Workfare: A Scroungers Charter

Workfare (1) is a brilliant scheme, if you’re an employer. It allows you to take on staff without paying them under the guise that you’re ‘training’ them back into the world of work. And there are lots of schemes to choose from; five in all. You can benefit from Mandatory Work Activity where you can get someone to work for you free for four weeks if you can persuade the government you’ve got something to do with the community (this isn’t difficult, they’ll accept quite a few tenuous links. You don’t have to be a charity or anything; you can tag on a bit of about community involvement in your bid and make it sound good). Or you can sign up to the Work Programme. You can get people to work on six month’s placements; you won’t have to pay them a penny. Or you could choose Work Experience (free labour for between two to eight weeks, 25 – 30 hours a week), or sector-based Work Academies (you can get free workers for up to six weeks with this one) or there’s the Community Action Programme (where somebody will come and work in your business for 30 hours a week, totally unpaid, for six months). And best of all, the whole thing is conveniently funded by the taxpayer to the tune of an estimated £5bn. It’s clever because you get the working class to pay twice; once by wringing the taxes out of the ones that have jobs to fund the ones that don’t to work for you for free. Win win.

There are downsides of course. Some of the workers you might get may not be suitable. Some of them might be the ‘recently unemployed’, many of whom have lost their jobs due to the capitalist crisis. A lot of these people have very high skills. They may object to stacking shelves or doing other mundane activities, they may even say this scheme is ruining their chances of getting a real job, but don’t worry, you don’t have any commitment to them and you can get rid of them quite easily. Or you might find yourself saddled with somebody who is sick, has cancer for example, because the job centre isn’t really fussy who it sends out. Or you might get a young person who isn’t really interested in what you have to offer, but don’t worry, all of these people are quite easy to deal with because many of them can be threatened with a loss of benefits if they don’t comply.

Of course, Workfare has its detractors. There are those who question whether it actually succeeds in getting the unemployed back into work at all. Some organisations are quite scathing about this, like the Social Security Advisory Committee (2). In April 2011 it published a report saying that the chances of workfare helping people back into work was at best ‘ambivalent’. And the Centre for Social and Economic Inclusion stated that the average rate at which people come off benefits without such schemes is almost the same. It concluded that work experience had

no additional impact on the speed at which young people leave benefit, and may have actually led to them spending longer on benefit (3).

Come to mention it, even the big businesses who benefit can’t really come up with any figures to justify its massive cost to the state. Most companies are reluctant to talk about the scheme, (many initially involved have since opted out, fearing the stench of ‘slave labour’ will affect their public image) but figures from Tesco and McDonald’s show between 20 and 25 percent of people on placements have gone on to get a permanent job. It might seem like a paltry figure, but to be fair to Tesco and McDonald’s why would you want to take on permanent staff when you’ve got so much free labour to choose from? It’s just good business sense to let the government supply you with free workers.

Of course, if you’re one of those workers, you might not see it in such a positive light. You might suspect you’re being monumentally screwed over, being forced to work for free in some dead end job which won’t benefit you at all. You might think that these schemes exploit the unemployed, that they push down wages, so that when you do eventually find another job your pay will be lower than it should have been. You might also be sick of listening to multi-millionaires calling you a ‘job snob’ because you won’t flip burgers or price tins for eight hours a day for no money at all.

And if you’re young (and worst hit by this crisis), you may resent being sent on one of the government’s apprenticeship schemes. You may resent working full time and then not getting a job at the end of it as promised (Asda took on 25,000 apprentices and not one of them got a job at the end). And you may be so fed up that businesses like Asda walked away with £250 million between them to run these schemes that delivered very little. You may even wonder what ‘skills’ firms like Asda or Morrisons (which accounts for 70% of apprenticeships) could teach you in the first place.

The Real Scroungers

But really the government is right; there are too many scroungers who live off the state and who don’t want to pay their way in society. The government should know because they belong to the biggest class of scroungers alive. All of their money comes from wealth created by the working class, from the surplus value created by workers who are then taxed on top of that and then pay hidden taxes like VAT. And nobody knows how to screw the system like the ruling class; they know every dodge going (because they created them). They know how to avoid paying their taxes and how to screw as much out of the state as possible (can it be we’ve already forgotten about the MP’s expenses scandal?). And they know how to reward their cronies by giving workfare contracts to the likes of A4E (currently being investigated for fraud by Thames Valley police and by the DWP in an independent audit), Ingeus (owned by city financiers Deloitte) and Serco (which also runs prison transport and detention centres). These and others have been handed millions by the ConDems as part of the “Big Society”, the ConDems of course following the last Labour Government’s lead.

This problem won’t go away. Workfare is designed to both cut benefits by getting rid of ‘non-compliers,’ and reduce wages for those working alongside free labour and it’s come at a time when further education is now just a dream for many young people, when training schemes are being cut back, when the retirement age is being raised, all of which are adding to the growing numbers of unemployed, growing of course because of the capitalist crisis. Unemployment in the UK officially stands at 8.3% and is projected to rise to 9% by the end of this year and growth is predicted not to rise at all. So as more and more of us lose our jobs (and our rights) we will increasingly be forced onto these schemes. As workers we make a living by selling our labour power, being forced to give it away for free damages not only those of us who haven’t any work but also those who do.

We’re in a bad enough situation as it is. At the moment the average labour cost in the UK is about two-thirds of the levels in Germany and 60% of levels in France. The move to push wages down to make the UK attractive to inward investors may have been started by the last [Labour] Government but it’s been taken up with relish by this one. It must be pointed out that those who hoped the unions would be up in arms about workfare have generally been disappointed. For the most part the unions have limited themselves to ensuring the schemes are operated ‘without abuse’ (like the TUC). Some, however, have been more active in actually backing it and helping its implementation, like the communications union, the CWU, which has signed an agreement with Royal Mail to help introduce workfare into the postal service.

The Fightback

The only way to fight back is through solidarity between employed and unemployed workers, linking up regional campaigns and then linking these with strikes as they emerge. There have been some successes. In February the government had to climb down in a well-publicised U-turn after demonstrators invaded Tesco branches (and employers became nervous about tarnishing their carefully crafted ‘public images’). As many distanced themselves from the scheme the government was forced to concede that young people will no longer lose their benefits if they leave the work experience programme.

But shaming employers only goes so far and there’s still a long way to go. Punishments will still work on other schemes, most notoriously for disabled and chronically sick people on employment support allowance. The state is determined to pick off the most weak and vulnerable among us, but we will only stop the attacks on us as individuals by fighting back as a class.

We live in an upside down world where the majority work so a tiny minority can live in unimaginable luxury, where the real wealth producers, the working class, are labelled scroungers and where the rules are made up by the rich as they go along. But that’s the capitalist system for you. How little it has really changed since Marx described this:

It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. The law, finally, that always equilibrates the relative surplus population, or industrial reserve army, to the extent and energy of accumulation, this law rivets the labourer to capital more firmly than the wedges of Vulcan did Prometheus to the rock. It establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.

The slavery of Workfare was not in Marx’s Capital Volume One but the principles of exploitation he revealed have not changed. If we’re united we can make a real fight against Workfare and in the process start to fight against the system that produced it

So, will the real scroungers please stand up? And can the rest of us start to think about organising our lives without them.

(1) This article is a follow up to two texts we published from the Edinburgh Coalition against Poverty in Revolutionary Perspectives 59

(2) The Social Security Advisory Committee Report 2011 also mentioned its concern that the scheme ‘punished’ claimants who were deemed to have displayed the ‘wrong attitude’ and that this could further hamper a claimant’s chances of work in future, signifying an inappropriate attitude to work

(3) Centre for Social and Economic Inclusion report ‘Youth Unemployment, a million reasons to act?’ November 2011.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


The poster says ''We won't work for free''.

But that is the essence of communism.

We have people asking what we think about Greece and a revolutionary government's attitude to a national currency.

Revolutionary government can only be the dictatorship of the workers' councils and we advocate abolition of money.

The working class has to bury capitalism and its self centred 'there is no such thing as society' mantra.

No system can truly assess an individual's contribution.

Voluntary labour and at best a loose form of rewarding labour based on labour time is as good as it gets.

Of course this does not apply to working for free to shore up the bosses' profits.

What happened to my comment?

No record of a comment being posted Charlie. Try again and let us know if the glitch repeats itself.

I posted my original comment about 8 hours ago, and actually saw it in place under Steve's. An hour later it had gone!

Having said how good the article was, and specially the bit about who are the real scroungers, I went on to wonder whether the slogan "we won't work for free" - while it might embody the essence of communism, as comrade Steve says - doesn't also contain an implicit acceptance of capitalist chains (we will work if you pay us) and a submission to capitalism's view of work; where it's a drudgery, a chore, a horror, and something you only endure because you have to, and have no choice (if you're "lucky" enough to have a job that is.)

I also added that under communism work becomes an act of self-realization, both for the individual and society. It becomes creative, as I believe Marx pointed out. "Work is Freedom!" ( Didn't the entrance to Auschwitz death camp have this written above its gate? What a distortion of the idea! However this doesn't destroy the Marxist vision of the true nature of work, beyond capitalist misery.) I hope I've said this properly.

It's an excellent 5 star article! Thank you.

Yes. I suppose what we are saying is we won't work for free under a monetised system of alienated labour but we will work for free under a system based on real needs.

Thnaks for re-posting Charlie (I cannot explained what happened re the first post but in Europe we were all asleep!) For what its worth Auschwitz still has the sickening motto "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Makes you Free) above the gates (although this is almost certainly a restoration as the Nazis attempted to destroy all traces of the horror).

I'm trying to come up with some sort of witty, incisive analysis revealing the dialectical cotradiction between the ''work makes free'' and the enslavement of capitalism and concentration camps, but that's as far as I got....

There is no freedom without activity, I think Marx said, but it stands on its own merits.

Between a tortuous existance of unemployment in isolation and working for free there is not a great deal to choose.

The point is, as per usual, socialism or barbarism, there is no third way.

The capitalist totality is the problem and the solution is the socialist totality.

The alternative perspective, reformism, demand struggles etc may be the initial starting point but as revolutionaries we canot remain within the isolated categories capitalism and the sectional unions offer; that spark and tinder has to be fanned into revolutionary generalistion of grievance and the capitalist framework challenged.

This will generally be difficult and unpopular but failure to go beyond capitalist compatability is abdication of revolutionary perspective.

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