One of the most consistent complaints that slave overseers make about their unpaid labourers is that they are lazy and inefficient workers. This is usually put down to a failing in the character of the slave. Sometimes it is argued that if the business making use of the slaves is itself efficient and well-run, the slave labour will be efficient and profitable. Specific examples of this argument have been refuted.
Workfare is not (yet) slave labour. Chris Grayling is right to argue that if someone has been on the dole for 12 months, then it can only help to have 8 weeks of work experience.
The scheme is designed to get young, unemployed people into the workplace for up to eight weeks of work experience. One of the young people you interview says: “I was basically doing what a normal member of staff does”, but the placements are not long enough to be a replacement for permanent staff. However, they are long enough for a jobseeker to impress an employer and, at the very least, to leave with a good reference and some practical experience.
Grayling goes on to adjure “let’s not be snobbish about this – plenty of people have started on the bottom rung and climbed their way to the top”.
Chris Grayling went to a state school – a selective grammar school, entry by 11-plus exam, but still: state school. He got into Cambridge University and read history at Sidney Sussex College – well done him. This was in the days before Thatcher and Major and Blair and Brown and now Cameron had all done their bit to make going to university a rich kid’s game: Chris would have paid no tuition fees, got a maintenance grant, and would have been able to claim housing benefit to pay his rent even during term time. Every single one of those benefits has been taken away by successive governments since Grayling graduated from Cambridge in 1984. His wikipage doesn’t say what he did between graduation in 1984 and achieving a trainee place at the BBC in 1985. Perhaps he was on the dole. Sidney Sussex College now charges students tuition fees at £3,375 per year, so a modern-day Chris would have graduated in 2011 with debts of at least ten thousand pounds – it would be higher, much higher, but Cambridge University and individual colleges have admirable bursary systems from the wealth of past generations.
Most BBC trainee placements are paid, and there’s heavy competition for them now, but I’d guess that a Cambridge degree helped Grayling there. And a traineeship at the BBC really does, according to people who’ve been there, reliably lead to entry-level jobs at the BBC. (Whether you get paid enough, as a trainee or as an entry-level employee, to cope with a ten thousand pound debt over your head is another matter.)
Chris Grayling was a grammar-school kid who now serves as a Minister in the government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg and George Osborne, all of whom were public schoolboys from megarich families. When Cameron and Clegg and Osborne were being helped into their careers by their influential and wealthy families, Grayling was able enough to parlay his Cambridge degree into a trainee-ship at the BBC and thereafter into a successful media career culminating in a job that pays him £104,000 a year and considerable benefits, covered in my last. By comparison with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor, Grayling may feel like he worked his way up from the bottom rung to the top.
But I doubt if Chris Grayling was on the bottom rung when he started. (I don’t know. I can’t find any information about his family background on a quick google. Maybe he’s from a working-class background with parents living close to or below the poverty line, maybe he’s the son of a single mother who was constantly in and out of temp jobs and the dole as Chris was growing up, and Chris won through the 11-plus and into Cambridge by dint of brains and hard work, go him!) But – but even so, it wouldn’t be by “nothing but” brains and hard work. It would also be because he – and his mother – would have been able to claim benefits from the state to help him. The bottom rungs on the ladder that Chris Grayling used to get himself through Cambridge have been sawed off by successive governments, and Grayling voted for the decision to let Sidney Sussex and other colleges charge not £3000 a year but £9000 a year. Future graduates looking to work their way up the ladder will see debts of £27,000 blocking the way. I bet Grayling can remember when £27,000 seemed like a significant amount of money, even if he’s wealthy enough that it isn’t now.
Jill Kirby, one of those right-wingers who claims to believe in “minimal state intervention” and who certainly believes in the importance of rich people paying less tax than poor people (she was part of the infamous 2006 Tory Tax Reform Commission) wrote a column recently in praise of Chris Grayling’s scheme of taxpayers paying private companies large sums so that they can harvest free labour from long-term unemployed people.
The companies benefiting from this scheme include Tesco, Asda, Primark, Poundland, Holland and Barrett, T K Maxx, Wilkinsons, Savers, Matalan, and Hilton Hotels. This is called Get Britain Working. It’s hard to think of a less-profitable example of state intervention. If these companies have work available, they should be paying people to do it, not getting paid by the state to use free labour. A temp job of 8 weeks on minimum wage after twelve months on the dole, would be useful and valuable – especially if the bureaucracy and benefits-fail that usually surrounds temp jobs for long-term unemployed were made less of a problem, or if these temp jobs allowed for the fact that someone may be long-term unemployed due to ill-health and need the opportunity to work part-time without falling into the benefits-trap. But as it stands, the scheme seems to be nothing but a means for big corporations to cut their labour costs and avoid hiring people during a recession.
Asked by Corporate Watch how Matalan benefited from these placements, a spokesperson said:
“we obviously get people who want to work and we are always grateful of the extra help, especially during busy times.” The discount retailer added the placements gave participants a chance to “try the job out to see if it’s the right career for them,” and that they gain “a wealth of valuable experience and get a chance to engage with their community.”
Matalan posted profits of £73 million in February 2011 and plans to expand its workfare programme.
This isn’t just a problem for big business: an employee at Newham Council reports:
“I went to [her] leaving do … We were all so sorry to see her go. She was an older lady and was one of the most hard-working and genuinely helpful admin staff we’d ever had. Worked her hours plus more and nothing was ever too much trouble for her. We honestly didn’t know why she was leaving after only six months. She’d worked a minimum of 37 hours per week (often more) and been the backbone of service delivery. The basic starting wage for that level is around £17,000 but for the work she was doing I would have expected her to be started at a few thousand more. Yet all she was getting was JSA and the fares for her lengthy bus journeys, while people doing identical work were getting a salary, paid leave and pension contributions. We were horrified.
Wrongly, we assumed this woman would be hired back as proper staff within days. The role was needed, she’d proven herself to be a fantastic worker, was well regarded and knew the systems. But no, the post was suddenly deemed no longer required and this lady never came back to us. She did exactly the same job as paid staff, yet didn’t get the same salary. This is illegal if the reason is age or race, but perfectly acceptable if someone has claimed a state benefit. It’s exploitation and it’s repellent.”
A young claimant who was forced to work for Argos under threat of losing his JSA for six months found that he worked more hours than their permanent staff and were “rewarded” only by the chance of applying for a temp job over the Christmas rush – priority for overtime going to the permanent staff:
Daniel was working for Argos with no pay ‘for more hours than their permanent staff’. There were roughly 18 Workfare victims, in total, split into two groups and sent to two different stores. The duties were menial at best. Daniel’s days consisted of a lot of standing around and doing nothing (when he was based in the warehouse). Daniel recalls ‘collecting orders wasn’t too bad, but in the store I worked at they had 4 of us trainees on the front of the store working for nothing’.
The reward at the end of the placement should Daniel perform at a high level was the hope of getting a 10.5hr/week temporary job over the Christmas period, but in the event that a job (temping) was secured, overtime would go to permanent staff first. Had Daniel secured one of these Xmas temping posts, it turns out he would be earning less money than he got from his £53 a week benefits. Daniel gets roughly £53/week from JSA and from the 10.5hr/week temp post at Argos he was promised he could earn £52.29. Taking up the post would have meant that Daniel would have needed to use public transport (at his own expense). A 1 week bus ticket would cost him £9, meaning that Daniel would be left to survive on £43 a week. … “Sure, I could get a second part-time job, like bar work, for the night, but most bars want you to start at 6/7pm and as far as I could tell, with Argos you had to discuss with each other who has what shift and sometimes you couldn’t even get a shift for that day. Which would make it extremely difficult to sort out your times for a second job.”
A university graduate was regularly volunteering part-time at a Birmingham museum because she hoped to pursue a career in museums:
But last autumn she was told by her local Jobcentre Plus that she had been placed on a “sector-based work academy”, a four-week programme made up of two weeks’ employability training and two weeks’ unpaid work at Poundland.
Brian Jones, another volunteer at the Pen Museum, a registered charity, said Reilly was not able to give much notice that she would have to stop her work for a month. “She is a valued volunteer here, so to lose her in that period was very difficult for us,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “Working in retail is perfectly good experience for a career in a museum. There are very similar transferable skills involved.”
Jill Kirby’s argument for justifying this kind of treatment of long-term unemployed is that it’s “unfair” if “transfers from working to non-working families are seen to benefit the idle (or worse still, the fraudulent), rather than the truly needy” and that “Participation in community work schemes is a great opportunity for claimants to show they are willing to play an active part in the society that is providing them with a living”.
One of the commenters to Jill’s column was Steve Tierney, a Conservative politician who runs a business. His experience of workfare is from the other side:
We’ve had three [people from the local job centre] so far and although each was quite individual and different from one another they did, all three, share a few traits; turning up for work late, sudden inexplicable “sickness” that means they can’t get in to work every other day, wanting breaks every twenty minutes, and rarely lasting past the first week.
I hope these three were just a coincidence and an exception, rather than the rule. Because otherwise, it’s hard to see how our employment woes will be fixed any time soon.
In fairness to Tierney, he added
On a more positive note, we had one young man come for work experience from a local hostel which deals with homelessness, alcoholism etc. He has proved to be absolutely brilliant, hard-working and reliable. We’ve taken him on full-time and he has gone from strength-to-strength.
My guess is that the man from the local hostel was getting supported by the hostel and chose his placement with Tierney – whereas the workfare placements from the job centre were assigned to Tierney and told “work for him for nothing or lose your benefits”. (They may also have been told or discovered, unlike the claimants above, that there is legally a one-week “grace period” during which they could leave, since Tierney mentions that they mostly quit before the end of the first week. Many workfare labourers report they were never told there was supposed to be a grace period.)
Workfare isn’t slavery. But it has similiar disadvantages to the employer. He may think, as Tierney evidently thought, that here is a good way to get something for nothing. But a worker who’s getting nothing from their job – and who knows they’ll get nothing – no pay, no benefits, no training, no future – is not likely to give their best. Of course in some instances like the hopeful woman who worked for six months for nothing but her benefits, she may have hoped there would be a job offer as a result of all her hard work: or, like the big corporations who seem to be benefiting most directly, you may just not care: unskilled unhappy labourers they may be, but they can provide enough free labour to save the cost of paying someone minimum wage.