John Harris

Journalist & Author

Being volunteered to work for nothing: a new recipe for the likes of them | John Harris

Cameron and Blair talk of a rump at the bottom of society – rhetoric that suits businesses getting unpaid labour out of it

David Cameron talks about the “120,000 most troubled families” in the country, and promises help from mentors – “family champions“, as the government calls them – who will apparently include Tory MPs and advisers. From some distant departure lounge, Tony Blair holds forth about a sub-group of people “outside the social mainstream” who demand “deeply specific solutions”.

Between the two of them there is some disagreement over how much looted shops say about the national condition, but they seem to share the same essential conviction: that there is a degenerate rump at the bottom of society, and no point getting hot and bothered about any apparently harsh or intrusive treatment meted out to them. They are, after all, nothing like the rest of us.

This belief is contagious. Even my Guardian colleague Jackie Ashley this week claimed that “many” of our poorest people are now “culturally hostile to work and social order“. And so, with the help of such welfare-to-work companies as A4e (whose chair, Emma Harrison, is fast becoming a poster girl for the government’s revived fixation with worklessness) the juggernaut of brutal welfare reform is being allowed to speed on, with barely a squeak of opposition. The silence is overwhelming, even when it comes to people being pushed into work for practically nothing.

Copied over from the last government’s Flexible New Deal, one of the central ideas of Iain Duncan Smith’s Work Programme is “mandatory work activity“: up to 30 weekly hours of faux-employment spread over 28 days, during which people have to do work “of benefit to the community” in return for their jobseeker’s allowance of £67.50 a week. If they decline the offer of “experience” paid, in effect, at a rate of £2.25 an hour, or fail to make a go of it, their benefit can be stopped – for a minimum of three months, and six months if the transgression is repeated.

It’s a strange thing: by definition, you cannot volunteer for this, so the appearance of mandatory work activity on a CV speaks of reluctance being met with compulsion – which doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that would have an employer drooling. Moreover, there is nothing to rule out the four-week cycle happening again and again. When I called the DWP to find out if there was a cap on how often someone might be mandated, a spokeswoman said this: “It can be repeated, but you wouldn’t be forced back into a scheme for the sake of it. It has to be something that the claimant would benefit from.”

Nothing in this field is 100% certain, but the government insists that the “community benefit” proviso keeps people doing mandatory work activity out of the private sector. However, it sets the tone – and beyond that scheme there is mounting evidence of people being pressed into a fuzzy array of work placement programmes that provide big companies with a pool of unpaid labour.

When I contacted them, Tesco acknowledged it is co-operating with jobcentres to provide 3,000 four-week placements this year, and Poundland rather brazenly said that taking on unpaid benefit claimants “doesn’t replace our recruitment activity but adds to the number of colleagues we have working with us”. Neither of them, nor the equally placement-friendly Asda, answered a question about what “work experience” actually involves, though the clue is perhaps in the title. Work?

Partly because they tend to feel scared, the people at the sharp end of all this can barely be heard: we need to hear more from them, and fast. Last week the research outfit Corporate Watch published an interview with a woman they claimed had been dragooned into unpaid work at Primark. “I worked three days a week, 10am to 4.30pm or 5pm with one half-hour break,” she said. “[Primark] don’t pay any money … When I finished the placement I took my CV and I asked the managers if they had any vacancies. They said: ‘Not yet – we’ll call you when we do.’ I haven’t had a call.” If the economy continues to flatline and the supposedly workless still outstrip actual vacancies, we should fear the worst – this model of work being securely built into the economy.

It all blurs into a change in regulations aimed at the young unemployed, whereby people between 18 and 24 can now put in eight weeks of unpaid work without it affecting their benefits, and are seemingly being shoved into doing exactly that. “Work experience is an excellent way for young people to gain the practical experience and showcase their talents,” enthuses the DWP minister Chris Grayling; jobcentre advisers, says his department, are now being told that if a company has no vacancies for a young jobseeker, they should be “pushy” about the possibility of an unpaid placement. Such, it seems, is the transposing of a middle-class institution to parts of the economy where it really doesn’t fit: put another way, the system by which Jocastas and Crispins get to make the tea at City law firms and stay with Mum and Dad’s London friends is being reapplied to penurious weeks often spent at the very bottom of the service sector.

Some might call it slavery. Behind flash corporate facades, we should wake up to the increasingly strong outlines of a latterday workhouse. But never mind: the poor are not the same as the rest of us. Are they?

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