By Julie MacLeavy, University of Bristol
The potential role of organised labour organisations in policy debates on and resistance to workfare programmes is a complex issue, as is broached in relation to the US context in the article accompanying this blog. Recent developments outside of the US might point to a more engaged role for unions in such debates. In the UK, the state’s largest union, Unite, responded to last fortnight’s launch of the Coalition government’s new ‘workfare’ programme with a plea to charity managers not to sign up for community work placements, which are by part of a set of measures aimed at helping jobless benefit claimants move from welfare into work. In a statement, Unite described the mandatory work placements as “nothing more than forced unpaid labour”.
Their opposition to the Help to Work programme, which aims to reduce unemployment by making the payment of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) dependent on individuals’ enrolment for a six months work placement, is threefold. First there is no evidence that workfare programmes get people into paid work in the long-term. Second, workfare programmes stigmatise job seekers by making them work for nothing, or face having their benefits docked. Third, workfare displaces existing workers and enslaves jobseekers and in doing so undermines collective bargaining.
Unite’s statement of opposition to the implementation of workfare is important. Given the quietude and ineffectiveness of progressive welfare politics over the past two decades as the welfare system has increasingly required work in exchange for time-limited assistance, the addition of this established organisation’s voice to the critique of workfare could help to forge a counter discourse about welfare that consciously recasts welfare struggles in terms of civil and economic rights. Unite’s opposition identifies the manner in which the reduction of welfare assistance/imposition of workfare ensures a steady supply of cheap labour to industry and in doing so narrows the distance between the concerns of unemployed and its union members.
Until now, those targeted by workfare have not had the necessary institutional resources to effectively dispute the received wisdom that welfare recipients are unemployed because of a lack of motivation, skills and a ‘work ethic’. There have been independently-organised campaigns against the Help to Work scheme and its predecessors – including the former Labour government’s suite of ‘New Deals’ for the unemployed (which similarly required unemployed persons to undertake education, training or work experience in return for JSA payments) – but these have produced little in terms of long term resistance. With further support from the unions, claimant-led campaigns could be horizontally linked, relationships between welfare activists and the trade unions developed, and a greater level of public debate about the government’s reforms fostered. These nascent developments might also provide a model for the organisation of counter-workfare coalitions in the US context, where workfare programmes have also proceeded apace along broadly comparable lines to that of the UK, and with similar degrees of quietude and ineffectiveness within progressive welfare politics (see article reference in The Geographical Journal below), albeit with important differences and national inflections.
About the author: Julie MacLeavy is a Senior Lecturer in political and economic geography at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, UK.
MacLeavy, J. (2014), Workfare and resistance in the US: the quietude and ineffectiveness of progressive welfare politics post 1996. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12092
Guardian, The (2014) New Help to Work programme comes into force for long-term unemployed. 28 April
Unite (2014) Charity bosses urged to shun ‘workfare’ scheme by Unite. 28 April