by Michelle La Guilla
Do you trust this man?
The article below first appeared in October 2012 on my blog firstname.lastname@example.org. I am republishing it here to mark the Workfare Week of Action starting tomorrow, Monday 18th March. It will also appear on the campaign blog http://kickingtoryassonwelfare.wordpress.com/ where myself and Laurie AntiTory offer support, advice and information for anyone suffering under the welfare ‘reforms’. We have seen victories in the form of companies and charities pulling out of the workfare scheme in droves in response to public pressure, and in the courts for Cait Reilly (pulled off voluntary work in a museum to stack shelves in Poundland) and Jamieson Wilson. However, EXTREMELY disturbing news has come out that the Government and DWP are rushing through a bill (the Jobseekers [back to work schemes] Bill) to override the court verdict and avoid paying back the sanctions they unlawfully stripped from individuals for not participating in workfare. Furthermore, Labour are said to be supporting the bill, making it clearer than ever that they won’t stand up for the poorest any more. This disgusting move undermines democracy and the rule of law: if the government can simply retroactively change any legal decision it doesn’t like, what’s next? Read more on the bill at http://mikesivier.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/is-labour-planning-to-betray-its-core-supporters-by-siding-with-iain-duncan-smith/ and http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/mar/15/dwp-law-change-jobseekers-poundland and find resources and ways to challenge this abuse of the law, as well as ways to get involved in the workfare week of action, at the bottom of the article.
In Cameron, Osborne and co’s campaign to restore class elites and polarise rich and poor still further, one of the most pernicious elements is the vaunted introduction of workfare. (And it is a project to restore upper class power, make no mistake. Even the head of the International Monetary Fund, a model free market institution and thus hardly a haven for reds (under the bed or elsewhere), has said that austerity measures are not working. Yet still they go on cutting from those who have nothing while giving tax breaks to the rich).
Workfare is promoted in the usual discourse of fecklessness, benefit dependency, scroungers and workshy earning their right to benefits rather than living in decadent indolence at taxpayer expense. The idea is to further extend the conditionality of benefits (JSA claimants already lose benefits if they turn down paid work, no matter how poorly paid, temporary or insecure) to include mandatory work in participating companies. Of course, the “workshy layabout” narrative is somewhat undermined at the moment by the explosion in unemployment (caused by the banks, let’s remember, not benefit recipients) which means that for every job, however menial and lowly, there are tens or even hundreds of applicants. The vast majority of unemployed people right now are desperately trying to find work to alleviate poverty and debt, belying the “can’t work, won’t work” stereotype used to demonise people on benefits, in order to justify the measures which will exacerbate their poverty still further.
Think about this idea in any detail at all and it’s not only the unfairness but the stupidity of workfare which becomes glaringly apparent. Of course it is slave labour, working a thirty – forty hour week for JSA (currently at £71/week for over-25s, still lower for younger people). But it’s also free or heavily subsidised labour for employers, as the state continues to pay the benefit. What business is then going to advertise a real job, with a living wage and fair working conditions, when a supply of “workfare” participants is available? ( It’s the same sort of disincentive as tax credits, which, while having a much more benign application (topping up the wages of low earners), means in practice employers know the exact threshold for tax credit payment and can thus continue to pay poverty wages). So in light of this, how exactly is this helping tackle unemployment or economic recovery? (Incidentally, there is wide consensus among academics that only spending can promote economic growth. Fat chance when everyone’s skint, again begging the question: how exactly are austerity measures helping?)
To digress for a moment, as I mentioned adult JSA is currently paid at £71/w. Housing Benefit is set too low to pay even the cheapest rents and is set to be cut still further. So out of that £71/w, any JSA claimant has to top up the rent by 20, 30, 40, 50 pounds a month. Council Tax Benefit is also set to be cut by ten per cent, with Cameron telling local councils to pursue the shortfall any way they see fit, which of course will mean bailiffs and debt collectors. I take a moment to point all this out to show that the discourse of idle undeserving poor living in the lap of luxury laughing at the taxpayer and the government is bollocks. But it’s useful bollocks to Cameron and co, because it justifies ever harsher and coercive measures. Incidentally, workfare would not be optional, but to do voluntary work off your own back would not be allowed, because the time should be spent jobseeking – or, for sick and disabled claimants, would be used against you to find you fit for work, even though with voluntary work you can choose the number of hours you can manage, and can stop if your condition worsens. The Big Society? We’re all in this together? Don’t make me laugh. Cameron and his cronies are no longer even bothering to pretend they’re not throwing the poor to the wolves. But just as Thatcher, in her boundless arrogance, came undone with the Poll Tax riots, Cameron’s days are numbered too. Crush people for long enough, they will crush you.
And if someone who has paid through the nose and gone thousands into debt for their education (because education, too, is now simply a commodity, with a rocketing price) and studied for years becomes unemployed, why should they be forced into factory work to keep their dole money? (Which would also take up most of their time, which they could have spent looking for work in their own fields. This is how people get trapped in demeaning, dead end jobs whilst barely keeping body and soul together. This is how the country is deprived of great young minds who could do great things). Cameron would never let that happen to his kids. The truth is, workfare is punitive, it is degrading, it is designed to show people their low place and never let them forget it. The sociologist Loic Wacquant also posits that it acts as a warning to those in working poverty, struggling in exploitative jobs with totally inadequate pay and conditions, that there is another level still to fall if you step out of line. Wacquant’s searingly angry, disturbing book “Punishing the Poor: the Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity” – which I can’t recommend enough – details how the so called left and right hands of the state, the welfare system and the prison system, together form an apparatus for the regulation and surveillance of deviant populations, those who can’t or won’t be part of the brave new world of neoliberalism. His analysis shows how neoliberal governments in the USA, UK and elsewhere increasingly criminalise poverty itself, calling benefit recipients “cultural similes of criminals”. It’s very interesting that the appeals of the sick and disabled found fit to work by Atos are actually held in court. (These appeals/trials are estimated to overturn between 40 – 70% of decisions, in one fell swoop resulting in months – sometimes over a year – of needless worry, distress and penury in the form of 40% benefit cuts pending appeal for victims, massive cost to the taxpayer of the appeal process belying the supposed purpose of the cuts, and proof to anyone without a hard right wing agenda or a midget brain that the benefit cuts are of no benefit whatsoever economically but are a purely ideological campaign). And we have already seen the increasing criminalisation of homelessness with the repeal of squatters’ rights, as well as new legislation against “shanty towns” such as the camps of the Occupy movement, a further indicator of the increasing criminalisation of dissent. Look at the rabid tabloid discourse and we can see how benefit claimants are characterised in the most horrible, judgemental and dehumanising terms; and blaming the poor for their own poverty fulfils a useful function for government, obscuring the rotten mess of inequality and greed, conveniently ignoring the crimes of the powerful and justifying the dehumanising treatment of the “problem categories” chewed up and spat out by the market. This “invisibilisation of social problems” (Wacquant) serves the dual function of removing any obligation to do anything about them, and literally cleaning up the streets of the poor and dispossessed who ruin it for everyone else – after all, who wants a visible reminder of the human cost of their own wealth?
Workfare in the UK is also symptomatic of the overwhelmingly pervasive attitude that paid work is the only thing of value a person can do. To be out of work is to be nothing, to be less than human. Again – bollocks. No one can tell me that working in McDonald’s has more meaning than bringing up children, caring for incapacitated family members, volunteering your time for free to help others. Of course, the demonisation of the unemployed is a big lie on another level too: smoke and mirrors to conceal the fact that the last thing neoliberal governments and corporations want is full employment. The very people they vilify and slander are the so called reserve army of capitalism: their existence keeps wages low, the spectre greedy bosses can invoke to keep their workers in line.
I’ll conclude with a heartbreaking story cited by Michael Moore in his sobering film “Bowling for Columbine”. In Flint, Michigan, a six year old boy went into school one day with a gun he found in his uncle’s house, where he was staying because his mother was being evicted. This tiny child shot dead another tiny child, six year old Kayla Rowland. Flint, Michigan, Moore points out, is the grimy flipside of the American dream, with 87% of pupils at the school in question living below the official poverty line. Tamala Owens, the young boy’s mother, to keep her entitlement to health care and food stamps, was on the workfare programme administrated by the weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin (a company that can’t be expected to have respect for human life, as a producer of weapons of mass murder). Ms Owens worked two jobs on the workfare programme, forced to take an 80 mile round trip with an hour and a half commute each way. A single parent, her boys rarely saw their mother who went out early and didn’t come home till late (but work is God, right? Never mind who was parenting these poor children). The idea was that Ms Owens was “working off” the welfare payments she had taken from the state. Despite working seventy hours a week at these two jobs in Auburn Hills, one of the wealthiest districts in America, for companies who were given special tax breaks for employing welfare recipients (another disincentive to offer jobs at a living wage and another proof that this policy thus does nothing to tackle unemployment) Ms Owens couldn’t afford her rent and so sent the boys to stay with their uncle while she tried to sort things out. And so the stage was set for an eminently needless, preventable tragedy, the violent ending of one young life and the permanent blighting of countless more in the form of both Kayla’s family and the young perpetrator and his. Incidentally, the sheriff of Flint, Robert Pickell, openly tells Moore in the film that workfare has no merit and only compounds social problems. The District Attorney tells how the same right wingers who are the most enthusiastic proponents of workfare and the “blaming the poor” perspective wrote to him and demanded this six year old boy be hanged from the nearest tree.
Of course, in America policy is also highly racialised, much more so than here, but nonetheless workfare in Britain will hit the poorest and most vulnerable yet again. The poorest pay for the sins of the richest.
To fight back against workfare and get involved in the week of action, see the campaign at http://www.boycottworkfare.org
To challenge workfare based on servitude laws, look at http://www.servitudecomplaint.org.uk/ (locally we’ll be presenting a copy of this letter to the police station on Saturday, if you would like to join us there at 11am).
Particularly egregiously, charities known to be still using workfare are The Salvation Army and the YMCA (charities which purport to help lift people out of poverty!). Join the rolling pickets here: http://www.boycottworkfare.org/?p=2262
You can find your MP and send a letter from this site: http://action.pcs.org.uk/page/speakout/ask-your-mp-to-stop-the-government-changing-the-law-on-workfare or you can use this template letter to send to both Tory and Labour MPs to protest the retroactive legislation. It may also be worth contacting Michael Meacher MP as he has tirelessly championed the rights of poor and disabled people against the DWP and Atos, his email address is : email@example.com
I am extremely disturbed by the information in this article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/mar/15/dwp-law-change-jobseekers-poundland?CMP=twt_gu&commentpage=2
As the article notes, this retrospective legislation undermines the rule of law. My understanding is also that Ms Reilly was diverted away from her own voluntary work in a museum, to work at Poundland. I cannot see how this benefited either her or society.
I believe workfare is unethical and of dubious legality, viz the human rights act article 4 prohibiting slavery, servitude and forced labour. I believe it to be a punitive measure which will also not help people into work, there is strong evidence that companies are simply using placements to replace actual jobs with the accompanying minimum pay and conditions. It is also inhumane to cut off the only income of some of the poorest in society. I believe it to be a wrongheaded, vindictive measure on every level, and the government’s attempt to overrule the court’s judgement to be reprehensible and dangerous for democracy. If the government can simply apply new legislation to overrule any decisions it does not like, what is next? I am deeply concerned we are becoming a surveillance state and that the poor are being punished for the crisis created by the rich. You the government are there to serve the people, not punish us whilst rewarding yourselves (I believe an MPs weekly allowance for groceries alone is £160, yet your government is taking the meagre £71 a week out of the pockets of the poorest people if they are unable or unwilling to work effectively almost full time hours for no extra money and with no chance of a job at the end of it).
I refer you to the DWP’s own report which states: A study by the DWP into workfare in the USA, Canada and Australia found that workfare ‘can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers’. The same study also found that workfare is particularly ineffective at leading to work during periods of high unemployment.[i]
Please oppose this bill which not only would prevent justice being done but would set a dangerous precedent.