In place of Workfare

From 1 April 2017, ‘Scotland will have the power to design and deliver its own employability services for disabled people and those at risk of long-term unemployment’. The Scottish Government held a public consultation on what should replace the current system. Below is our submission:

Creating a Fairer Scotland: Employability Support

A response from the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network

We appreciate the generally holistic approach taken by the Scottish Government’s discussion paper. We also appreciate the difficulties of putting it into practice when the core of the system, including the powers to sanction, remains with Westminster. It will require some skilled drafting for the new Scottish employability programme to be even half as different from what we have now as it needs to be. That is not our area of expertise, but we can say from our own experience what works and what doesn’t.

The current system has not only scored miserably by its own criteria but is widely loathed by very many of those who have to go through it, for whom it is regarded not as help but as punishment. We want to see an end to people being made to waste hours doing often menial tasks that make little contribution to their chances of getting paid work, and that seem better calculated to destroy self-esteem than to build skills and confidence.

A system that is designed to help people must be voluntary. The vast majority of people who are out of work do want to work, so if services are readily available and helpful they will be used and used constructively. If ‘support’ becomes mandatory, with refusal of ‘support’ being punishable, the dynamic is completely changed. Trust is destroyed and what should be help, becomes a system of disciplining and punishment; a system that frequently prevents people from doing the activities that they really find useful. Even organisations established with a genuine supporting ethos tend to get corrupted once they become part of a mandatory system.

Support should be geared to each person’s needs. While this should be a prerequisite of genuine support, the current system has created numerous tasks for tasks’ sake. This has been the result of linking ‘employability’ to a disciplinary regime, and also of the drive to turn employment support into measurable and marketable commodities. Appropriate support that develops people’s potential – to the benefit of themselves and the wider economy – is also only possible if people are not being forced to take the first job available.

Support should be given through the public sector and with a public sector ethos. Private sector involvement has encouraged tokenism and the cherry-picking of easier ‘cases’.  Private sector involvement together with compulsion has been the worst possible combination. With their ‘customers’ guaranteed, there has been little incentive for companies to respond to ‘customers’ demands – or even, in cases we have come across, to provide competent training in basic computer skills.

There should be no place for ‘work for benefits’ or ‘workfare’. For any employability system to be successful it must show respect to the people who use it. This means awarding them a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. A minimum wage is meaningless if it does not apply to everyone. If a system is serious about trying to build up people’s confidence, then it needs to treat them fairly. Workfare abuses and takes advantage of the unemployed, and it uses them to undercut paid jobs.  Many people already do an enormous amount of volunteering in their local community (both formal and informal) and there is no problem with that – so long as it really is voluntary and doesn’t displace paid work. Current policies have even succeeded in corrupting once purely voluntary organisations by bringing them into a system where reluctant ‘volunteers’ get punished. A genuinely supportive alternative would encourage genuine voluntary activity, both through making people aware of what they could do and by allowing them time to take part.

Disabled people who are able to work need a level playing field. This means help that makes it easier for employers to take on disabled workers, and for disabled workers to do their work. At the same time, people who are not able to work should not be compelled to carry out other tasks. As with the unemployed – and also parents of young children – employability support should be voluntary.

These are the main points that should underlie any fairer system. We would also add, from our experience, that incentives targeted to encourage the employment of any one group – such as under 25s – can end up merely benefiting them at the expense of everyone else.

In very many cases, it is sadly misleading to think of the jobcentre ‘coaches’ as providing anything in the way of real help. This means that an effective and independent system that gives genuine support is urgently needed.