Britain’s Jobs Disaster: UK Poor Trapped in Workhouse Conditions


In Victorian Britain, those unlucky enough to form the ranks of the newly unemployed in the process of industrialisation and urbanisation were placed in workhouses.  In return for shelter and food, they were required to work as many hours as the master dictated.  Sadly, centuries on, workers in the UK are heading back into the workhouse conditions their predecessors fought so hard to escape.

Jobs without Pay


Unemployed people seeking work at their local jobcentres have been appalled to find that the jobs being advertised are not actually jobs, but workfare placements.

The Government has a whole host of programmes purportedly in place to support the jobless back into paid employment.  Workfare refers to all of the programmes which are mandatory, long term and paid less than minimum wage.

No one is arguing that relevant, short term work experience is a useful offer for young and mature jobseekers.  But offering an unemployed 21 year old History graduate 2 weeks work experience with the British Museum, at their request – is quite a different proposition from forcing the same 21 year old into 8 weeks stacking shelves at Tesco under threat of sanction. The Government’s Work Experience Programme, Sector Based Work Academies, Community Action Programme, Mandatory Work Activity scheme and The Work Programme all fall into this latter category.

The Workfare Programme was born under New Labour.  In New Labour’s New Deal, long term unemployed people underwent a compulsory ‘intensified job search’.  If the intensified job search period lasting up to four months proved unsuccessful, participants entered the second stage of the programme and were offered one of four options: full-time education or training for twelve months, a job with the voluntary sector for 6 months, work for the environmental task force for six months, or subsidised employment for six months with provision of employer on-the-job training. This last option was sometimes made available to people before the end of the ‘Gateway’ period.

On the first three options, individuals continue to receive the equivalent of Job Seekers Allowance (unemployment benefit). In addition, for working in the voluntary sector or on the environmental task force they receive an extra £400 spread over the six months. The value of the employer subsidy was £60 per week and employers received an additional £750 to cover the costs of training they were supposed to provide.

In 2011, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government announced a plan to increase uptake of Workfare by 100,000.  They also made changes to the programme as follows:

1. A jobseeker who leaves a placement after 1 week loses their welfare payments for 6 weeks.  If they do this a second time, they lose them for 13 weeks.  The third time, three years.

2. Placements can be mandated for up to 30 hours a week for as long as 6 months.

3. The scheme has been opened up so corporations in the private sector can exploit this taxpayer funded, forced labour.

All this means that someone who finds themselves unemployed today, must work up to thirty hours a week, for up to six months at a time, stacking shelves for Tesco or Poundland simply to receive as little as the £53 per week which they are already entitled to as part of the social contract of Britain.  Also, Tesco isn’t paying the £53; we are, through our taxes.

The Coalition promise an interview at the end of the completed workfare term – yet it is not required that the workfare provider actually has a vacancy open.  An interview for a job that doesn’t exist is no interview at all.

Here are some adverts at Jobcentre’s captured and reported to Ipswich Campaign for Unemployed Rights (click to enlarge):




Corporations get free labour, the government gets to massage the unemployment figures (Workfare victims are counted as employed) and the unemployed, (of which there are 3 million in the UK today) get shafted.  Meanwhile, the taxpayer foots the bill.

Jobs without Hours


Employers in the UK are increasingly employing staff on ‘Zero Hours’ contracts.  These contracts have no specified working hours – meaning that an employee is placed on permanent stand by until or unless the employer needs them.  While classed as employed, the person has no wage security as they cannot guarantee their pay from one week to the next.

The Labour Force Survey of 2005 showed that 11% of employers in the UK were operating these schemes.  By 2011 that figure had more than doubled to 23%.  This means nigh on one quarter of all employers are utilising this exploitative method of retaining labour. In the last week it was revealed that 307,000 workers are on ‘Zero Hours’ contracts in the social care sector alone.

The Resolution Foundation recently published a review of ‘Zero Hours’ contracts which found serious issues of the spike in their use:

  1. Those on ‘Zero Hours’ contracts earn less than half the average wage (£236 vs. £482 per week) of those on proper contracts.
  2. Workplaces using ‘Zero Hours’ contracts have a higher proportion of staff on low pay (within £1.25 of minimum wage) than those who do not.

These factors have allowed the UK Labour Market in recent years to combine a relatively high level of employment and an unprecedented squeeze on wages.

  1. Those on ‘Zero Hours’ contracts work 10 hours a week less, on average, than those who are not (21hrs – 31hrs).
  2. 18% of those on ‘Zero Hours’ contracts are seeking alternative employment or more hours versus 7% of those in ordinary contracts

These factors have contributed to the rise in underemployment in the UK since 2008.  An ONS survey last year revealed more than 1 million people had been added to the rank of the underemployed since the 2008 bailout of the banks.

  1. ‘Zero Hours’ contracts are hitting young people the hardest, with 37% of those on such contracts aged between 16-24.
  2. ‘Zero Hours’ contracts are more likely to be held by those without a degree, and with a GCSE as their highest level of education.
  3. Non UK Nationals are 15% more likely to be employed on such a contract than UK Nationals.

It is not difficult to see the advantages of ‘Zero Hours’ contracts to employers – they can achieve maximum flexibility of their workforce, effectively retaining them on a pay as you go basis.  It is also clear that in the short term, the government of the day also enjoy the advantage of hiding the true effects of their cut throat economic policies.  But the ordinary human being seeking to meet the rising cost of living is losing on all counts.

Jobs without Rights


All of these regressive changes are based on a neoliberal ideology that what is best for ‘business’ is best for all of us.  But if the profits of business are not being shared with those responsible for delivering them, where is the benefit? Today, profits are rising as a direct result of the exploitation of the people working day in and day out to deliver them.

Those advocating these policies on the basis that they will somehow return Britain to boom times fail to appreciate the severity of the situation.  This wage fall did not begin with austerity, it began mid-way through the New Labour government.  The rise in credit which helped facilitate the credit crisis was ultimately the beard being ripped off New Labour’s disguise of poverty wages.  Neoliberals have simply hijacked the austerity project to push through these erosions of working conditions at maximum velocity.

Chancellor Osborne’s latest plan is to tempt these underpaid workers into surrendering the last of their employment rights – for shares in their employer.  Last October Osborne unveiled his plan that workers could choose to forfeit their employment rights for the sake of shares.

It really is the most cynical of ploys – force worker wages below the cost of living, then capitalise on their desperation to remove any remaining rights…then…what?  Then the door would be open to zero job security, no unfair dismissal cases, no restrictions on hours, no minimum wages, and no protection from unhealthy or dangerous working conditions.   This is the end game.

There is an old adage which says ‘the economy makes a great servant but a terrible master’, meaning the economy should exist to serve the society and not the other way round.  Unfortunately, the neoliberal project is about making the economy (for ‘economy’ read ‘the short term interests of a narrow pool of capitalists’) King – and workhouse conditions for the poor are just the very tip of that iceberg.


Boycott Workfare – Boycott Workfare are leading the charge against forced labour in the UK


14 thoughts on “Britain’s Jobs Disaster: UK Poor Trapped in Workhouse Conditions

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  6. Zero hour contracts – a simple way to subvert employment rights big style.

    Not simply underemployed, you will turn up for work having paid for your travel pass and find your shift cancelled. In the middle of a shift you will be told to go home as the work is finished. Weeks will go by with a promise of work that doesn’t materialise. The crap time you had trying to claim JSA and then stacking shelves for poundland unpaid with no breaks keeps you hanging onto that promise. A nice manager tries to give you regular hours at regular times. She is quickly replaced by one who gives most of the shifts to her mates. You get sick, pregnant or your face doesn’t fit anymore and you end up with what it says on the tin – zero hours.

    Yes, there are employment & anti discrimination laws you’d find useful but just try enforcing them – you didn’t join a union ‘cos you need a regular income to pay the subs.
    This is not flexibility in the workforce, it is exploitation.

    In some workforces these contracts supplement a core of fixed hour permanent posts, but many are made up almost entirely of zero hour contracts. Many younger workers have never experienced anything else.

    Let’s collate the evidence, publish it and create a wave of shame on this cretinous, price of everything, value of nothing government. Because you know who runs these companies don’t you?

  7. Where do you start !…….last week i watched How its made on quest and learned how they made pretzels and from a small fop to human help just to put the mixture in, every process from cooking to packing was done by the machine ,there is no need for humans any more to do work in some sectors but the irony is you need humans to by the pretzels. I am looking for work at 40 and there is nothing only jobs which exploit the young like apprentice sales assistant jobs which twenty years ago i was paid £3.50 an hour and you don’t need to be an apprentice to do that job but it lets the employer only pay £2.50 an hour ,I’m an unemployed electricians mate with ten years experience going rate is about £8 to 9 an hour and yes you guessed it I’m obsolete they can hire 4 apprentices to do the job and get concessions from the government, its plain to see there is a big agenda going on that its not a conspiracy this banking crises and recession was done on purpose,there is to many of us for there system to work think about it you don’t have to be an economist to work it out if i had a job with a little extra money i would go out and buy that take away or take my kids away for a few days or buy that new tv ,ect or pay that tax its all bullshit !

  8. Even those with degrees suffer zero hours contracts, this has been happening in FE and HE … even the full-time jobs are ‘fractional’ on purpose. Academic holidays are equivalent to sanctions for an FE lecturer on a term-time only zero hours contract.

    When EU legislation came out demanding parity of conditions for part-time staff, the job agencies were advertising their services by offering a workaround the law… they would employ the staff they hire out to their employer clients on zero-hour contracts. The Universal Job-matching Government database if full of anonymous employer jobs advertised by intermediary job agencies…. layers upon layers of job agency adds… Work Programme providers have business interests in job agencies too… it is a monopoly of exploitation with the job agencies generating the exploitation on behalf of faceless employers.

    How many job agencies exist in London alone? They are springing up like weeds. How can employment agencies make a profit exactly I would like to understand it transparently.

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  10. tellthetruth1, I think you are missing something here.

    Thirty years have passed since the 80s, and young people under 25 are being expected to live, and sometimes work and travel on £57 a week. It is more than in either if you are counting in £’s, but in relative terms it is a lot less.

    There is no extra money as there was in the 90s; I know about that, went on such courses, and other schemes, and was given £15 above benefit rate as well as either travel money, or a bus pass, depending upon the scheme.

    There was also light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of startup grants, and quite a lot of help into self employment, which I personally benefitted from, setting up as a self-employed person led to me having a moderately successful career. Along with quite a lot of other people.

    None of that is available now. It is benefit slavery or sanctions. The mythic 450,000 jobs that are quoted as being ‘available’ are mostly not jobs at all, they are as described in the article. If you are not suitable for any of the positions in your area as a benefit slave, the route to be sanctioned is there, WITHOUT you doing anything, as some found a couple of years ago in March when many sanctions were handed out, by staff they had previously not dealt with, prior to figures being released by the DWP. A lot of the people sanctioned then were ‘soft targets’, people with disabilities or those not heading for college.

    Scriptonite has given the clean version of sanctioning, i.e. what sanctioning is said to be about.

    The truth is that many people do not experience sanctioning in this way – it is arbitrary, can be at the whim of an advisor, and is said to be dependent on what quotas are demanded internally. This last is of course, not provable, though there have been consistent reports that it is happening, and even documented examples. Still, not provable. it is also not just for refusing to work. This is another myth, one that is built into the legislation, as though people do not want jobs, or income, or some control over their own lives. As I said it can be arbitrary. 13 weeks with no money, in todays Britain? And fast diminishing legal recourse, or even advisory services……….

    A lot has changed.

    A vast amount of people with medical conditions that preclude them from work or make them not what employers are looking for, are now part of the vast number of people who are classed as unemployed, along with previously employed Remploy workers. Every summer another batch of newly qualified young people, from FE or HE colleges are left first with no income until September, and then get shoved onto these useless schemes, that provide no pathway into work – the picture of a mincing machine is about as accurate as things get. Also older people, those whose retirement age suddenly got shifted……..

    We are in a featureless present where people are being recycled into the system and every time it happens they come through the machine poorer. It is as though we/they are being acclimatised to living on ever decreasing resource, and subjected to ever increasing demands.

    My apologies, Scriptonite, for being so wordy, watching this develop, through the legislation process and then into our lives and homes has loosened any inhibitions I once had about speaking out. Thanks for the great article.

  11. Massaging employment figures is old! It was going on in the 80s when I was ’employed’ by some government scam to help care for the elderly. A team of us would be put in positions of trust to do their shopping, make hot drinks and other things the person visited could request. £50 per week was the ‘wage’. In the 90s, you could join another scheme where you went for business training with the ‘promise of a job’ at the end. You were actually very lucky if that happened. An extra tenner per week on your current benefit for joining the scheme would get you cleared from the unemployment lists. Both these things lasted for a total of six months. Nothing’s changed, except thousands of people are still being forced into terrible debt and eventual homelessness.

    • I should like to reassure you on one point, tellthetruth1. The thing that the government could not massage was the level of unemployment as measured by the Labour Force Survey. You might well be cleared from the Claimant list – I don’t know about that. But the government’s survey based employment/unemployment figures were not theirs to mess about with.

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