Hurrah for Twitter debates and all their time-consuming wonder! I’ve had an informative old time discussing workfare again and I’ve decided to respond to some of the reasoning provided by actual live workfare company owners, defending their right to employ people for free. Most of these lines came from one person, who ended up solely providing me with an entire blog post (cheers!). Enjoy!
I have workfare staff and they don’t feel exploited
I don’t want to make any extreme comparisons here, but plenty of people stay in undesirable circumstances because they feel they have no choice. This is not a good thing. Given the choice between an unpaid placement and a paid placement, I think only a masochist would opt for the former. What we’re seeing at the moment is not only an increase in people who believe they have to take unpaid placements in their chosen career path because there’s no chance of them being offered work otherwise, but also an increase in people who believe they have to take unpaid placements anywhere because there’s no chance of them getting any form of paid work. Both scenarios are unacceptable.
By participating in workfare, you may not be directly exploiting anyone but you are definitely indirectly contributing to exploitation across the country. Companies which have access to workfare participants have no incentive to offer paid work, and often don’t. This is exploitation and it’s how workfare operates.
Also, just because someone doesn’t currently feel they’re being exploited doesn’t mean they won’t after several months of unpaid work, or after they realise that one unpaid placement may just lead to another as workfare doesn’t create employment.
I’ve taken on all of my workfare staff and they are now being paid a living wage
I’m always really confused by workfare providers who smugly inform me that they have created jobs for unemployed people by taking on their workfare staff as employees. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve taken someone on as soon as they’ve begun working for you and not paying them at that point is unacceptable. If someone is being paid after two/three/six months of working for free, they are simply getting what’s due. This is not cause for celebration.
Workfare providers often wheel out excuses along the lines of training periods and trial runs, but I’m still not convinced. If you don’t think someone’s worth paying for a job you need doing, then chances are you shouldn’t hire them in the first place. If you do think someone’s worth paying, it’s unacceptable to demand months of free labour from them first.
Through workfare, I am giving unemployed people a chance/opportunity to learn
“Giving people a chance” seems to be the name of the game at the moment – which begs the question, what chance has someone got on no wage? Unpaid work is not a “chance” or an “opportunity”. A job is.
Paid jobs (as in actual proper jobs, like wot we all used to aspire to) have things called trial, or probationary periods, where the staff member is paid a proper wage and treated the same as other staff members. During this time, they may be subject to frequent reviews and their contract will not yet have been made permanent. Why now have the goalposts shifted to the point where an employer feels perfectly justified not paying a staff member who is effectively on their probationary period on the grounds that they are “giving them a chance”?
Not only is it insulting to suggest that unemployed people ought to be grateful for the “chance” to complete unpaid work, it simply isn’t true. An “opportunity” is free training, separate to work. An “opportunity” is money available for people to buy smart clothes to attend interviews. An “opportunity” is a CV building workshop, or free career advice, or a social group to keep your spirits up while applying for hundreds of jobs. An “opportunity” is an interview. An “opportunity” is a job. An unpaid job is an unpaid job.
I run a small business and cannot afford to pay staff
Then don’t hire them. It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for small businesses – times are tough for everyone – and I’d much rather go after the big companies like Asda and Tesco who make billions of pounds in profit and still feel justified not paying their checkout staff. However, just because you’re a small company does not mean you are justified in gaining from unpaid labour. Wanting to expand your business is a reasonable goal, and it must be very frustrating for anyone who has had to put this off, year on year, because of falling profits and rising costs. However, no matter how frustrating it is for a business owner, it’s nothing compared to being unemployed and trapped in the cycle of unpaid work placements at the threat of benefit sanctions. Until workfare is made fair (and I have a feeling it’ll be a long time yet) nobody is justified in benefitting from it.
I’ve actually lost money from taking on workfare staff so I can’t be benefitting from it
It’s regrettable that anyone who genuinely wants to make a difference usually ends up bearing the brunt of the cost, and it’s true that many workfare providers may honestly want to help the unemployed. However, workfare as it is isn’t the way to do this. Even if you’re putting hours of time and oodles of cash into your placements, it doesn’t make the schemes any less deplorable. People should not be made to work for free, for any length of time. Even if you’ve made your schemes as easy and relaxed as can be, it’s still unpaid labour. And, if anyone who has initially participated voluntarily decides that your company isn’t for them, they can still be easily referred to Mandatory Work Activity which will see them shunted into another company with the threat of losing their benefits. By participating in workfare, you are perpetuating this cycle which has left many unemployed people miserable, destitute and desperate.
But I take the team out go karting and paint-balling, I CAN’T BE EVIL
Er, good for you. But not even free laser quest would convince me that I didn’t have a right to be paid for my work, for any length of time.
And that’s laser quest. Think about it.