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:
- Those on ‘Zero Hours’ contracts earn less than half the average wage (£236 vs. £482 per week) of those on proper contracts.
- 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.
- Those on ‘Zero Hours’ contracts work 10 hours a week less, on average, than those who are not (21hrs – 31hrs).
- 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.
- ‘Zero Hours’ contracts are hitting young people the hardest, with 37% of those on such contracts aged between 16-24.
- ‘Zero Hours’ contracts are more likely to be held by those without a degree, and with a GCSE as their highest level of education.
- 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
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