There is an alternative to the unfair and counter-productive 'work programme'

22 Feb 2013

The Coalition’s attack on the young suffered a setback last week. The High Court ruled that the geology graduate Cait Reilly should not have been led to believe she would automatically lose her Jobseeker’s Allowance if she refused unpaid work with multinational Poundland, work she took up anyway, but went on to challenge. Reilly stressed that contrary to the myths put forward by Iain Duncan Smith – the Norman Tebbitt of The Coalition Years – she was not ‘above’ working in a shop, by pointing out she now works in a supermarket for an honest day’s pay. Sadly, in Cameron’s Britain Reilly’s case is far from isolated, and would be slightly humorous were it not for the demoralising impact it has on young people who have worked and studied and gained qualifications.


It would be humorous because Reilly was forced to give up her volunteering work for a local museum in order to work for nothing, ‘volunteering’ by stacking shelves. There are a few semantic issues with the government’s ‘work programme’: for example it seems unable to grasp that ‘to volunteer’ means to offer up your services without any element of compulsion or threat of sanction from someone else; a ‘programme’ usually implies a structured and well thought-through series of steps to get someone into work, rather than sending them to work in a sector completely unrelated to their interests, aspirations or skill set; while ‘work’ does not necessarily mean for pay or recompense, but it is a commonly understood fundamental rule in a capitalist economy that we work to make money, usually with a prospect of climbing up the work ladder and achieving self-respect and self-worth.

There’s been a lot of hot air and debate between those who believe in slave labour on the one hand, and groups like Boycott Workfare on the other. There are many who rightly criticise the government’s policy, but offer no real alternative to remedy the youth unemployment crisis in this country. Whatever side you are on, the taxpayer does indeed fork out for benefits, and it is in their interests to see that investment reap dividends, in the form of unemployed people ending up in paid, stable work with a view to gaining enough disposable income to channel into our shops and services, and get demand and the economy moving again. Therefore moving on from the Poundland case, we must try to find better solutions than the subsidising of multinational corporations, who in many cases don’t even pay tax themselves.

For this, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Coalition could look west. Wales has recently consistently been one of those areas of the UK with stubbornly high youth unemployment rates, with much of it a structural hangover from economic and industrial decline, which only gets compounded with every new recession. The Welsh Government has attempted many schemes as buffers to workfare – welfare is not a devolved policy area – many of which have failed to deliver (only last week it was found that one scheme, with the poor-movie-franchise-sequel-sounding name ‘Genesis 2’, helped just789 people into work). However, its ‘Jobs Growth Wales’ programme appears to be having more success for people in the same position as Cait Reilly.

It doesn’t require a degree – geology or otherwise – to explain the Jobs Growth Wales programme. The scheme offer six months paid work at the minimum wage for young people in areas that interest them. As the Welsh Government pays small businesses and charities to pay young people who have to be between 16 and 24, it is easier for growing business who are guaranteed to pay UK taxes and grow the UK economy to take people on, as well as massive companies. It can be used by charities that need an extra pair of hands, but cannot afford to hire anyone new on their own, due to budgetary restraints thanks to government cuts and lower donations. It allows young people to gain experience and make contacts in a field that suits their interests, inevitably leading to higher morale and higher engagement, and a higher chance of finding sustained employment afterwards.

I have to declare an interest at this stage – the programme has just helped me find work after a now typical period of bouncing in and out of part-time work after graduating. But at a charity which will include dealing with several other charities and organisations every day, it is a role that provides hope of finding new contacts and experience, which will prove far more valuable than stacking shelves for nothing, ironically after being told for the last three years at university about Marxism, Keynes and why the capitalist system can be so flawed and exploitative. In its first six months, Welsh Labour’s Jobs Growth Wales created over 3,000 opportunities and had helped over 1700 find work. It also has different strands for those seeking to work in the third sector, the private sector, and those who are looking to start their own business.

There are many potential flaws with this programme, not least that it may be seen as kicking the can down the road and creating the same problem again for individuals six months on. However, the argument of the Coalition government in support of workfare like that experienced by Cait Reilly is that although it is unpaid, it still gives ‘valuable’ experience for further, paid employment – if they defend workfare for this reason, they cannot attack the scheme being tested in Wales for only being for six months, as at least in that case it should offer bridges for young people seeking jobs in areas that meet their interests, skills and qualifications.

Alternatives to the Work Programme like Jobs Growth Wales could be rolled out across the UK, paid for by stopping universal pensioner benefits like bus passes and winter fuel allowances, which should only be available to those who need it to subsidise soaring costs, on low and middle incomes. Better, fairer youth job-creation schemes could also be funded by our government deciding not to effectively subsidise gambling companies and multinationals through tax loopholes, as they are doing at the moment. It could lead to similar opportunities being offered to middle aged people who have suddenly been made redundant, as a means of retraining for jobs in new sectors, or not facing the trauma of going from a decent wage to supporting a mortgage and family while unemployed. 

The alternatives are there – they just don’t want us to know about them. Perhaps the Big Society will mean something when volunteering means exactly that, and when young people are offered meaningful routes to work in a paid environment that suits them.

By Luke Jones

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