A small victory against workfare

With the government forced into a humiliating climbdown on workfare, Laurie Smith looks at where the welfare system is going and the Left response

Government ministers have gone into denial after their February 29 humiliating workfare climbdown. In the morning Iain Duncan Smith, work and pensions secretary, was insisting that “The kids love it, the public love it, companies love it and we love it.” Protestors against the ‘work experience’ scheme were dismissed as mere anarchists and job snobs. Come the afternoon, though, the government announcement that those leaving the hated scheme would no longer face an automatic loss of benefit.

The fact of the matter is that the “kids” do not love workfare and nor does the “public”. As for the companies (and charities), they increasingly found themselves embarrassed. Being associated with forcing young people to work for nothing for eight weeks without any guarantee of a job risked damaging, destroying their hugely expensive reputations as caring, sharing capitalists. Hence the decision by Tesco and others to distance themselves.

However, while we have scored a small victory, the ‘work experience’ scheme remains intact. Of course, government ministers, Tory and Liberal Democrat, make a song and dance about getting young people used to self-discipline, getting up on time and dressing smartly. But for what? The unemployed are being told to work up to 30 hours a week, all the while surviving on their Job Seekers Allowance (plus travel costs). As if surviving on an increasingly meagre dole (while inflation continues to rise) is not hard enough on its own, the coalition government still expects young people to present themselves as an exploitable commodity.

So far the schemes have been limited in scope. They are ‘optional’ for those aged 16-24; not that this is always made clear. Any older and you may be unlucky enough to qualify for Mandatory Work Activity: six to eight weeks unpaid labour, with ‘non-compliance’ rewarded with the removal of benefit for 13 weeks - 26 weeks if the generous offer is refused a second time. Tens of thousands have already been through this programme. The trajectory of the attack is clear: a move to a welfare system in the style of the United States, with benefits time-limited, and contingent on doing what the government damn well tells you.

Such an outcome would lead to a further weakening of working class organisation in Britain. The struggle of the unemployed and precariously employed to just survive would be so tough as to make political and even trade union commitments very difficult. Unions organising the unskilled and semi-skilled will tend to become even more sectional under these circumstances - concerned with protecting their current members’ interests, as against those of the competition from the swelling ranks of the unemployed.

Doubtless, there is a desire to aid small and medium enterprises that participate - providing unpaid labour to help boost their meagre turnover. No doubt some will take advantage, but it is hardly likely to yield much. Slave labourers have no incentive whatsoever to carry out even simple, unskilled tasks diligently, efficiently and fully. For many companies such schemes are more trouble than they are worth - diverting supervisory staff to oversee work of dubious value.

But crucially there is the politics of reputation. Last week Tesco was found advertising one of the unpaid placements at a branch in Suffolk - on the Jobcentre Plus job search website. Effectively rubbing salt into the wound of those looking for an actual, proper job - one where you got paid and stuff. The Twittersphere went crazy, and the discovery prompted the Socialist Workers Party to hold a protest at a London branch of Tesco under the banner of Right to Work.

Within a short time dozens of companies, having agreed to give 16-24-year-olds ‘work experience’, were having second thoughts - especially when it was revealed that those who dropped out after the first week of their placement (up to eight weeks) would be docked two weeks benefit as punishment. This was hardly the kind of publicity that firms like Waterstones, Maplin and Burger King were looking for. Giving youngsters a helping hand as they enter the world of work is one thing. But being condemned for first exploiting them and then leaving them penniless is quite another.

The media actually showed up to the actions organised by RTW. On one level the SWP was lucky - it regularly pulls such stunts to keep the morale of the troops up. But one can hardly begrudge the comrades their moment in the limelight or the role they have played in highlighting these attacks. The Tories, of course, were quick to dismiss RTW as a front for the SWP (an allegation not entirely without foundation) and congratulated themselves on avoiding the political argument. Granted, when the bosses of that temple of human advancement, Poundland, were calling the scheme “unethical”, the balance of the argument is kind of tilting in your favour. And scores of other companies began pulling out, foreseeing a PR disaster.

Not that we should be uncritical. The SWP’s message has left something to be desired. To say the least. Placards emblazoned with the demand, “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”, actually buttress one of the central planks of the ideology of capitalism. Of course a “fair” day’s pay, if it is to mean the worker getting the full value of their labour, is something we know to be impossible under any mode of production. And a “fair day’s work”? By most people’s definition, eight hours a day is still too bloody long.

More importantly, what we Marxists fight for is an end to wage-slavery - the condition where the mass of the population present themselves to capital as owners of nothing but their ability to labour.