What is broadly termed ‘workfare’ has been in existence in some form or other since at least the mid-80s, but in its current form – six complementary work schemes – it can be understood as a key element of the restructuring of capital, with a specific role in disciplining and punishing the ‘reserve army of labour’, i.e. the unemployed. The growing obsolescence of ‘work’ – understood as wage labour – and thus of a growing section of the workforce, means ‘workfare’ becomes of immediate concern for a significant number of the population, even if they have yet to have any dealings with the punitive benefits system. Initially popular with a range of companies for its ‘free labour’ appeal, workfare is slowly coming undone. Here’s why:
1. There is such thing as bad publicity.
On the streets and on social media the power of ‘branding’ has been turned to lethal effect. At least 35 organisations – household name companies and charities – have ended their involvement, swapping the maxim ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ with ‘never underestimate the power of negative publicity’.
Although different groups and networks such as Boycott Workfare and Keep Volunteering Voluntary have played a crucial role, the effectiveness of the anti-workfare campaign cannot be attributed to any one organization or group of individuals. The barriers between ‘activists’ or ‘politicals’ and ‘non-political’ people are breached and fall when ex-customers and ex-donors let the company or charity in question know why they are no longer prepared to either shop or donate to them.
2. The campaign has drawn upon ‘virality’.
The term ‘going viral’ also truly comes into its own on social media, as share and retweets spread the anti-workfare word far beyond any effort to ‘get the message across’, via traditional media and actions – not to undermine such efforts. The initial storm on claimants being made to work unpaid broke in the media in 2012 following the legal actions of Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the hasty re-writing of Work Programme legislation, but the real effects were only to be felt once the concerted and ongoing campaign got going later that year.
3. Ongoing challenges have left the DWP struggling for a defence.
The campaign against workfare has had noticeable effects on actual policy and is shifting the coordinates of what is considered ‘compulsory’ and ‘voluntary’ work through contesting the (deliberately) muddy interpretive nature of the different variants of workfare. The British Chambers of Commerce has claimed criticism of workfare risks “undermining” it, and that government and employers should not to let the debate on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook drive policy decisions. In 2014 the DWP – clutching at straws – has had to delay and indefinitely postpone the launch of the most punitive version yet: Help to Work. The proposed scheme includes ‘Community Work Placements’ and ‘Traineeships’ or ‘Apprenticeships’ targeting unemployed youth, with the DWP noting: “Most of the participants may have the wrong attitude to the government’s plan for getting work experience to get a job.”
4. And the courts are continually ruling against them.
The DWP has attempted to block repeated FOI requests for full disclosure of the names of sub-contractors in ‘Mandatory Work Activity’ and other workfare schemes via court order, and has repeatedly lost. It has launched appeal after appeal in a vain attempt to win a ruling in its favour, the latest attempt being indicted thus: “The DWP arguments are a classic case of focusing on certain words and seeking to get a ‘drop of blood out of a stone’…” The DWP has previously claimed that publically disclosing the lists of all those ‘sub-contractors’ involved in the different versions of workfare, “would have been likely to have led to the collapse” of MWA and other workfare schemes. In the latest tribunal appeal the DWP’s legal team has claimed, “Boycott Workfare’s ‘strident’ criticism, online petitions and direct action against hosts [is] not ‘standard criticism’.”
5. Workfare is unworkable but entrenched: the more it is pursued the more disciplinary it will become.
Workfare is any scheme at all with an element of material compulsion involved, and can be traced back to ‘Restart’ interviews in 1986. Material compulsion means the actual or threatened withdrawal of Job Seekers’ Allowance. However, in addition to the social ‘other’ of the unemployed, all those employed claimants who are chronically underemployed – a modest estimate putting the figure at between 8 and 10 million of the workforce – the unworkable vanity project that is so-called ‘Universal Credit’, will put them under the same workfare cosh, expecting them to “look for more or better paid work” as a condition of being able to supplement their meagre earnings. The alternative becomes either workfare or facing ‘sanction’. This serves to present low-paid waged work as a privilege, while it is simultaneously undercut by an increasing pool of free labour in the form of workfare. The result is an instrument of discipline which denies people a wage earned from a job, but also allows the state to withdraw assistance on the grounds that people didn’t ‘try hard enough’.