Work fair?

The current debate about workfare and work experience is dishonest.

It has probably been quite fun to be a certain kind of commentator over the last week, with the possibility to give four perennial enemies a good kicking all at the same time:

– the Socialist Workers Party, who were supposedly behind the work experience protests
– the BBC and the Guardian which are really just a front for the above
– benefits claimants, who are all just milking the system, especially the so-called disabled ones
– ‘job snobs’, who are ‘sneering’ at good honest workers. These are particularly useful, since it enables such commentators to, for once, accuse people other than themselves of snobbery and sneering.

All of which is, in itself, part of the usual game. Unfortunately, such commentators then make a couple of autobiographical anecdotes, extrapolate from that, and this is where it gets dangerous.

Now I am not a labour economist. But neither are most of those commenting. Nor do I intend to cover some of the inaccuracies in much of the commentary. We’d be here until next Tuesday. However, let’s see whether we can find some consensus. So here are some suggestions for a different approach. They need, of course, considerable work and are definitely flawed. But they are a start.

It’s reasonable for people receiving benefits, who are available for work, to contribute to society…
One of the reasons that the jobless have been demonised and stigmatised so successfully is that their portrayal as scroungers has struck a chord. Even though that portrayal is unfair, a contribution to the community will reconnect faceless recipients with faceless contributors. Plus, the benefits to workers of working are well known. The rhythms of society are a good thing to be part of.

…but such contributions should be deemed to be paid…
Which would mean, in practice, that claimants would not be asked to contribute more than about 12 hours a week, assuming that they were deemed to be receiving minimum wage for their work.

…and should not replace other labour…
There appears to be considerable evidence that the retailers’ work experience schemes have enabled them to cut back on overtime or other employment opportunities. If you increase the supply of shelf stackers, you need also to increase the demand for stacking, or, over time, existing stackers will be worse off, which is not what this should be about. Clearly, the idea that the unemployed should be used to pull the rug from under other low paid workers is quite unacceptable. This has been for me the point most vociferously made by many protestors but has, scandalously, been ignored by the commentariat. But there is obviously a moral hazard emerging here. How do we ensure that local authorities don’t just cut back in certain areas, assuming that JSA claimants can be used to fill the gap? Which raises the question of what this community activity might actually comprise. We need something more imaginative than ‘painting railings’.

…nor should they involve compulsory volunteering in a charity…
If it’s compulsory, it isn’t volunteering.

…and should be evaluated fairly…
No one believes statistics any more, and Gordon Brown with his double counting is part to blame, as with so much else. Chris Grayling’s assertions that x% of participants come off benefits within y weeks is of no use to us, because it doesn’t tell us why. People get and lose jobs all the time and to claim any one case as a clear ‘win’ for one or other scheme leads to general disillusionment and cynicism.

…and should not include the disabled.


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