Experience can work
by Claudia Wood
The latest furore to surround the Government’s beleaguered Welfare Reform Bill is the new argument blown up about ‘workfare’. JSA claimants can be referred to four weeks work related activity, and have their benefits removed for 13 weeks if they refuse, or an eight-week voluntary work experience placement – which may or may not lead to sanctions.
The story began when Cait Reilly made the headlines last month for taking legal action after she was made to stack shelves for two weeks or lose her JSA. The response was predictably unsympathetic. However, two recent incidents have changed the public mood. The first – an unfortunate clerical error leading Tesco to advertise for a permanent nightshift job paying ‘JSA + expenses’. Despite explaining this was, in fact, a Work Experience placement lasting 8 weeks, its link to benefits sanctions for those who do not take the placements has led to a phenomenal public backlash. In a response similar to that of companies handing back bonuses a few weeks ago, several big chains which had previously been profiting from the system have pulled out of the scheme in embarrassment.
But it is the second development which is more concerning. DWP papers leaked to the Guardian revealed that the work experience equivalent for those claiming ESA (those unable to work through illness or disability) has no time limit. Whilst JSA claimants have an 8 week stint of workfare, those who are arguably less able to do this could be working for free for months, even years.
Of course, I may be overreacting. When the Guardian asked the DWP if a disabled person could be working for free for 10 years on this scheme, the spokesperson’s response was ‘don’t be ridiculous’. But the principle still troubles me. And the plans look to me to be open to widespread abuse.
First of all, there is no definition of work experience, meaning any job can be badged as such. But work experience should have clearly stated characteristics – enriching, experiential, and varied to enable the participant to gain a range of new skills and try different things. This doesn’t mean running one’s own company, but it does mean, for example, doing something other than one repetitive task in isolation for 8 hours a day. Secondly, multiple placements are ruled out. Having no time limit could almost be justified if you reason that an ESA claimant might need to carry out lots of short experiences to find something that suits their capabilities. But the leaked documents state there would be ‘not much value’ in people completing more than one placement. After several months undertaking a repetitive job, opportunities for learning new things are likely to be exhausted. Without an 8 week cut off, at what point does the claims assessor decide the claimant has ‘experienced’ enough? I would suggest this will be when the claimant finds paid employment, creating a workfare system in perpetuity.
Third, sanctions will be used if an individual refuses or wants to stop the placement. It is chilling to think that it is not medical professionals but JSA claims officers, having been given information on ‘different health conditions’, who will be in a position to decide if a person should undertake limitless amounts of (unpaid) work and to remove their benefits if they refuse or want to stop.
Finally, and incredibly for such an unregulated and risk-laden scheme, there are no plans for evaluation. The DWP ministers say there will be evaluation ‘through the statistics’ and ‘possibly some qualitative research’. But will this tell us anything more than the numbers of people passing through the system? With no definition or quality benchmark, how will we know if these placements are actually improving employability? Will it tell us if the placements are simply filling paid vacancies and subsidising employers? The government is either incredibly naïve or purposely refusing to recognise the potential for exploitation this scheme creates. When this risk was raised, the ministers’ minuted response was: ‘no-one benefits from putting people into work placement that last a long time’ – you mean, other than the employer getting free labour?
But we should not underestimate the power of public opinion to embarrass commercial enterprises out of the cushiest deals. If Tesco and others have been put off by the negative publicity of an eight-week placement for an non-disabled JSA claimant, then what are the chances they will offer an unlimited placement for someone with a terminal illness?
And this is the biggest scandal of this whole mess. If the Government had designed and articulated the concept of work experience properly, it would have been an invaluable tool for jobseekers. Because both JSA and ESA claimants desperately need work experience to boost their skills and confidence. Employers would have been credited with providing access to good quality experiences for those most in need, not harangued for slave labour. By choosing not to properly define Work Experience, nor demand employers offer quality placements to actually boost employability, and by linking it to the penalty regime rather than designing it as a training tool, the Government has critically undermined its value as a welfare to work mechanism. Fewer employers will participate, and a narrower range of fulfilling and worthwhile placements will be on offer. And only jobseekers will lose out.