Politics Magazine

The False Logic of Workfare

Posted on the 21 February 2013 by Thepoliticalidealist @JackDarrant

Job seekers. Bishnupur, West Bengal

Job seekers. Bishnupur, West Bengal (Photo credit: flippy whale)

The welfare state, in its modern form, has drifted away from the principles upon which Britain based it with the Attlee government of 1945-51. When the system was originally established, a system of social insurance was envisaged in which all made some contribution, in exchange for public assistance that would support them “from the cradle to the grave”. The Labour movement would be able to take pride in this key aspect of a socialist economy were it not for the fact that we, albeit to a much lesser extent than the Tories, have gradually eroded the collectivist and contributory principles  to the point we have reached today in which ideological opponents are able to reverse decades of social progress.

Iain Duncan Smith, failed Conservative party leader and current Work and Pensions secretary, yesterday featured in a lively interview on the London-based talk radio station LBC (The interview is available here- but be warned that the title of the video uses highly offensive language to describe Mr Duncan Smith). There was a lot of the usual malicious stereotyping of the unemployed, the sort which I have discussed endlessly and need not discuss any further. However, there was one point made by the minister which caught my attention:

Interviewer: [The woman on the workfare scheme] was not complaining about stacking shelves- she merely wanted to be paid for it. When you-

Iain Duncan Smith: She was paid for it. What do you think the taxpayer was paying her for god’s sake! Job Seeker’s Allowance. We are paying her to do.. So would you rather the taxpayer allows her to sit on unemployment, not getting work experience?

Interviewer: Let me read you the official Department for Work and Pensions response to a petition to abolish workfare, and I quote: ” We do not have ‘work for your benefit’ or ‘workfare’ schemes in this country”. And, a Freedom of Information request to your department told us that “benefit is not paid as remuneration for the activity” so explain to me how she can earn her Job Seeker’s Allowance in a country where benefit is not paid as remuneration.

Iain Duncan Smith: Because the work experience programme is one that you volunteer to do. Once you’ve volunteered to do it is it made clear-

Interviewer: The Court of Appeal just found [that it was not voluntary]-

This government appears to have the mentality that people must “earn” their Job Seeker’s Allowance by giving free labor to profitable multinationals such as Poundland. In other words, the state pays the job seeker a fraction of the minimum wage to take what is always a low skilled temporary job in time that they could spend looking for real jobs. It is very unjust that this category of labor is deemed exempt from minimum wage legislation. We are in serious danger of ending up with an American-style system, with food stamps instead of payments, double jobs being the norm in some communities, and people being trapped in workfare for years.

But the question I would ask, is not about how inappropriate workfare is for the job seekers. It is how the Government can say that they must earn their meagre payments when they either have, or will go on to, pay a fair tax contribution for decades of their working lives. I think the least I would expect from the state had I been paying 20% Income Tax and 11% National Insurance all my working life, and had a spell of hard luck in the employment market, would be a little bit of financial support and freedom to find a real, paid job that suits me. Once this security provided to taxpayers is removed, it undermines public support for public spending elsewhere. It’s the typical Tory strategy: cut spending on public services, declare that they are appallingly bad, then privatise or abolish them. I just hope that it doesn’t work this time.


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