UK Poor in Workhouse Conditions: Millions Left Without Sick Pay, Leave, Basic Rights


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


18 thoughts on “UK Poor in Workhouse Conditions: Millions Left Without Sick Pay, Leave, Basic Rights

  1. Pingback: UK Poor in Workhouse Conditions: Millions Left Without Sick Pay, Leave, Basic Rights | L8in

  2. Unfortunately, the Trade Unions are not the guardian angels they purport to be. I was a member of a Union, supposedly a militant union. When I suffered an accident which lead to a permanent condition, they turned their back on me and numerous others. It has been ten years to get a ruling from the high court in my favour. The unions are there for the big payouts, being misogynistic and anti working man.

    • You have been unfortunate with your choice of union, Helen, and I sympathise with you. Both my wife and I are retired members of the GMB Union. I was literally forced out of my job in 1998, due to ill health, after 18 years of employment managing (and literally solely running) a mutual housing association. My employers used the Housing Corporation to move me out of the job and the tied accommodation that went with it (whilst still very ill action was actively taken to dismiss me and force my family and me out of the accommodation), against the will of the residents, and using a legal manoeuver justified by the Corporation that offered me no compensation whatsoever. The GMB fought for a redundancy settlement for me, as the employer chose not to sack me and thereby open a case for unfair dismissal which I would have won. The compensation wasn’t massive – certainly not after 18 years of loyal and constant service – but it enabled me to get back to a reasonable level of health without too much financial constraint.

      My wife was employed by our local authority as a school premises manger, and a few years after my health issue my wife was violently injured by a teenage pupil in a stone-throwing incident. She returned to work too soon, against doctors orders, after several phone calls from the school asking if she was well enough to return to work. Unfortunately another incident and injury occurred in the school which had a serious psychological effect on her and this time she was unable to return to work. The school wanted to make her redundant but her length of service only encompassed a few years. Her doctors felt that she would not return to any sort of worthwhile employment; the GMB union felt that the stone-throwing incident had been criminal and that the school managers had played it down as an “accident” (the child had been suspended for three days for the stone throwing). The GMB brought a case for criminal injuries and damage through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, won my wife’s case and she was awarded compensation for her injury and for the loss of salary. She was also retired early by the local authority.

      In both of these incidents I could not fault our union’s actions on our behalf: barriers were set against them which their lawyers quickly, and efficiently, removed. The only downside was the amount of compensation paid for the loss of my wife’s long-term employment prospects – the Chairman of the CICA himself sat on the panel in this assessment and cut her compensation drastically because my wife had dared to smoke… The GMB could do nothing about that unfortunately as there is no appeal procedure against the CICA in those instances. Overall I have been very satisfied with my treatment by the several trade unions I have had membership of during my working life. I have not had to use their employment services very much, but when I have I have always been satisfied with their actions on my behalf and, of course, they offer a whole lot of other services besides those most commonly known and used. As I say, I think that you have been unfortunate, Helen, a sad fact that I suspect that not many trade unionists have encountered.

      It makes me angry to see Ed Miliband using the unions to get himself elected leader of the Labour Party and then dismissing their right to help potential union members into the House of Commons as MPs. So many MPs of ALL political colours have little or no affinity with the people that they represent, being parachuted into safe seats after selection by those that often also have no real links to those local communities. Bankers, businessmen and politicians all seem to be turned out of the same mould these days – I wonder was it ever thus, and was I too blinkered to see it in my much younger days..?

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  4. Any worker who`s ever complained to their boss and been told “if you don`t want to work here there are plenty who do” will understand why Karl Marx described the role of the unemployed (and underemployed) under capitalism as “the reserve army of labour”.
    The press and politicians take every opportunity to divide and rule the working class by casting suspicion on those who are unemployed, but those in work know that the very threat of unemployment helps the bosses to impose their will on us. When unemployment rises, the threat is greater, and employers become bold enough to force pay cuts on workers.
    Mainstream economists have a more academic approach and study the labour “market” in great detail, but just like the bosses they recognise the importance of unemployment under capitalism. In the late 1960s influential US economist Milton Friedman came up with the term “the natural rate of unemployment” and claimed that if unemployment fell below this rate then inflation would increase. Friedman understood that low levels of unemployment give confidence to workers, who can fight for better pay and conditions. When they`re successful, the profit margins of capitalists are reduced, causing them to put their prices up in response.
    During the last boom the ruling class became very nervous about falling unemployment – a Financial Times editorial published on September 11, 1998 told its readers that unemployment would have to rise, “perhaps by 500,000″! Three months earlier the Bank of England`s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) had raised interest rates to 7.5% after concluding that “it was probable that unemployment would have to rise to hit the inflation target”. Higher interest rates are used to increase unemployment during booms by reducing consumption and new investment.

    Fine-tuning the reserve army of labour

    The economists on the MPC not only want “enough” unemployment, they also want the “right type” of unemployment. Six months after Chancellor Gordon Brown created the MPC, in its December 1997 meeting the Committee asked itself “did short-term unemployment exert more downward pressure on earnings than long-term unemployment?”. They concluded that “short-term unemployment was more important”, on the grounds that “when the proportion of long-term jobless was high…..workers would probably realise that they could not be replaced so easily, and hence that their bargaining strength was higher”.
    The so-called “reforms” of the labour market in recent years have been designed to ensure that the unemployed are seen by workers as more of a threat to their jobs. State subsidies to employers encourage them to take on the unemployed and sack existing workers. The ultimate subsidy comes in the form of workfare – where new workers are paid nothing by their employers, and merely receive their state benefits in return for a full day`s work.
    David Freud, the man in charge of Labour`s welfare reform when the UK economy went into recession, told the Daily Telegraph in February 2008 that “we should have recessions every five or six years and we are due one”. Earlier in the same interview Freud claimed it was possible to get “about 1.4 million back to work”! A year later Freud joined the Conservative Party (he`s now Baron Freud), shortly afterwards appearing on Radio Four`s Today programme (16 February 2009) where he said the following about the private companies bidding for contracts to help the long-term unemployed back to work: “there are fewer vacancies, there are more jobless, which could actually be good news for the private companies”.
    The propaganda of the ruling class has attempted to blame the persistence of unemployment on trade unions, employment protection legislation, the minimum wage, and any other progressive reform which has improved the situation of working people since the appalling conditions of the nineteenth century. The real culprit is an economic system where profit is maximised by minimising wages.

  5. John Tar, thanks for the good insight, the advisory committees would put the government up to these oppressive rituals, what the Establishment wanted was to turn the clock back for the old wealth to stay in power, this will only change when enough people decide the government is following a program that is adverse to the people’s interest, and they the government, are committed to self interest of what each member gets as a financial return for themselves, they will lie be involved with payouts for themselves and have no other interest than self profiteering that is from the most primeval self centered aspect of human nature.

  6. As a recipient of social care, I’ve seen some of the harm that being on ‘zero hours contracts’ can do, without wishing to say too much for fear of repercussions. It represents much of what is wrong with this country’s thinking on social care, and I was not surprised to read of the numbers working in such conditions. I agree they “should have been made illegal yesterday” but how to bring that about? We need to have a wholesale rethink about the whole sector. To any recipient of care it isn’t rocket science, but it’s blue sky thinking in reality!!

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  9. Maybe its time for a union for people on zero hours contracts whose sole purpose is to get them outlawed. No frills, no affiliation, just a highly aggressive and uncompromising campaign organisation.

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  11. I have to disagree with you on one aspect of your otherwise very accurate and alarming piece: the cutback in wage levels due to poor wage rises, particularly in the public sector, did NOT begin during the term of the last Labour government – it began during the early part of the 1980s under the aegis of the first and second Thatcher governments. I know of many examples of this occurring, and as the highly skilled manager of a private housing co-operative then, can show how it happened to me: my background had been technical (Royal Navy trained in electronics, electrics and associated engineering skills), I had then been employed in aircraft avionics, the maintenance area of the automotive industry, heating and ventilation service engineering and various other allied industries at supervisory and management levels. In 1978 I moved into building management. 1980 brought about my appointment as manager of the housing association with control of all aspects of its operation under a resident volunteer board of management.

    For the first two years I received excellent salary increases (averaging 8 to 10%), thereafter my employers – many of whom worked in the public sector (local government employees mainly of higher-level rank) and were being affected by incremental reductions in wage rises – linked my salary increases to what was then the average equivalent “grade” within their particular employee ranges. I worked for the Association for 18 years in total, and after years one and two only in one year had a 5% raise and no better than 2 to 3% in all the other years. There were no issues raised as to the quality of my work, in fact I received an annual Christmas bonus which actually increased year on year throughout! Many family members, friends and colleagues noticed how poor were the annual wage/salary increments throughout this period and onwards. It saddens me to say as a long-term now retired union member, that the lack of self-control of many of the unions during the 1970s, gave Margaret Thatcher the opportunity to clamp down on the unions with full public support during the full term of her premiership.

    In my opinion salary and wage levels have been depressed (deliberately) for very many years, and it would be interesting to know what percentage of these increases, year-on-year, can be differentiated over the years 1960 to 1979 and 1980 to current time, to determine DID wage levels rise annually by a greater percentage between 1960 and 1979 than between 1980 to 2012..? (These figures would obviously NOT include bankers, company directors, full-time chairmen, CEOs and perhaps not even senior managers…)

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  13. How can a ‘work experience’ opportunity justifiably ask for ‘experience preferred’ and then go on to say ‘full training will be given’; isn’t that the whole object of work experience- to train somebody to be more likely to find work through experience?

    As for zero-hour contracts, they should be made illegal yesterday. (Retrospectively, Mr. Iain Duncan Smith.)

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