“Not me, guv”: Workfare Providers Defend Their Actions

 

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.

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2 thoughts on ““Not me, guv”: Workfare Providers Defend Their Actions

  1. Thought I should reply and give my side of the story, as I know I am the source of most of this post (good writing btw). I am not a fat cat, I don’t have a big company, it was just me and my wife, no huge profits etc. I have a ten year old car and a three bedroom house.

    I found myself in a position that I knew I needed to expand my business as we couldn’t cope with the work. Where I live there is a big problem with youth unemployment, something i have been involved with, giving free coaching and mentoring in the past to disadvantaged young people. I could have chosen to take on a single experienced staff member, which would have been easy. Instead I decided it to try something totally different and take on a team of apprentices; I love training and loved the idea of building a team from scratch.

    We spoke to the job centre and arranged an open day, 100% voluntary. Of the 18 people who came to the event, we picked the 5 to join us. I didn’t need qualifications; all I asked for was people who wanted to be part of our business and the industry as a whole. Most of these people had NO CHANCE of getting a job in my industry, school has failed them and their confidence is rock bottom, to be honest they didn’t even think they were good enough to work for free. They had been employed in factories and fast food places if at all, no experience of relevance.

    Yes this has cost me, I sold part of the business to raise funds, we moved offices to fit in staff, had to buy loads of computers, software etc. If I had taken the easy options, employed one person with experience then I would not have had that outlay. Not an excuse, this is the truth. This wasn’t an easy option for my business.

    I always had issues with taking people on for nothing but the work experience would give us a chance to test the whole idea. Which is why we put in place a comprehensive training process, bonuses for those taken on as apprenticeship to cover time spent working for free, an excellent profit related payment scheme which returns between 50% – 70% of all profits to the apprentices. Weird you didn’t mention that in your post, obviously not as humorous as the fact we have fun Friday, Go karting and Paintball (my staff must be childish as they got far more excited about that than the profit related payment structure). As for me only paying them now they are ‘worth something’ to my business, this is not true, at least two of the team will not be generating any profit for some time but I have taken them on as they have shown the effort I needed, the attainment will come later.

    I also want to make it clear I do not agree with forced work experience in any way, I also think that benefits should be subsidised by the employer to at least minimum wage and there MUST be training and a potential full time role at the end. If that means scrapping Workfare because of they way some people have abused it then I am all for it but put something better in its place.

    Finally, I can sleep tonight knowing that I have had five excellent trainees who now believe in themselves and who found out today that they are now full time members of my team. Could that have happened without Workfare? Possibly. If people want to hate me, boycott me, or, in this case, mock me for what I have done, I can live with that. Is the end result better than them never getting the chance… definitely.

  2. A few things stood out for me in your comment:
    Thought I should reply and give my side of the story, as I know I am the source of most of this post (good writing btw cheers!). I am not a fat cat, I don’t have a big company, it was just me and my wife, no huge profits etc. I have a ten year old car and a three bedroom house. Of course. I didn’t think you were lying about being a small businessman and I hope I didn’t give you that impression – although I should point out that, working unpaid on benefits or even on minimum wage, affording a car is nigh on impossible, let alone a house!

    I found myself in a position that I knew I needed to expand my business as we couldn’t cope with the work. Where I live there is a big problem with youth unemployment, something i have been involved with, giving free coaching and mentoring in the past to disadvantaged young people Good for you. I could have chosen to take on a single experienced staff member, which would have been easy. Instead I decided it to try something totally different and take on a team of apprentices; I love training and loved the idea of building a team from scratch. This sounds OK in practice, it’s just I don’t think it was a straightforward choice between taking on one experienced staff member or a team of unpaid apprentices – was there no middle ground in this where you could have taken on several people at minimum wage initially?

    We spoke to the job centre and arranged an open day, 100% voluntary. Honestly, I understand that the people working for you did volunteer and weren’t coerced. I think the issue is that you chose to run your apprenticeships as part of the workfare schemes, which have involved coercion and sanctions. Of the 18 people who came to the event, we picked the 5 to join us. I didn’t need qualifications; all I asked for was people who wanted to be part of our business and the industry as a whole. Most of these people had NO CHANCE of getting a job in my industry, But surely you could have given them that chance? In fact, you have, which is great, but this doesn’t account for why they weren’t paid initially. school has failed them and their confidence is rock bottom, to be honest they didn’t even think they were good enough to work for free. It’s dreadful, isn’t it, that we’re now in a situation where people feel they’re not good enough to work for free. We do need to take urgent steps to combat this, and I’m still not convinced the work programmes are the way to go about it. In fact, there are many companies involved who ultimately use the participants’ lack of confidence for their own gain. They had been employed in factories and fast food places if at all, no experience of relevance. Well, it’s relevant should they want to work in factories and fast food places, but I see what you mean!

    Yes this has cost me, I sold part of the business to raise funds, we moved offices to fit in staff, had to buy loads of computers, software etc. This sounds great that you’ve invested a lot in these people – but was there honestly no way you could have paid them minimum wage by rearranging funds or forfeiting something else? I suppose what it comes down to is that, no matter how many sacrifices you’ve made, it’s an enormous sacrifice for someone to have to work for free. If I had taken the easy options, employed one person with experience then I would not have had that outlay. Again, I didn’t suggest you should have taken on one person with experience. Not an excuse, this is the truth. This wasn’t an easy option for my business.

    I always had issues with taking people on for nothing glad to hear it! but the work experience would give us a chance to test the whole idea. Testing something out is all very well, but I’m still not convinced it outweighs the unfairness of not paying your staff. Which is why we put in place a comprehensive training process, bonuses for those taken on as apprenticeship to cover time spent working for free when you say cover, does it add up to a living wage? If so, no problem! , an excellent profit related payment scheme which returns between 50% – 70% of all profits to the apprentices. Weird you didn’t mention that in your post I had seen you mention it to others, however I wasn’t sure what amount this would add up to, and whether it would be the equivalent of a living wage, obviously not as humorous as the fact we have fun Friday, Go karting and Paintball True! (my staff must be childish as they got far more excited about that than the profit related payment structure If they are, then I am! It did strike me as a funny defence, yes) . As for me only paying them now they are ‘worth something’ to my business, this is not true, at least two of the team will not be generating any profit for some time but I have taken them on as they have shown the effort I needed, the attainment will come later. I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one – I think for entry-level positions, it should be enough that someone has showed promise through application and interview, not through months of working unpaid, in order to warrant being paid.

    I also want to make it clear I do not agree with forced work experience in any way glad to hear it!, I also think that benefits should be subsidised by the employer to at least minimum wage have you done this yourself? and there MUST be training and a potential full time role at the end The “potential” thing is a problem as some workfare providers use this as a loophole to chuck people out at the end of their placements, even if they’re completely suitable. This will need to be looked at. If that means scrapping Workfare because of they way some people have abused it then I am all for it but put something better in its place. Indeed!

    Finally, I can sleep tonight knowing that I have had five excellent trainees who now believe in themselves and who found out today that they are now full time members of my team. I’m glad everyone where you are is glad at how things have turned out, but I still haven’t reversed my position about unpaid work. You’ve obviously got a system that’s superior to most, but unless you’re paying minimum wage from the word go, I can’t get behind it. Could that have happened without Workfare? Possibly. If people want to hate me, boycott me, or, in this case, mock me for what I have done, I can live with that Well, you might be able to live with it, but I am glad you’ve chosen to engage with the debate nonetheless. Is the end result better than them never getting the chance… definitely.

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