Workfare or Work-farce?

Not a new idea by any means, the controversial ‘workfare’ scheme has nonetheless hit the headlines again this week. Fern Tomlinson asks why.

 It all kicked off when an advert for a fulltime job in a branch of Tesco was discovered to only be offering expenses and jobseekers allowance in lieu of a salary.  Since then, politicians, businesses and commentators have criticised the scheme, claiming it amounts to ‘slave labour’ and is demeaning to those forced to work for their benefits.  The criticisms focus on the fact that jobseekers can lose their benefits if they do not complete up to thirty hours compulsory work a week.  Since the Tesco debacle, several companies that previously participated in the scheme including Sainsbury, Oxfam, Matalan and Waterstones have withdrawn from the scheme altogether.

In an attempt to recover the situation, Cameron has insisted that the scheme will continue, and is a worthwhile programme for those seeking work to undertake.  Blaming ‘snobbery’ and anti-business attitude for the backlash, the Prime Minister highlighted how the scheme makes a difference to the employment prospects of those who take part in it.

It is of course a contentious issue, as anything to do with unemployment is in the current climate.  However there are a number of important points to be made regarding the various schemes that are in place for those on jobseekers allowance, many of which have been lost in the barrage of media comment in recent days.  Firstly, the government’s work experience programme (an entirely voluntary scheme) allows young people on jobseekers allowance to undertake an unpaid work placement for between two and eight weeks while still receiving their benefits.  Yes, there is a penalty if the placement is not completed, however the scheme has a significant success rate, and most importantly gives young people the chance to gain experience in the work place and get a foot in the door for the future.

The Tesco scheme (with the doomed advert) was part of a sector-based work academy, offering training and work placements to those unemployed for more than three months.  These schemes give a guaranteed job interview to those who complete their placement, and again are voluntary with penalties for incompletion.  The success rate of this scheme is particularly notable; in the space of only four months 3,400 people had taken part, with 300 offered jobs at Tesco alone.

There also exist more mandatory programmes which are typically based around more community-based projects and are less about gaining the skills for work; however the recent debate has not centred on these.

It is important to bear in mind the benefits that both the work experience programme and sector-based academies can have.  In a time when jobs are scarce and profits are down, only the most competitive and qualified candidates are likely to stand a chance in the fight for jobs.  Those claiming jobseekers allowance are potentially less likely to have the ready-made contacts and help from parents that other graduates or school leavers may enjoy, and in turn may not be able to afford to undertake unpaid work experience without some form of financial help.  Usually jobseekers allowance precludes the undertaking of work experience, so these programmes provide a way for the unemployed to gain skills and training as well as knowledge of the work place whilst still receiving state benefits.  The success rates, as detailed above seem to speak for themselves, while the skills gained from the programmes are highly valuable, even if they do not lead directly to a job with the same company at the end of the placement.

There is little doubt that the schemes will continue, but with the loss of major employers such as Sainsbury and Matalan, the number of places will inevitably be lower in the future.  While nobody likes to work for free, unfortunately there really is little choice at the moment.  Experience in the work place and specific skills are at a premium, and as a long-term investment in future employability, these scheme seem a pretty good bet to me.


What I have to keep reminding people who keep harping on about how no one should have to work for free is that I do not know anyone, graduate or school leaver, who has not had to work for free either in terms of work experience or an unpaid internship in order to get a job that they want. Perhaps that is the missing link - those who consider working for free to gain skills and experience beneath them seem to be those who are currently unemployed and living off the state.