In theory there is nothing wrong with concept of the Work Programme. It is similar to the old Job Clubs, you would go along, get your CV checked out or (re)done for you, have access to look for work on PCs, use telephones, have your job applications posted for you, get interview advice etc. Whether Job Clubs benefited people, I would say is down to personal experience. However it does seem that The Work Programme is being used as a vehicle to promote welfare to work / workfare.
The companies (providers) involved in ‘helping you find work’ get an initial payment for taking each unemployed person onto their books – this is for a full 2 year period, even if you get a job, if unfortunately you lose that job during this period you go straight back onto the Work Programme. The providers get another payment if you manage to find work whilst on WP. There is a valid line of thought being expressed that the providers will therefore concentrate all there efforts on individuals they consider being more likely to find a job. Meaning the others will be cast onto the scrapheap. It can also be viewed as creeping privatisation of the Jobcentres as the work previously done at JCs is effectively being outsourced which doesn’t bode well for the staff who used to do it. The criteria for being referred to the WP is 18-24yo who have been on JSA for 9 months (at mo these are mainly the people being forced to do work placements) and over 25yo who been on JSA for 12 months. Anyone on ESA who is within 3 months of the date their Doctor has stated they will be ‘fit for work’ can also be sent on WP.
As I have been unemployed for over 12 months, my local Jobcentre Plus office referred me onto the Work Programme and I attended an induction on 29th November with my provider – Working Links. It was all very pleasant but seemed a bit rushed, unorganised and chaotic with not enough space for those booked onto the induction. I was not given any details regarding when or where or what would happen next except “someone will contact you shortly”. This never happened even though I chased them for further details on a couple of occasions over the following weeks.
On the third occasion I was told by the provider that I had in fact been referred to NACRO and would be hearing from them. I queried this. As far as I am aware NACRO is to assist people with criminal records / custodial sentences in their search for employment. However the provider insisted that my referral to them was appropriate. I have no problem with NACRO and would be totally fine if I was referred to them but I just found it very odd. I decided to contact them directly and in my email explained the situation, my previous work history (for most of my life I have been in permanent long term employment) and also advised that I did have a criminal record for public order offences but they were all ‘spent’. I received a reply from NACRO and they agreed that it would not be suitable for me to be referred to them.
During the conversation with my WP provider I had requested for the details in writing. A couple of days later, I received a phone call from them and I explained the above. This advisor agreed that it did not seem appropriate that I had been referred to NACRO and that he would chase up this matter on my details and once again I would be contacted by someone soon. I also questioned why it was now nearly 2 months and I was still waiting for details of where, what and when the WP would be offering me in the way of seeking work. I was informed that they had been overwhelmed by the numbers requesting to go on the Work Programme. I am not sure that my response was welcome but I said those people, like myself, were not volunteering to go on the WP but being told ‘go on it or get your benefits sanctioned’.
A further month passed without any contact from my provider. Then I received a letter asking me to attend a Job Search activity on Feb 20th with Abilities who I am assuming have been sub contracted by Working Links. I attended this interview and was told that as part of my Work Programme activities I would have to attend their office once a week for 3 hours to look for work and I would be offered any assistance from their staff. This I have no objection to, I welcome any help in finding paid employment. However within a few minutes of the conversation, work placements were mentioned and how this would help me find permanent work. This I object to. I politely said that under no circumstances would I participate in forced unpaid work. A brief amicable discussion followed about the benefits of working for nothing and how it would help me find permanent work. I conceded that some people may well find full time work this way but re-iterated that I would not participate as I considered forced labour to be immoral, unethical and total alien to my core values and beliefs. I was then taken to have a discussion with the work placement officer.
Similar discussions ensued and it was explained to me that someone had found full time employment with a local Sainsbury’s following a work placement. I stated that may well be the case but why couldn’t companies like Sainsburys who’s CEO earns just shy of £1 million a year afford to pay me the National Minimum Wage for the period of the work placement and if after a few days or weeks I was found to be not suitable, they could let me go. As my first preference of employment is office work, (general admin etc) I was told that it could be arranged for me to go on a work placement in an office. However I explained that aside from several years work experience of general labouring and working as a storesperson, I have 20 years experience of banking and don’t think I am in need of any ‘work experience’ within an office, particularly when I would not be paid.
I said I was prepared to undertake any activity that would enhance my prospects of finding work but reiterated that I would not participate in any work placements where I was not being paid at least the National Minimum Wage and if I was put on an unpaid work placement, I would attend but to picket the employer and would not work. I was told that it was not advisable for me to mention this to the office manager as he would probably put a sanction on my benefits immediately. I asked who this was and was told it was the man I had just seen (hmmm thought me, I have just told him). I was then asked if I was saying ‘was it just a job I was looking for’, I am not too sure what that meant but replied that is about the sum of it. I am actively seeking work and want to find a job, preferably permanent and full time, do a day’s work and get paid for it. I mentioned that I was part of a group that campaigned against workfare and was told that if while doing my job search activities it was noticed that I was trying to discourage people from participating in work placements I would not be allowed into their offices. As much as I like to spout my opinions, I can bite the bullet with this regard, and agreed that I would not enter into such discussions whilst on their premises.
I am not sure what will develop now and as far as I know it was left that ‘we will cross that bridge when we come to it’. That is fine but I am adamant that I will not be crossing any bridge that takes me onto unpaid forced work placements. My side of the bridge may become one without receiving any form of income but it is the right and just side to be on. At certain times in our lives, when faced with dilemnas we must draw a line, do what we know is right and say ‘no more’.
Over the last few weeks, due to public pressure, we have seen employers involved in the work placement programme falling over like dominos and many have withdrawn. I heard today that Tescos have announced they will be paying all those on work placements at least the National Minimum Wage. This is welcome news and I urge everyone to keep campaigning. It may not be so palatable to campaign against charities but the same principles of forced labour applies to charities and they must also be actively encouraged to withdraw. Trade Unions, such as CWU, must also take a long hard look in the mirror and realise they have made a mistake in participating in unpaid work placements and oppose such schemes.
I hate being on the dole, I want to work but I will never be forced to work for nothing and nor should anyone else.