Struggle And Myth of a Classless Society

(Author: Online Protest Against Workfare – Inspired by an email sent by Samantha)

Over the last three decades successive governments have promised to create a classless society. None have delivered. A Guardian/ICM Poll in Guardian/ICM poll published in 2007 highlighted that Britain remains a nation dominated by class division, with a huge majority certain that their social standing determines the way they are judged.

Five years recession, welfare reform and “workfare” have highlighted exactly how deep and severe the class divide is. As always, those at the top get the best deal with a government promising to cut taxes for the rich whilst at the same time cutting tax credits and benefits for the lower classes. So is it any wonder the “unwashed are out on the streets”?

In 1351 the Statute of Labourers restricted the maximum wage for labourers while the landowners became richer and richer. By 1381 the peasants began revolting; demanding fair wages for their labour and better living standards for their families.

Following the depression of 1841 the peasants were revolting again with public meetings, petitions and demands made by the Chartists, their demands falling on the deaf ears of government.

At the time The Northern Star commented:

“Three and half millions have quietly, orderly, soberly, peaceably but firmly asked of their rulers to do justice and the ‘House’ has resolved they should not be heard! Three and a half millions of the slave-class have holden out the olive branch of peace to the enfranchised and privileged classes and sought for a firm and compact union, on the principle of equality before the law; and the enfranchised and privileged have refused to enter into a treaty! The same class is to be a slave class still”.

Alas how altered are the times, rich men despise the poor
And pay them off without remorse, quite scornful at their door
And if a man is out of work his Parish pay is small
Enough to starve himself and wife, his children and all
(Song of the times circa 1840)

There have been times in history where labour is cheap. Not only cheap but based on compulsion and sanctions, all for the benefit of corporate profit versus poverty knocking on the door.

In the late 19thC the masters were mill owners, the prime contractors of the day. Rarely was ‘work fair’ (A mill song from the 1890’s which easily chimes with the 2012 version of ‘workfare’).

Oh dear, I’m going to be late, Grayling is stood at gate
With his hands in his pockets our benefit he’ll dock us
We’ll have to buy grub on the slate

Poverty poverty knock, my loom it is saying all day
Poverty poverty knock, Grayling’s too skinny to pay

So why are we not smashing the machinery and rioting? Government may not have created a classless society, but they have successfully divided the classes. An unwritten policy of divide and rule has made the working classes very nearly impotent.

Those in work looked down on the ‘workshy’ and ‘lazy’ scroungers, sitting at home at the expense of my taxes.

The irony is that all but the richest of us are reliant on the welfare system whether we recognise it or not. Whilst ‘Fat Cats’ and ‘bankers’ got rich over the last 25 years, the rest of us became reliant on tax credits, a benefit by any other name.

People working full-time are better than those working 25 hour weeks; in turn they can work so why can’t someone else work while the struggle to bring up children on their own? Then there is the young team who just stay in bed all day and hang out on street corners drinking cheap cider all night; and lets not forget the sick and disabled who apparently have never had a medical assessment in the 10 years they have been watching Jeremy Kyle!

Politicians and the media have successfully engineered a myth, a stigma about the underclass that is bringing the country to the brink of bankruptcy. The unemployed are ‘uneducated; young women get pregnant in order to get state handouts; the sick and disabled are benefit fraudsters.

Everyone sits at home waiting for the postman to pop a dole check through the door. Not one of them is engaged in productive activity for the benefit of society. There is no value or credit placed on the high numbers of people not ‘paid worked’, but nevertheless making a huge contribution to society through their volunteering, or participation. 2012 may well be the year where if its not paid, its not valued.
Six years ago we were told the economy was booming, banking was a spectacular British success, we had record levels of employment, record levels of house building.

Boom then bust, 2007 the US sub-prime market collapsed, 2008 Icelandic banks failed and a financial contagion spread around the globe. Big business and even bigger bankers had been gambling with our money and ‘blew the lot”

5 years on in some Orwellian ‘newspeak’ the government have managed to shift the blame and it’s those who lost their jobs, unemployed; young people and the sick and disabled who are at fault for the economy!

Ian Duncan Smith has some notion that there are plenty of jobs people just need to move to where there is demand for labour. According to a recent Independent article that would be Aberdeen then, where there is around one unemployment claimant per vacancy. Hull however has almost 80 unemployed people chasing every job vacancy. But it might just get harder to find a job in Hull as London moves its homeless families up North.

George Osbourne seems to be gripping the piggy bank as though his life depended upon it. Scameron has told that the health service must be sold off to make savings, private business must step in to rescue failing schools, the welfare state must be shrunk, and the unemployed made to work (although payment isn’t necessarily a requirement).

There is a staggeringly high level of evidence that investing in “workfare” will do very little for the economy. On the other hand investing in services and the economy has produced results in the past. Following World War II the National Debt was 238 percent of GDP. With investment in the economy, in services and industry but was slow reduced down as low as 25 percent by 1975. However we all know that Conservatives dislike interfering with the market.

Those of us over a certain age will remember Thatcher taking apart our economy, our industries and our jobs because of her inherent disdain of Labour, Trade Unions and the working classes, Widespread deregulation, and privatisation has meant that once household British names are now owned by foreign investors and multi-nationals.

“Workfare” does not create jobs; in fact there is strong evidence that it can actually damage the economy. So why are we spending £3-5bn on something that is only likely to benefit a handful of big corporate companies given massive contracts? Emma Harrison of A4e managed to pay herself a £8.4m dividend last year through government work schemes.

£3-5bn spent on health, education, social care, social housing and even paying benefits, when managed properly can actually increase the wealth of the nation. Investment in these areas actually puts money into the economy, through wages, spending and taxation.

Of course we learnt under the last Tory government that this sort of investment goes against their political sensitivities and ideology. There is very little industry left that can be privatised, but there are still plenty of opportunities to sell of chunks of the UK. Benefit assessments are sold off to France, Workfare is best delivered through Australian and European companies, we could sell off the benefit system to U.S insurance companies, and what about the NHS, surely there is a profit to be made out of unemployment there is profit to be made out of illness?

A4e From a Clients Perspective.

O.P.A.W. has received a blog entry from someone who is well experienced with the ‘client focussed’ nature of A4e. The author wishes to remain anonymous as the threat of future sanctions is a very real one when speaking out against the governments work providers. We thank the author hugely for the insight that this piece delivers.

As someone with previous experience of these companies who are providing work placements and training I want to set the record straight on exactly what people can expect. Not what the Government, or Job centre Plus or the work providers themselves will tell you. I have asked to remain anonymous; I’m scared to speak out about A4e as I worry about the sanctions that can be arbitrarily handed out. I know others feel the same but are also afraid of speaking out. However if we don’t speak out how are things to be changed for the benefit of us all?

I have experienced A4e on three occasions. I want to work; I live in the North of England; I have some osteoarthritis but I also have some I.T skills, a level 1 Health and Safety Certificate and am good with other people.

My first experience of A4e was in 2008. In 7 weeks I saw a different member of staff almost every week. Each time I saw someone new I had to go over the same information again; my name; background; previous experiences; health issues; what I wanted to do. It started to feel normal that I would be lectured; talked down too, feel demeaned; continually faced being told it was MY FAULT I hadn’t found a job!

Not all staff were that bad, there were one who had their own experience of being unemployed, they knew what it felt like but mostly I felt as though staff looked down on me for being unemployed.I thought A4e were supposed to be boosting my confidence, not undermining it?

The training centre was badly resourced.  We were expected to do job searches with 60 or more people fighting to access a handful of old computers too slow to be of any real use; out of date newspapers to search for jobs and one telephone to call for application forms.

I attend workshops and training sessions to help people to find work, but I saw one tutor effectively bullying people for not trying hard enough. One occasion someone spoke to their advisor at the Job Centre about what was happening at A4e.  When they got back it was obvious that there had been a telephone call, and a tutor ‘ripped’ into them in front of everyone for having spoken about their concerns with Job Centre Plus.

Another occasion the tutor lectured everyone in the room about the need for personal hygiene and what was the best way to wash clothes, apparently this involves boil washing everything.

I was told that A4e would find me a placement to give me some recent experience for my C.V.  All that materialised was a stint on the A4e reception, but I wasn’t allowed to use the computer as I hadn’t signed a confidentiality agreement and nobody knew what the procedure for doing that was. So my experience of being a receptionist now means I know how to answer a door intercom!  I left A4e still unemployed and feeling badly let down.

In 2010 I was sent to A4e again. Very little had changed. It was a hot summer and there was little ventilation in the building and only two electric fans to cool down a building with up to 100 people in it. There were five more computers, not really an improvement as there were more people competing to access them.There was also a security guard who would stalk the building looking for trouble.  Why was a security guard required in such a place?

Even though I felt A4e had failed me previously, I wanted to give them another try in the hope I would move into work.

The induction session was led by very politically outspoken guy who was quick to blame previous governments for everything that went on. I was really uncomfortable with this, it was unnecessary and did nothing to help people move into work.  I wanted to speak out but bit my tongue; I really wanted to get a job and didn’t want to get on the wrong side of staff at A4e.

Things started off positively, a couple of staff tried to help and were supportive, but not much had changed. I was told that there was a possibility of a work placement with the local Hilton Hotel, would I be interested? Of course I said yes, it seemed a great opportunity.  I was told A4e would get it sorted out for me.  Then the excuses came, “they haven’t got back to me”, “I can’t get hold of them”. Nothing came of it again.

All the time I was applying for jobs, sometimes two or three a day, I was writing speculative letters, emails sending out my C.V. all in the hope that eventually my luck would break and I would be offered a job.

I was sent for an interview for a placement, A4e promise that everything is personalised around you; placements are matched to your skills, but when I got there the company wanted someone with technical knowledge of website design.  It sounded like they were looking for someone to do a piece of work for them, not give them experience in the workplace.

.I have a Health and Safety level 1 Certificate and as A4e offered training at level 2, I thought I could get a better qualification. A4e staff also suggested to me that as I was good with computers I might be interested in a ‘Preparing to Teach in Life Long Learning’ (PTLLS) Course in computing. It sounded really positive. Head Office would need to approve the funding.  Whilst that came through I could peer support the other clients on how to use the computers as the staff member who was supposed to help clients never seemed to have the time to do it. I didn’t mind helping, I enjoyed it and thought it would help me and others but it got to a stage where the staff started to ask me to help them as I was the expert.

Newspapers frequently arrived late; C.V’s couldn’t be stored on computers (so called security and data protection issues). There was never any stationery (I eventually took my own supply of envelopes).  Whenever you had a C.V. or letter prepared you had to take it to the staff member for them to sign it to show them you were applying for a job.  It would be put into the internal post, we couldn’t post the applications ourselves.

I was sent for one job interview, at a place with no public transport connections and I do not drive.  I managed to get my way there as previously someone had been sanctioned for refusing an interview.  It wasn’t an interview, they simply asked me to fill in an application form which I could have done at A4e. The manager there saw I looked in pain through my osteoarthritis and called me a taxi back to A4e.

A4e then told me if I had problems with the distance and the lack of public transport that I could have said no to the interview.  This is the first I knew prior to this and I was more worried about the fear of sanctions

After 13 weeks A4e couldn’t (or wouldn’t) send me on the PTLLS Course; and even though I had a level 1 Health and Safety Certificate they wouldn’t put me on the Level 2 course. I left  A4e feeling badly let down yet again.

Then I was sent to A4e again!  It was supposed to be another provider, and I thought that might be different, but no, there was a mix up and its back to A4e again for me!

From my very first appointment there was a mix up of dates, the wrong interview time, come back, we have double booked. When I did see their advisor she asked why I wasn’t working.  I said “because there aren’t that many jobs out there”. “Rubbish, there are lots of jobs out there!”.

I was my fault.My application forms can’t be working; my C.V doesn’t have the right Boolean search for terms. I’m looking for the wrong jobs in the wrong places.

She asked about medical conditions. She dismissed my osteoarthritis as there is no evidence of it from the Job Centre. I said I could work part time or full time.  It was supposed to be a one-to-one meeting, but it was in an open office within hearing of everyone else and with lots of noise and distraction.  At the end she arranged for me to go to an application form session as that must be a reason why I am not in work.

It had nothing to do with current economic climate; dozens of people competing for every job; or major employers in the area moving away or closing down.  Yet again A4e have left me feeling it is my fault I am out of work

I don’t hold out much hope for these new schemes, A4e state it’s now completely different.  Yes it is, it’s mandatory. There are tougher sanctions and it can last longer.  I might be called at any time. A4e could require me to attend every day, or once a week, or once a month, work 30 hours a week, whatever they want and if I say NO, then I could easily face tough sanctions! After all it’s my fault I’m not working. Isn’t it?

Workfare and Mental Health

Guest Blog by Gordon Johnston http://gordonjohnston.wordpress.com/

Tory governments have never exactly been good news for the unemployed or for people who have the misfortune to have a mental health condition. So for those of us who fall under both headings this particular government is a nightmare.

We are attacked under the heading of welfare reform as eligibility for Employment Support Allowance is “tightened”, making it much more difficult for many of us to get the support we desperately need. The services we depend on and the charities that support us are being cut drastically under the austerity programme. And many of us could also be forced onto Workfare schemes where we have to work for the small amounts we receive from the state.

Because under the government’s Work Programme, work placements can still be compulsory for people who receive Employment and Support Allowance. Despite caving in to a combination of campaigners and employers and removing the compulsion element from workfare schemes for young people, it remains in place for those with disabilities.

How enlightened is that?

Now, many of us who have mental health conditions are simply unable to work full time. Others can work part time if the correct support is in place. And some are desperate to get back into full time employment – both to earn some money and to resume careers that have been interrupted by illness.

But have you tried getting a job recently? There are not exactly many of them around, and it is always more difficult to get a job when you don’t have one. When you add in having to explain away gaps in your CV that were caused by illness it becomes almost impossible for someone with a mental health condition to secure a job.

So how does a compulsory work placement help? Quite simply it doesn’t.

In some cases forcing someone into full time work when they are not ready for it can have seriously harmful effects on their mental health. It could push recovery back by putting them into stressful situations. In fact even the threat of being forced into unpaid work could cause severe stress for many people.

And for others the “opportunity” to spend a few weeks stacking shelves or sweeping floors in a shop isn’t going to improve our chances of a full time job one little bit. Having a mental health condition doesn’t mean we are only capable of low paid manual work. Many of us are highly educated and have a great deal of work experience already on our CVs. This isn’t just snobbery, as some would have it; rather it is a desire to use our skills and abilities in jobs where we can contribute far more.

Workfare placements are simply not a good way of tackling unemployment. Who says so? The Department of Work and Pensions does. Yes, that’s right. The very same government department that runs these schemes! The DWP concluded in its own research report that:

“There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It 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 report also tells us that: “Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high… Workfare is least effective for individuals with multiple barriers to work.”

Weak labour market? Check. High unemployment? Check. Multiple barriers? Certainly true for many people with mental health conditions.

If I was to be offered a work trial in a relevant area based on my work history with a guaranteed interview for a real job at the end of it I would be happy to take part. I would love the chance to show an employer what I can do, to put my employment skills and experience to good use once more.

But if I am forced to become free labour for some unscrupulous employer who has no intention of ever even considering offering me employment then it is a very different story. And I am sure that most people with mental health conditions feel exactly the same. Why should we be used as free labour? Don’t we have rights too?

There is a serious unemployment problem in this country and the barriers faced by many of us are difficult ones to overcome. But workfare simply isn’t an appropriate solution to our needs. It’s exploitative, it doesn’t work and it could actually make our mental health worse.

And the sooner that our government sits up and takes notice of these simple facts the better.

Without A Liberal Voice There Is No True Democracy

O.P.A.W Administrator and former Liberal Democrat party member Andrew Sharp writes an open letter to the Coalition Government‘s ‘stabilising’ party asking how the wheels have been allowed to come off so quickly!

Lib Dems
I’ll be frank. I have decided that I am no longer a Lib Dem. I am, or had been, a life-long Lib Dem supporter and some time party member. A month or so ago I decided that I will be voting elsewhere in May. This decision was not reached easily or painlessly and may prove not to be irreversible. The ball is very much in the Lib Dem leadership’s court now. There are various reasons that I feel compelled to turn away, the party might lure me back with a principled stance on each of these. I focus on just one issue here: workfare. It is an area of huge concern to me. In my view the problems with the UK’s workfare system highlight fundamental threats to our individual liberty and an urgent need for honesty and transparency in our government and its related agencies.

Any discussion of workfare needs to acknowledge DWP research (2008) showing that workfare is likely to actually hinder jobseekers’ efforts to find work and “is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high”. We are in just such a market now for sure. There are good arguments for scrapping existing schemes altogether and replacing them with subsidised job schemes that pay a proper wage. However, let’s assume that we have to work with the existing system which consists of 5 schemes: The Work Experience Scheme, The Work Programme, Sector-based Work Academies, Mandatory Work Activity and Community Action Programme.

It was the case of Cait Reilly that first drew my attention to workfare. Up until the news that Cait Reilly intended to sue the government I had incorrectly assumed that people were being made to work for their benefits only in the public or Third sector and only if they were proven to have no intention of ever getting a job unless forced. How little I knew. Ignorance was truly bliss! A very quick look at the case is all that should be required for any sentient person to realise that there is a bizarre and twisted system at play here. Under what sensible regime would a grown adult with an interest in becoming a museum curator be forced by a government-sponsored agency to give up her independently-established voluntary work placement IN A MUSEUM in order to work in retail? It just seems like bureaucratic, target-satisfying (and as it turns out profit-driven) nonsense.

The Cait Reilly case laid the ground for the furore that blew up over the now infamous ‘JSA plus expenses’ job ad for Tesco as part of the Work Experience Scheme. The government reaction to public outrage was to label us as communists, Socialists Workers, Trotskyites, anarchists, elitists and snobs. A quick glance at that list of “insults” tells you that the government is inconsistent in its response, probably because it lacks a well-considered strategy and resorts to belittling and dismissing dissenters so as to avoid proper, democratic discourse. I could honestly understand the abuse coming from the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling. They resorted to insults the moment they realised they’d been caught in their own lies about the Work Experience Scheme being ‘entirely voluntary’. What really infuriated me were Sarah Teather’s comments on Radio 4’s Any Questions. At the last GE I was delighted when Ms Teather held her newly-redefined constituency. I have to admit that I will be equally pleased when she loses her seat at the next election following her unbelievable comments dismissing my right to protest: “There is unfortunately an educated liberal elite who believes that jobs in retail are beneath them.” Ms Teather, you have sullied your own name by descending into pointless, silly and entirely inaccurate name-calling, laying yourself open to accusations that you are now nothing more than a “yellow Tory”. You should apologise. You appear particularly foolish given your own education at an elite university and your party membership. Ridiculous!

So, which is it coalition? Am I a ‘Trot’ or an elitist snob? The answer is of course neither. The only party I ever joined was the Lib Dems. I am certainly no ‘job snob’. I totally understand the value of work and work experience. I have been unimpressed to hear top execs from retail say they started work on the shop floor as some kind of defence for free labour. You were not forced! I bet you got paid!
I too first started work on the shop floor of a supermarket in my early teens. I too worked of my own volition and I too got paid. I am lucky that I have always been able to find work when I needed it. Not everybody is so lucky. I have stacked shelves, filled freezers, cleaned and tidied stock rooms, waited, washed pots, picked eggs in an egg farm… let me tell you loud and clear there is nothing about having worked for years handling chicken shit and blood mixed with feathers and egg yolk that gives anyone the slightest room to call me a ‘job snob’!

I fully understand that work experience is useful. I see the process from the employer’s point of view as well as the jobseekers. I work in a creative industry that is tough to enter. I gained entry by working for free when I should have been studying for my university degree finals. I got lucky and started work with the same company within a week of finishing said finals. I am now in the privileged position of being able to offer people work experience for 2-week unpaid placements. They approach me of their own volition without any government intervention. More often than not the timing is not convenient and I have to refuse. All of this seems perfectly reasonable enough to me. What I do not find reasonable is the idea that I could have somebody working in my team for more than 2 weeks for free. If I have that much work then I need a temp, to take somebody out of unemployment and to reimburse them fairly for their labour. If getting people to work for you for more than 2 weeks, and especially if not as a genuine, un-coerced volunteer, then they need to be paid. The minimum wage is not a living wage so anything less is open to accusations of ‘forced labour’ that may prove tough to defend with any degree of sincerity. I have a really big problem with the way that work experience surely undermines the value of labour, bringing wages down further while the cost of living continues to spiral upwards. This concern ought to be shared by every working person not just the unemployed.

I have to question the useful purpose of widespread, government-endorsed work experience. I recently hired a junior. During the recruitment process I saw a large number of CVs from young people who had all undertaken work experience with our competitors. In almost every instance it was the same competitor! I can honestly say that once I’d seen half a dozen of these CVs the value of that work experience was greatly diminished. The experience became meaningless as it became clear that our competitor was taking on so many work experience people that they were not being discerning in their selection process and were using them purely for ‘grunt work’. I quickly stopped inviting these applicants to interview. It struck me that there was almost certainly a vacancy with our competitor and a manager tearing their hair out in frustration that they were not allowed to hire a new member of staff for their team. This is unfair on existing employees and often less constructive for jobseekers than it needs to be. If the government’s purpose in pushing people into work experience placements is, as they have stated, to enhance their CVs then they need to rethink. As an employer I can attest to the fact that these CVs are not going to be made more attractive by featuring generic work experience. The experience needs to be focused and meaningful to have good value.

Unfortunately the issues are far broader than the discussions that any political party appears willing to discuss openly. It is impossible to address all of the aspects of workfare in one blog post. Of particular concern are the facts that changes to the benefit system are going to push many disabled people into poverty and workfare simultaneously. ATOS is not fit for purpose, their judgement on who is fit to work not sound. I doubt that a private agency with a profit motive in finding people fit for work will ever be the best judge of whether a sick or disabled person is actually fit for work. There are press stories circulating online related to people forced into the workplace when they were not and dying as a result. These were people with families. Dead.

I think it important that all 5 workfare schemes be brought into open discussion. All morality aside, if workfare programmes do not work at times of high unemployment then the existing schemes need reining in rather than broadening as the DWP wants. Make no mistake; the schemes cost the public purse billions of pounds to operate. It is hard not to view the government stance on this as ideological rather than practical. It is hard not to feel disempowered by a government that refuses to listen. For me personally it is impossible to trust in a party that I have always held dear while they fail to take a principled and humane stance on an issue that ultimately could have a detrimental impact on the working lives of every person in the UK.

Thanks for listening! If you did.

O.P.A.W Administrator and former Liberal Democrat party member Andrew Sharp writes an open letter to the Coalition Government‘s ‘stabilising’ party to ask where it all went wrong!

Lib Dems
I’ll be frank. I have decided that I am no longer a Lib Dem. I am, or had been, a life-long Lib Dem supporter and some time party member. A month or so ago I decided that I will be voting elsewhere in May. This decision was not reached easily or painlessly and may prove not to be irreversible. The ball is very much in the Lib Dem leadership’s court now. There are various reasons that I feel compelled to turn away, the party might lure me back with a principled stance on each of these. I focus on just one issue here: workfare. It is an area of huge concern to me. In my view the problems with the UK’s workfare system highlight fundamental threats to our individual liberty and an urgent need for honesty and transparency in our government and its related agencies.

Any discussion of workfare needs to acknowledge DWP research (2008) showing that workfare is likely to actually hinder jobseekers’ efforts to find work and “is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high”. We are in just such a market now for sure. There are good arguments for scrapping existing schemes altogether and replacing them with subsidised job schemes that pay a proper wage. However, let’s assume that we have to work with the existing system which consists of 5 schemes: The Work Experience Scheme, The Work Programme, Sector-based Work Academies, Mandatory Work Activity and Community Action Programme.

It was the case of Cait Reilly that first drew my attention to workfare. Up until the news that Cait Reilly intended to sue the government I had incorrectly assumed that people were being made to work for their benefits only in the public or Third sector and only if they were proven to have no intention of ever getting a job unless forced. How little I knew. Ignorance was truly bliss! A very quick look at the case is all that should be required for any sentient person to realise that there is a bizarre and twisted system at play here. Under what sensible regime would a grown adult with an interest in becoming a museum curator be forced by a government-sponsored agency to give up her independently-established voluntary work placement IN A MUSEUM in order to work in retail? It just seems like bureaucratic, target-satisfying (and as it turns out profit-driven) nonsense.

The Cait Reilly case laid the ground for the furore that blew up over the now infamous ‘JSA plus expenses’ job ad for Tesco as part of the Work Experience Scheme. The government reaction to public outrage was to label us as communists, Socialists Workers, Trotskyites, anarchists, elitists and snobs. A quick glance at that list of “insults” tells you that the government is inconsistent in its response, probably because it lacks a well-considered strategy and resorts to belittling and dismissing dissenters so as to avoid proper, democratic discourse. I could honestly understand the abuse coming from the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling. They resorted to insults the moment they realised they’d been caught in their own lies about the Work Experience Scheme being ‘entirely voluntary’. What really infuriated me were Sarah Teather’s comments on Radio 4’s Any Questions. At the last GE I was delighted when Ms Teather held her newly-redefined constituency. I have to admit that I will be equally pleased when she loses her seat at the next election following her unbelievable comments dismissing my right to protest: “There is unfortunately an educated liberal elite who believes that jobs in retail are beneath them.” Ms Teather, you have sullied your own name by descending into pointless, silly and entirely inaccurate name-calling, laying yourself open to accusations that you are now nothing more than a “yellow Tory”. You should apologise. You appear particularly foolish given your own education at an elite university and your party membership. Ridiculous!

So, which is it coalition? Am I a ‘Trot’ or an elitist snob? The answer is of course neither. The only party I ever joined was the Lib Dems. I am certainly no ‘job snob’. I totally understand the value of work and work experience. I have been unimpressed to hear top execs from retail say they started work on the shop floor as some kind of defence for free labour. You were not forced! I bet you got paid!
I too first started work on the shop floor of a supermarket in my early teens. I too worked of my own volition and I too got paid. I am lucky that I have always been able to find work when I needed it. Not everybody is so lucky. I have stacked shelves, filled freezers, cleaned and tidied stock rooms, waited, washed pots, picked eggs in an egg farm… let me tell you loud and clear there is nothing about having worked for years handling chicken shit and blood mixed with feathers and egg yolk that gives anyone the slightest room to call me a ‘job snob’!

I fully understand that work experience is useful. I see the process from the employer’s point of view as well as the jobseekers. I work in a creative industry that is tough to enter. I gained entry by working for free when I should have been studying for my university degree finals. I got lucky and started work with the same company within a week of finishing said finals. I am now in the privileged position of being able to offer people work experience for 2-week unpaid placements. They approach me of their own volition without any government intervention. More often than not the timing is not convenient and I have to refuse. All of this seems perfectly reasonable enough to me. What I do not find reasonable is the idea that I could have somebody working in my team for more than 2 weeks for free. If I have that much work then I need a temp, to take somebody out of unemployment and to reimburse them fairly for their labour. If getting people to work for you for more than 2 weeks, and especially if not as a genuine, un-coerced volunteer, then they need to be paid. The minimum wage is not a living wage so anything less is open to accusations of ‘forced labour’ that may prove tough to defend with any degree of sincerity. I have a really big problem with the way that work experience surely undermines the value of labour, bringing wages down further while the cost of living continues to spiral upwards. This concern ought to be shared by every working person not just the unemployed.

I have to question the useful purpose of widespread, government-endorsed work experience. I recently hired a junior. During the recruitment process I saw a large number of CVs from young people who had all undertaken work experience with our competitors. In almost every instance it was the same competitor! I can honestly say that once I’d seen half a dozen of these CVs the value of that work experience was greatly diminished. The experience became meaningless as it became clear that our competitor was taking on so many work experience people that they were not being discerning in their selection process and were using them purely for ‘grunt work’. I quickly stopped inviting these applicants to interview. It struck me that there was almost certainly a vacancy with our competitor and a manager tearing their hair out in frustration that they were not allowed to hire a new member of staff for their team. This is unfair on existing employees and often less constructive for jobseekers than it needs to be. If the government’s purpose in pushing people into work experience placements is, as they have stated, to enhance their CVs then they need to rethink. As an employer I can attest to the fact that these CVs are not going to be made more attractive by featuring generic work experience. The experience needs to be focused and meaningful to have good value.

Unfortunately the issues are far broader than the discussions that any political party appears willing to discuss openly. It is impossible to address all of the aspects of workfare in one blog post. Of particular concern are the facts that changes to the benefit system are going to push many disabled people into poverty and workfare simultaneously. ATOS is not fit for purpose, their judgement on who is fit to work not sound. I doubt that a private agency with a profit motive in finding people fit for work will ever be the best judge of whether a sick or disabled person is actually fit for work. There are press stories circulating online related to people forced into the workplace when they were not and dying as a result. These were people with families. Dead.

I think it important that all 5 workfare schemes be brought into open discussion. All morality aside, if workfare programmes do not work at times of high unemployment then the existing schemes need reining in rather than broadening as the DWP wants. Make no mistake; the schemes cost the public purse billions of pounds to operate. It is hard not to view the government stance on this as ideological rather than practical. It is hard not to feel disempowered by a government that refuses to listen. For me personally it is impossible to trust in a party that I have always held dear while they fail to take a principled and humane stance on an issue that ultimately could have a detrimental impact on the working lives of every person in the UK.

Thanks for listening! If you did.

(O.P.A.W aims to encourage debate around the issues of Workfare. Blog contributions are invited from group members and guest bloggers, as such thee views expressed on our blog page are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Online Protest Against Workfare as a group).

You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two (An Open Reply to a Cloaked Response)

“In This Life One Thing Counts, In The Bank Large Amounts”

During our recent ‘5 Days, 5 Actions’ campaign we asked all O.P.A.W supporters to send an email to A4e Chief Executive Andrew Dutton questioning A4e’s involvement  with all things ‘Workfare’ related. Mr Dutton has replied to these emails in a manner which we at O.P.A.W feel has dodged all of the points made and sought to supply nothing more than stale corporate rhetoric.  We have of course responded to Mr Dutton’s reply with an even more vigorous email asking that he answers our points in a fuller and less evasive manner. The template to this letter can be found in the ‘Action Updates’ section of our website; http://www.spanglefish.com/onlineprotestagainstworkfare/blog.asp

THIS however is the letter that we wanted to write!
Inspired by and Including Source Material from O.P.A.W Facebook Administrator Brian Scotlochrie Grubb.

Mr Dutton,

I thank you for your response to my email regardless as to how disingenuous it appeared to be.

I note that in opening you state that “Workfare does not exist in the UK”. I’m sure that you are aware that ‘Workfare’ is a general term used to cover most global Mandatory Employment Schemes.

Workfare in the Netherlands is known as ‘Work First’
Workfare in Germany is known as ‘One-Euro job’
Workfare in Norway is known as ‘Work Line’
Workfare in the UK is known as a collective of multiple schemes (scams). These are; ‘Work Experience Scheme’,’ Mandatory Work Activity’, ‘Work Programme’, ‘Post Work Programme’ and ‘Sector Based Work Academy Places’

Opening your reply by quibbling with semantics illustrates with just how little regard you show for those who choose to question your company.  To clarify, by default of widely accepted terminology ‘Workfare’ IS a scheme that runs in the UK.  Your desire to patronise has been duly acknowledged.

You go on to state that “A4e has only two MWA contracts, one in the south east of England and one as a sub-contract in Wales”. You know that’s just not true Mr Dutton. A4e is highly active through the ‘Workfare’ supply chain. There are a substantial volume of sub-contractors that your company facilitates in running MWA programmes. To draw an analogy, A4e is the ‘Fagin’ of MWA providers (quite fitting for the Dickensian Workhouse ethics that you promote, don’t you think?). Do you honestly think that you can get away with such diversionary statements whilst picking the pockets of the tax payer?

You continue, “In both we are delivering valuable work experience placements for people who need support moving into work”. As I’m sure you’re aware of by now Mr Dutton, it has been widely reported in the media that former A4e client Stuart Webb, along with many other former A4e clients certainly disagree with A4e’s interpretation of support. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/mar/06/a4e-unemployment-case-study

I have also spoken personally with a large number of A4e clients who would take issue with your claims of offering ‘valuable’ work experience and ‘support’.
Those I have spoken to include individuals who have been placed into WRAG and as a result are now clients with A4e. The overwhelming consensus amongst this group is that the day to day challenges they face are now being added to further by the ‘support’ that you purport your company to offer. The reported impersonal and unprofessional manner of many of your advisor’s has made many feel deeply disrespected and like little more than company stock or commodities rather than valued and supported clients.

The next contentious statement you is make is that A4e are providing “Tailored programmes”.  As more and more of A4e’s former and current clients speak out it is becoming widely acknowledged that the ‘Workfare’ programmes which you facilitate (as well as those through sub-contracting) are anything but ‘tailored’.
Do you perhaps mean Tailor-made to quickly achieve A4e it’s ‘finder’s fee’? (Tax payer’s money I will remind you).

I shall now highlight more quotes from your email that I take issue with. I could in fact have just returned your reply with a large circle around it to illustrate the level of questionable content but shall instead offer a breakdown of what I believe to be your highly delusional commentary on A4e practices.

“Confidence building”

As I have stated previously, there is now mounting evidence from many clients that from the second they walk through A4e doors your companies practices appear to do the utmost to eradicate confidence, instead replacing  it with a lowering of both personal standards and self worth when seeking employment.  Have you ever thought of changing the A4e motto from ‘Improving People’s Lives’ to ‘Simply Aim Lower’?

“I.T skills”

It is my opinion that A4e training courses are a waste of everybody’s time. I have been made aware that many clients participating in the A4e online I.T skills course, regardless as to previous knowledge in I.T are passing the course first time without support or guidance.  Rather than offering courses which genuinely educate I put it to you that A4e training courses appear to be of little more benefit than as a meaningless exercise in creating PR friendly statistics. In some respects I can understand this; positive statistics are after all not something that A4e have many of to grasp at.

I do appreciate that as a result of this that you’ve had to become ‘creative’.  Unfortunately your previous attempts at creativity now seem to have become exposed, though I must say, simply ‘role playing’ training courses was an act that traversed magnificently between being both genius and incredulous!

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2111872/Emma-Harrisons-A4e-Damning-claims-Back-Work-Tsars-job-training-firm-revealed.html

Have you perhaps considered setting up a badge system (like Scouts & Brownies) where you can ‘reward’ clients for such important skills such as ‘Opening a door’ or ‘Remembering their own name’? I’m sure such a scheme would fit in well along side A4e’s other (existent) training and would provide you with even more positive statistics at this time of close public scrutiny.

“A4e helps one person into work every seven minutes”

Mr Dutton this simply cannot be true. If this were really the case then given the 20 years that A4e has been in operation UK unemployment would be next to non-existent rather than sitting currently at an estimated figure of 2.7 million! How many of these alleged 76,000+ people a year are you providing with jobs that are both permanent and suitable enough for the individual clients needs to then promote staying in that job? You appear to have provided another hugely questionable statistic that upon scrutiny begins to fall apart.
Then again, given media reports of (yet  more) malpractices  within A4e offices perhaps you have now ‘created’ enough signatures to make the figures add up to one person ‘helped’ into work every seven minutes?  http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/mar/06/a4e-employee-forged-signatures-teesside

This brings me neatly to my final point.

It is now well known to the public that A4e has a track record of being investigated for allegations of fraudulent activity, not only by the Police but also the DWP. There have been multiple instances where A4e has had to repay tax payer’s money to the DWP to stop investigations progressing and becoming criminal matters. Your statement that “one instance of fraud is one too many” would be credible had so many instances not already occurred. In summery all I wish to say on this matter is that I hope the government listens to the public outrage on this issue and that as well as stripping A4e of all publicly funded contracts seeks to rigorously investigate the actions of your company and aid in the prosecution of all those who have been active in criminality…Including former executives!!

I would strongly suggest that henceforth you start offering more detailed, robust and all round believable responses in defending both yourself and A4e against legitimate questioning.

Of course you could alternatively choose to follow in A4e tradition of avoiding all scrutiny, grabbing the cash and simply ‘Do a Harrison’.

(O.P.A.W aims to encourage debate around the issues of Workfare. Blog contributions are invited from group members and guest bloggers, as such thee views expressed on our blog page are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Online Protest Against Workfare as a group).

 

Apathy, Action and Useless Pita Bread (A Blog of Two Halves)

Author: Ian Warde (Online Protest Against Workfare) 

This is our second blog and again from one of our group administrators about how they became involved in campaigning about  ‘workfare’ schemes.

‘Would like everyone to click on the Tesco Facebook page, change settings to show wall posts from ‘all’ and express their disgust at Tesco’s use of slave labour. I’d do it myself but they banned me’ (16/2/2012)

So Workfare eh?! What’s THAT all about?

I’ll open this piece by honestly admitting that up until a few weeks ago Workfare wasn’t something that I was that aware of. Well, maybe I was.  Maybe I’d caught the tail end of stories on the news or skimmed over headlines in the paper.  Regardless, it certainly hadn’t entered into my consciousness to any degree large enough to compel me to find out more.  I can make my excuses; I don’t really like to digest current affairs too much (it’s never good news); I’ve become politically apathetic in the wake of the last General Election and even more so since we failed to start the overhaul of our voting system; I knew that the Tories were going to make horrendously unnecessary cuts and didn’t want to have to feel the frustration of fully knowing what these cuts were. I’m sure I could think of countless more.                                                                                                                                     To my shame, they do all sound rather rubbish now that I’m here typing them out.

It was a Facebook newsfeed ‘call to arms’ from a friend that first invoked my intrigue. Admittedly, it’s not the most intellectual way to enter the fray but I’m told that we’re now living in a Social Media age so I’m going to cut myself some slack.
As embarrassing as it is to admit, I do rather enjoy a good internet scrap! I don’t mean the ‘You-Tube comments’ sort of arguments that somehow manage to shoe horn Xenophobia, Sexism, Racism and Text Speak into one convenient to laugh at package.  I enjoy a pitting of wits and banter; a flailing of keyboard keys to perpetuate a game of unspoken one-upmanship. Last person typing wins, that sort of thing.
I suppose on analysis that I’m probably a self righteous Keyboard Warrior. With that in mind, the Facebook battle cry was too good an opportunity to miss. Off to the Tesco page I gleefully popped.

What awaited me was astonishing! I’ve seen Social Media campaigning in action before but it had never looked like this!

Comment upon comment of angry protest was being thrown at the company. Every time I’d refresh the page there would be ten more, twenty more, more than I could keep up with!.. I wanted in!
I was aware that Tesco are a deeply unethical company and that whilst for the last few years they’ve been ‘helping a little’ they’ve also been taking rather a lot. Ever since the Tesco ‘We increasingly do it all’ store rolled into my town the local town centre has become empty of diversity. Small specialised retail businesses are now in short supply and many previously thriving outlets now lay empty.
Judging by comments like ‘Tesco uses slave labour’ and ‘Stop exploiting the unemployed’ I quickly deduced that this wasn’t about that. As the only thing that I had in my arsenal at the time was ‘Your value pita bread was crap, I want my 39p back’ I needed to find out more…

After a quick ‘Google’ here and a ‘Guardian Website’ there I’d picked up enough of an idea as to what was happening to feel ready to join the throng and play keyboard David to Tesco’s Goliath. Had I fully understood what I’d just learned about Workfare and the wider implications within? Of course not, but why let that get in the way of a witty ‘Tesco Value Workforce’ comment!
I soon realised that there must be some nervous souls within Tesco when I found myself banned from posting within 10 minutes (although on reflection that might’ve been more to do with the expletives). I certainly wasn’t having that! If this many people thought that Tesco were in the wrong then they must be and to ‘remove’ me from their page? How very well dare they!  After setting up another Facebook account I went back and re-joined the ‘fun’.

What I’d not considered about the ‘last person typing’ rules of engagement was that it doesn’t account for the fact that Tesco were never going to resort to ‘yo mamma’ styled replies (a default loss) or switch their computer off. In fact they were barely reacting at all. Despite a never ending ream of protest comment all that was offered back was the occasional evasive company statement.  It all started to feel like a bit of a siege. I got chatting with others who were involved and as it appeared that it wasn’t going to end I cracked open a bumper pack of Jaffa Cakes and entrenched myself for the weekend.

I happened across the ‘Boycott Tesco for Using Jobseekers as Free Labour’ Facebook group and promptly joined. This is where my Workfare education really began.

After spending the following week digesting all of the Workfare related information that was being freely shared by the group I became gob-smacked as to the full extent of what was, and had for quite some time been happening.  I’m in no way adverse to the unemployed gaining work experience; it’s something I actively encourage if it’s rewarding and fruitful for the individual. Workfare however is to rewarding and fruitful what Tesco Value pita bread is to a decent sandwich filling holding vessel.

The ‘boycott Tesco’ group quickly grew to near 1,000 members and I began to think about what could be achieved if we stopped writing individual protest comment on a supermarket Facebook wall and instead came together to create a united voice. Out of this germ of an idea evolved ‘Online Protest against Workfare’. Without any time to really think about what the full agenda for the campaign was (let alone the content) things rapidly snowballed. It became apparent that there is a mass consensus that Workfare as a whole is a terrible programme of schemes and scams.
With your support O.P.A.W managed to get through its initial ‘5 days, 5 actions’ campaign whilst flying by the seat of its pants and has now settled into a more permanent format.

I was asked to write this blog as under the topic ‘What Are Your Personal Thoughts on Workfare?’ Other than thus far comparing it to a flaky kebab I seem to have taken a reflective stroll around recent events and yet missed the remit by quite a margin.

I’ll now have a go at directly tackling that question.

There’s every reason to hate Workfare, every reason that you can think of and more.

Is it that it stereotypes the unemployed as a burden that are only of worth if stacking Supermarket shelves?

Is it that it offers no real hope of a rewarding and fruitful career?

Is it that it squanders tax payer’s money, money that could be better used in helping the unemployed access meaningful training and qualifications?

Is it that it is being used as a way to force those who are clearly not well enough back into the workplace?

Is it that it’s so widely open to exploitation, abuse and fraud by those who facilitate the scheme?

The strongest objection that I personally have to Workfare is that I believe it steals from people. On a basic level it steals the right to a fair wage, the right to protection that contracted employee’s have under employment law and the right to autonomy over where you work and what you do.

Most unforgivably of all I believe that by stealing an individual’s right be supported in determining their own steps back into a employment it potentially also steals a person’s right to a sense of self worth.

Between 2008 and 2010 I was unemployed. I made myself voluntarily redundant as I was having what in retrospect I now know to be a mental breakdown. Over this period I profoundly felt what it’s like to lose all sense of self, to feel like a ‘thing’ rather than a person; to develop an empty chasm where enthusiasm once sat.

With the support of family and friends I started on the road to recovery. I decided to do some voluntary work for charity. I also enrolled on as many free college courses as I could manage.
Through the rewards that these simple actions offered I eventually found I was confident enough to start applying for jobs. I had once again found a sense of purpose and knew exactly what I wanted to do with the next phase of my life. After a big stroke of fortune I found a job that offered everything that I wanted and more. It was through this that I eventually found a way back to feeling at peace with myself and the wider world.

At no point did the DWP help me with any of this. They were generally unsympathetic. They treated me as little more than a reference number. They made it very clear that at any point they could steer me in any direction they so chose. Thankfully as all of this was pre Cameron I was able to convince the Job Centre that I was doing the minimum that they were asking of me at any given time  (predominantly through lying).

Did I abuse the system or did I take an impersonal and unhelpful system and manipulate it to work for me in the most effective way that I could within its limitations?

That’s not for me to say.

To me workfare seems like the antithesis to that which the rhetoric around it suggests. ‘It will give the unemployed new skills and a sense of worth’; ‘It will position them into jobs that offer a future’.

Rubbish.

Happiness and productivity lies in freedom of choice, to design your own path and savour each step you take along it. It’s vital also to feel supported in your choices and rewarded in your actions.  I’m not remotely religious but there is a saying in the New Testament which rightly states ‘A man is worthy of a reward for his labour.’  (Found substantially in Mathew 10:10 and Luke 10:7).                                                                                                        This reward goes way beyond monetary value; it encompasses everything that I have just mentioned, and much more.

It is my belief that rather than seek to benefit the individual Workfare instead views the majority of participants as ‘things’, just another statistic or reference number. Workfare takes a person’s enthusiasm and replaces it with an empty chasm. It takes away all sense of the self.

For that alone I could not despise it more.

(O.P.A.W aims to encourage debate around the issues of Workfare. Blog contributions are invited from group members and guest bloggers, as such thee views expressed on our blog page are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Online Protest Against Workfare as a group).

The need for an alternative to ‘workfare’

(O.P.A.W aims to encourage debate around the issues of Workfare. Blog contributions are invited from group members and guest bloggers, as such thee views expressed on our blog page are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Online Protest Against Workfare as a group).

 

The need for an alternative to ‘workfare’

Author: Chris White (Online Protest Against Workfare)

 

Over the last few weeks there have been attempts to reduce the debate over government workfare schemes to a political point scoring exercise between the ‘right’ and the ‘left’, with the government being the major instigator.  Leading Government ministers and elements of the media have accused anyone critical voice of being at the very least influenced by, if not part of a ‘hard-line left’, anti-capitalist or Socialist Worker orchestrated conspiracy.

 

Let’s set the record straight, most of the opposition groups represent a broad political section of society, representing a wide range of views and opinions, but one thing that they share is a belief that a ‘workfare’ styled approach is wrong, morally, ethically and economically.  This is not a reactionary protest by people who just don’t want to work.  It is a valid viewpoint supported by evidence which at best, suggests that programmes that rely strongly on mandatory activity and sanctions have so far proved ineffective in helping people move into employment and are least effective in times of high unemployment.  For example, when the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) reported on the mandatory work programme (PDF) they highlighted several areas of concern around such programmes.

 

I for one don’t identify myself as being part of the ‘hard-line left’, anti-capitalist or a member of the Socialist Worker’s Party. Not that it is relevant but I would better describe my viewpoint being based on my Christian beliefs; my own sense of what is socially and morally right; a belief that young people, older people, sick and disabled people, and society deserve better than this.

 

I am not opposed to work experience, training, promoting opportunities, neither am I automatically against private sector involvement.  I do support economic actions that provide a community benefit that will generate wealth, recovery and jobs. However as I said earlier, the current evidence at best suggests that programmes that rely strongly on mandatory activity and sanctions have so far proved ineffective in helping people move into employment and are least effective in times of high unemployment.

 

‘Workfare’ programmes are expensive, the budget for the Work Programme has been set at £3b – £5b over 5 years. It does not create jobs;  it is vulnerable to abuse from contractors; evidence suggests that it does not reduce the number of people claiming benefits and I see little community benefit in someone working in a supermarket for JSA plus expenses.  That does not make me a ‘job snob’, supermarket staff provide an essential service and there contribution to society is often undervalued.

 

There are alternatives.  In the 1980s the Government operated the Community Programme Scheme.  The scheme was voluntary, it was open to  people experiencing long-term unemployment, was open to young people, older people and people living with long term health conditions. People joining the programme were paid a wage, rather than benefit (generally based on 2 ½ days a week). They were given access to training and carried out projects across with real community benefits.  This included building projects, gardening projects, regeneration and improvement work and social care projects.  Many of the supervisors or instructors were older workers with years of experience to offer who had found themselves unemployed with little chance of finding work because through age or injury employers were reluctant to take them on.

 

People were given the dignity and status of a wage, a job title and above all were gaining real experience and skills whilst delivering clear community benefits. At the same time the programme was able to utilize private sector involvement and investment. 

 

Although the Community Programme was scrapped in 1987 there is a lasting legacy across the UK including canal footpaths, community gardens, improvements to community buildings, and local village halls.  In some ways The Community Programme delivered what David Cameron describes as the ‘Big Society’.  I still know people who worked on the Community Programme in the 1980’s and they will say “see that building or garden over there, I built that”.

 

Ironically, the Manpower Service Commission which ran the Community Programme was established by Edward Heath’s Conservative Government in 1973.  Today many charities, trusts and large corporate enterprises run their own “Community Programmes”.

 

One thing that we can agree on is that ‘Workfare’ is controversial;it’s expensive and does not have an effective proven track record.  The UK is in recession the Government need to start to listen and go back to the drawing board, taking on the concerns of protesting voices without reducing the debate to juvenile political point scoring. As a democratic society we deserve better than that.