Normalising unpaid labour

Over the last 2-3 months, the Dundee stalls have been pretty quiet with only a trickle of inquiries, but we have noticed an upturn in inquiries and live issues in the last couple of weeks. At today’s stall we came across a number of people who had major complaints regarding the way they had been treated.

An older blind gentleman had been told that he was required to pay back an overpayment of benefits, but claimed that he had already been paying back this overpayment from November last year. We urged him to approach his support worker in order that he can be referred to a welfare rights organisation to act on his behalf.

Although sanction issues have appeared to have largely dried up, we came across one guy who had been sanctioned for 13 weeks for failing to take part in a ‘Mandatory Work Activity’ (MWA). Although this scheme, according to the DWP’s own guidelines, is meant to involve people taking positions in organisations such as third sector, charity and environmental agencies, and any work they do is meant to be of demonstrable benefit to the community, the guy we spoke to had refused to participate because he was being asked to stack shelves in Poundstretcher. (This is not to say that it is OK to make people do ‘community’ work unpaid – particularly ‘environmental’ work, which generally means sorting through rubbish.)

We also came across a woman who was long-term unemployed, and who had been through a two year Work Programme (WP) placement, and who had just finished a four week MWA. She is on the ‘Help to Work’ scheme, which is the next stage for people who have already completed the WP. Her JC advisor told her that she would be enrolled on a DWP training course, but when she pointed out that any training would be of limited use to her due to her literacy problems, the advisor reassured her that ‘it was not that kind of course’ and that she would simply be asked to hang clothes on hangers in a retail outlet. The woman responded by asking ‘how is that training?’ and also pointed out that any referral to a ‘training scheme’ would mean that she would miss the voluntary work and courses she is already signed up to, on her own account. She is currently enrolled in a job club, volunteers in a nursery and is on courses for her literacy problems. She reported that the advisor was completely dismissive of her initiative and expected her to drop everything in order to take up the placements and ‘training’. We advised her to contact us so that we can accompany her in to her next meeting in order to help her challenge this high handed attitude.

The major issue we are being approached about is Workfare in its various guises – it is quite clear to us that the roll out of mandatory work schemes is being accelerated, to the extent that some who actually sign up to these schemes are having to wait weeks before they are given a placement. We can only see this issue coming even more to the fore in the coming weeks and months, and we are preparing for a lot of hard campaigning. This is, however, an issue that not only affects the unemployed – if Workfare is allowed to bed in, and to spread, it will represent nothing more nor less than the normalisation of ‘unfree labour’ within British society. How long before any prospective employee is expected to undergo months, or perhaps even years, of working for their ‘benefits’ before they are actually paid for work? The trade unions need to wake up to the dangers posed by Workfare, to their members, and, indeed, to the very existence of the trade unions as meaningful organisations able to defend employment rights.


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