all people on CWP, the three had to work 30 hours a week for six months in local charities in exchange for their jobseekers’ allowance of about £72 a week. Refusing the work, or even complaining about it, meant risking benefit sanctions.
Kyla’s first workfare placement on CWP had been unpleasant indeed.
For that first placement, she’d been sent on a forced 30-hour-a-week workfare job at Marie Curie’s Highbury and Islington charity shop.
She was still riled about that placement when we met.
Kyla had three very good reasons for fury about that Marie Curie workfare job.
To Kyla, these three problems underlined the extent to which she was used by people who ran CWP – and how little she was able to do about it.
The first reason for Kyla’s anger was that the Marie Curie job was physically punishing. Kyla said that she struggled to cope with the work at her age.
Kyla was 54. At the Marie Curie shop, she had to lift, sort and clean piles of donated clothes. She had to stand all day. The demands of the work were out of all proportion to the so-called reward – Kyla’s already-small unemployment benefit. Kyla’s weekly jobseekers’ allowance of about £72 was hardly a fair exchange for such work. There were no other rewards. Kyla wasn’t taught new skills, or prepared for a job. The work did not lead to paid employment.
“We were steaming clothes out the back and putting clothes out on the shop floor. You were on your feet all day – the manager pushing us to work harder and harder. We weren’t paid…I hated the boss…
…I needed a break. I got sciatica in my back… it was when I was standing up a lot at Marie Curie. It was hurting.”
It was meant to hurt, of course. Workfare is always meant to hurt one way or another. Like most people on schemes such as CWP, Kyla was on workfare to satisfy a sort of societal sadism. She knew that. She was on a workfare scheme that George Osborne had backed to provoke and then satiate electorate hunger for claimant toil.
The second reason Kyla was angry was about Marie Curie and CWP was that she’d been treated very badly by staff at Urban Futures. Urban Futures was the unscrupulous (do read on) workfare placement company that had organised Kyla’s Marie Curie workfare job and forced her to take it. G4S had a DWP contract to run CWP in various regions. G4S brought in fly-by-night companies such as Urban Futures to find local charities to put benefit claimants to work in workfare jobs in their organisations. G4S described the selection of swindlers such as Urban Futures (read on, as I say) as choosing “top-performing placement brokers,” (still makes me laugh) “to deliver the customer journey to all Community Work Placements claimants.”
Workfare workers didn’t have quite as romantic a view of “placement brokers” such as Urban Futures, or the “customer journey” they were on. As far as they were concerned, Urban Futures was nasty: obsessed with pushing people into workfare placements (companies received a start fee for placements secured and for job outcomes) and quick to get heavy with CWP participants.
Kyla hated going into the Urban Futures offices in Wood Green.
In addition to her 30 hours a week on workfare, Kyla had to spend one day a week in the Urban Futures office searching online for jobs while staff watched. She felt that Urban Futures staff menaced her:
“You go in. They make you do your jobsearch and make you wait. It’s like being institutionalised. It’s like being in a detention centre – a holding cell, I called it. They just patronise you. [Tell you to] go do your jobsearch….I was reduced to tears there. They took me into this other room [because] I was a bit late. I said I felt [an Urban Futures staff member] was interrogating me…
…Then, they banged me into Marie Curie.”
Which brings us to the third – and in some ways most significant – reason that Kyla was angry about her Marie Curie placement:
She’d found out that she’d been sent to Marie Curie on a false premise – on a very dodgy premise, even.
The truth was that Kyla should not have been on workfare at Marie Curie at all. She shouldn’t have been there, because Marie Curie claimed to have pulled out of DWP workfare schemes. Marie Curie had abandoned workfare to some fanfare in 2012. Nonetheless, there was Kyla two yeas later, sorting and cleaning clothes on workfare in Marie Curie’s Highbury and Islington shop.
There were two possible explanations for this. Both involved Kyla being used in a very cynical way.
One explanation was that Urban Futures had decided not to tell Marie Curie that Kyla was on a mandatory DWP workfare scheme when Urban Futures rang Marie Curie to offer the charity the “volunteers” that Urban Futures had on its books.
If that was the case, Urban Futures had lied to Marie Curie about Kyla’s status.
There was no doubt that workfare placement companies had motive for lying in such a way in 2014.
Workfare placement companies collected start fees when they secured workfare jobs for CWP participants. The problem at that time was that charities were starting to run scared from workfare – doubtless the reason why Marie Curie had pulled out of workfare in 2012.
Powerful activist groups such as Boycott Workfare and Keep Volunteering Voluntary were running successful campaigns to target organisations that participated in DWP workfare schemes. Charities that did take workfare workers found themselves on the wrong end of fiery online campaigns and protests outside their front doors. Workfare as a concept may have been popular with the wider electorate, but at the same time, charities and some businesses began to worry that participating in workfare meant risking a reputation problem in the social media age.
The upshot was that companies such as Urban Futures had their work cut out to secure workfare placements – and, of course, payments for placements. It was entirely possible that workfare placement companies decided not to tell charities that the volunteers it offered were workfare workers on mandatory schemes.
Certainly, Marie Curie was keen to sell that line.
Marie Curie told me it was likely the problem was that Urban Futures had lied about Kyla’s status as a workfare worker when I rang the charity to ask how her workfare placement had come to pass.
““We do try wherever possible to check if we are approached by companies or organisations that are offering us volunteers… but [if] they’re [workfare placement companies] not quite honest with us. They might be disingenuous about the stipulations under which the volunteer has to work.”
Kyla reported that Urban Futures had been desperate to find her a workfare job:
“They [Urban Futures] rushed you into a [workfare] placement. [They kept saying] “got to get you a placement…got to get you a placement….They [Urban Futures] have this obsession with pushing people into charity work.”
There was a second possible explanation for Kyla’s Marie Curie placement, though. Marie Curie may have known that Kyla was on a mandatory workfare scheme, but decided to try and get away with keeping her on in the shop. Kyla was, after all, free labour.
It did seem odd that Kyla’s being on workfare had slipped everyone’s notice.
For one thing, Kyla was on workfare in the Marie Curie shop for several months. She talked about workfare while she was there.
For another thing, Marie Curie charity shop managers would surely have signed Kyla’s weekly CWP attendance sheets. People on CWP needed signed timesheets (here’s an example of a CWP timesheet) to prove they’d attended their workfare placements and to claim travel allowances. Urban Futures did, at one extraordinary point, lose a bunch of CWP timesheets, or forgot to fill them in, or something. Urban Futures staff actually turned up at various charity offices to demand that charity management help fix that problem and/or paper over Urban Futures’ mistake by filling in CWP timesheets retrospectively. The thing was an absolute shambles.
As time went on, Kyla became aware that Marie Curie was worried about her placement.
“The manager [at Marie Curie] there kept us on for five months.
In October, she [the manager] said, “there’s been concern that Marie Curie don’t want to take people on from Urban Futures, but I’ll keep you on. If anything comes back to me from my manager, I’ll have to let you go…”
…I don’t know what’s gone on – whether she [the manager] lied, or [Urban Futures] lied, but we were there on borrowed time.”
Marie Curie ended Kyla’s workfare placement before Kyla’s six months on the programme were up.
Alas – no response from Urban Futures
As you might imagine, I was keen to raise these issues with Urban Futures. I wanted to put these issues to the company – the claims that Urban Futures lied to secure workfare placements, the accusations of bullying and the mystery of the missing timesheets. I also wanted to know how much money the company made from workfare placements.
Nobody at Urban Futures would answer my questions.
I’d ring and be told that managers were out and to call the G4S media line. The G4S media line literally never worked. I often wondered if it was connected. The line would make a strange buzzing sound and ring off. I’d ring Urban Futures again after trying the G4S line. People who answered the Urban Futures phone would claim not to know what I was talking about, or say that the managers who would know what I was talking about were out (again).
On other occasions when I rang (I sometimes set aside a morning or afternoon to try and get hold of an Urban Futures’ manager, just to see what would happen), I’d be told that managers were in a meeting. I presumed managers finished those meetings at some point, but they’d never ring back when they did.
Sometimes, I would ring the number for the Urban Futures training building in case the management team had sprinted over there to avoid calls. I knew the training building and HQ were opposite each other in Wood Green, because I’d interviewed people outside Urban Futures and watched people in suits hurry from one building to another. I thought I might catch one on the outward journey.
Once after a morning’s pursuit, I finally got an Urban Futures manager on the phone for a few minutes. He laughed and said something like, “Kate! Kate!” a few times. That was it. He told me to ring the G4S media line and ran.
So much for accountability.
Which is the point I’m making in this article, of course. There was absolutely no accountability in CWP at all. CWP was a shambles of vacuous charities, voracious workfare placement companies, and sociopathic politicians such as George Osborne who wanted to be seen screwing benefit claimants into the ground. Nobody who was profiting from the mess would take responsibility for any part of it.
Workfare workers, meanwhile, had to put up with it all – the hard physical work, the bullying and the threat of sanctions for non-compliance.
They weren’t in a position to push back.
But one group did.
PART ONE ENDS