Workfare - Slavery Without the Wages

Workfare: a welfare system which requires some work or attendance for training from those receiving benefits.

Oxford English Dictionary


27 June saw a day of action against B&M – the cut price retail store – which has been expanding its involvement in the workfare scheme as a whole. They were recently given the so-called honour of being the 'workfare employer of the year' from ERSA, the so-called “representative body for the employment support sector which supports jobseekers to gain, sustain and progress in work” which oversees all such programmes. Demonstrations and protests in general were held outside of a whole raft of stores nationwide.

Recent protests against the slave labour of workfare are by no means the first to occur. Previous demonstrations and local protests, as well as campaigns to boycott businesses and charities involved in the whole scheme, have forced some organisations out of its use. Indeed, a recent Freedom of Information request for a list of all those businesses taking advantage of workfare has been refused by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) on the grounds that it would make the scheme unworkable because the ensuing protests would force the listed businesses out of its uptake. But then the DWP is no stranger to blocking information it would prefer most of us not to know about. A similar Freedom of Information request for a list of those who have died within six weeks of their benefits being stopped has been stymied by Ian Duncan Smith. IDS initially stated that no such records existed. He was contradicted by others in his department who have categorically stated that they do but in any case the DWP is appealing against the information being made public. It is obvious that the numbers would be extremely embarrassing for both IDS and the government as a whole (they are potentially as high as 26,000 over the past 6 years). So with workfare. When it comes to freedom of information there is no information to be found.

Legal Opposition

There has been legal opposition to the whole process of workfare in the past. Back in 2013 a case was ultimately brought before the UK Supreme Court by a geology graduate, another by an HGV driver and qualified mechanic. Previously a judge had ruled that there was no conflict between the European Convention on Human Rights (article 4) and unpaid labour under such a scheme, even though that convention rules against 'slave labour' and 'indenture'. It also contradicts the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, section 71. It took retrospective legislation to overturn this ruling by the Supreme Court – Jobseekers (Back to Work Scheme) Act 2013 . We can understand why this government is so adamant about rescinding its involvement in ECHR, so that it can avoid any such problems in future.

The Poor Law Returns

What we are witnessing is nothing more than a modern version of the Poor Law which was supposed to have gone for ever with the advent of the welfare state. Although we do not see separate workhouses and hostels for youth the threat of forced labour or going hungry is ever present for the unemployed and poorly paid courtesy of current benefit rules and regulations. In 2012 the then government looked to force people into providing around 60 million hours of unpaid labour. It has been their intention to increase this year by year. Current figures can only be guessed at but the number of companies involved has increased year by year with only a few dropping out.

Overall the government is using its power to encourage capitalist enterprises to pay less than a living wage through such schemes as these. Meanwhile the ongoing unemployment crisis is painted over by official figures which deduct those on workfare from the jobless total. Schemes like workfare make it easier to force people into zero hours contracts, obviously of real benefit to employers watching their profit margins. Workfare also gives major companies, corporations and businesses masking themselves as charities a means of reducing paid hours.

Workfare – Slavery Without the Wages

The working class has to endure wage slavery. You work, bosses extract surplus value from you, they profit. For benefits claimants there is the added danger of being forced to work without the wages – it's called workfare! If you refuse, you get sanctioned: your benefits stopped or severely reduced. If you are late, you get sanctioned! If you break any rules, which are extensive, you get sanctioned! In fact there is no clear set of rules. If individual DWP clerks or offices are not meeting sanction targets, you risk getting sanctioned for purely bullshit reasons just to boost their figures. While you work you enjoy none of the so-called benefits of legal protection other workers enjoy – if you can call it that. For example, you do not have the same Health and Safety protection others have. This government, like others previously, are doing everything they can to expand this process.


  • over £100 million profit last year
  • begins taking on workfare 'placements' in 2013
  • first steps taken cut overtime for paid employees
  • follows by halving working hours for many paid employees
  • new employees are taken on but sacked after 12 weeks by virtue of unpaid replacements
  • wholesale sackings of long-term employees through workfare replacements


  • CEO earning £2million
  • 1400 new unpaid placements
  • looking to have 2% of its workforce as unpaid labour

The list of companies with high levels of workfare involvement is huge. This list also includes current so-called charities.* As we all know, those bodies which were once charitable organisations have regularly mutated into effective corporations, where most of their income goes to pay staff and bosses rather than deal with the matters they state are their aims.

Benefits – to Whom?

Despite advice from the likes of the IMF that it is time to rein in a bit on welfare cuts Chancellor Osborne is making it very clear that he intends to do nothing of the sort. Regardless of protests, thousands of local campaigns and national demos during the five years of the previous coalition £21bn was cut from welfare support without wholesale working class resistance. Now this gung-ho government feels it has a mandate to make £12bn a year in welfare cuts to“balance the books” and prepare for “uncertain times ahead” (Osborne). What this really means is that they are seizing the chance to turn the screw on the working class even further. For these representatives of the capitalist class this is the only option. Productivity ­– worker output per hour – has to be increased. During the post-war boom this was mainly achieved by more efficient machinery. Nowadays, with world capitalism once more in the thick of a dangerous profitability crisis, the capitalists are looking for more and more ways of cheapening the cost of labour. Not only is this an admission that there is no shiny future beyond the years of austerity, it is also a declaration of war against the working class as a whole. It is a merciless war and it is being waged throughout the world. In all the once prosperous capitalist states, governments are imposing ‘labour market reforms’ to get rid of any kind of job security and ease wage cuts. (Workfare itself is an import from the United States.) On top of this, post-financial crash austerity measures throughout the EU are fuelling a race as to which country can provide capital with the cheapest and most pliant labour force.

Clearly, making it more and more difficult for the unemployed to live is a key weapon in the battle to forge a generally low-cost, more compliant workforce. That’s what all the benefit cuts have been about over the last five years. Workfare is part of the same strategy which, like a sick joke, IDS describes as “making work pay”. No doubt Osborne’s emergency budget will include further ways of reducing payments to anyone without a job – whatever the reason. The signal now, though, is that Osborne is set to introduce the next part of the strategy to force workers to permanently accept desperately low living conditions: withdrawal of financial support for low-paid workers. They’ve already announced a reduction in the total amount any household can receive in benefits over a year and it’s an open secret that housing benefit is the next target.

The direct result of forcing the principle and process of workfare onto the population as a whole is that the tendency to lower wages has been accelerated. The direct result of this is to force more people onto benefits. Today the majority of the 20 million non-pensioner families who receive benefit have at least one wage-earner. The majority of them are working for a wage so low they wouldn’t be able to survive without being subsidised by the state. While the bill for unemployment benefits amounts to around £8bn, in-work benefits stands at around £76bn. This includes housing benefits for the low paid, working tax credit for the low paid and so on. Companies such as Tesco cost the exchequer around £364million in supplements to its low pay. Next costs more than it pays in tax for the same measures. £85bn was handed out last year in corporate tax breaks. £2.2bn was given out in housing benefit last year because workers could not earn enough. The challenge now for the likes of Osborne and IDS is how to reduce these payments: Not simply in order to balance the budget but above all, in order to permanently lower the expectations of the working class and accept a permanent decline in living standards to levels not seen since before the 1945.

Let’s be clear: workfare, along with cuts to housing benefit, income support and all the other ‘austerity’ measures of the last five years, are part of a wider attack of a crisis-wracked capitalism against the whole of the working class. In the face of such a barrage it is important to develop a strategy for a class-wide resistance, not just to a Tory government, but to the capitalist system as a whole, whichever set of politicians has the mandate to oversee the undermining of working class lives.


Lists of companies and charities involved in workfare:

The court case:

Saturday, July 4, 2015