Two weeks ago, the government suffered a serious legal defeat over its workfare programmes. Cait Reilly, a geology graduate who was volunteering at a museum before the job centre compelled her to work for free at pound-land, brought the case against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Tory officials immediately tried to palm the court ruling off as a technicality rather than a moral indictment of their unpaid labour schemes. We were told that new regulations had been brought in which put workfare on an unambiguously legal footing. A spokesman said “These new regulations mean there will be no break in the support we’re able to offer job-seekers and we continue to have the power to remove benefits from those who aren’t serious about getting into work.”
One cannot help but admire their nerve. For the government, the only thing standing between job seekers and absolute poverty is their ability to force the unemployed into unpaid menial work – never mind that benefits for the unemployed are a legal entitlement, effectively paid for through national insurance contributions by the claimant themselves throughout their lives. Anybody disinclined to fantasise about the career-enhancing effects of cleaning floors, wage free, for a chain store, is branded “not serious”.
There is one sense in which the ministers and spokesmen are correct. The court ruling was based on a technicality – an important one, concerning whether or not placements are mandatory or voluntary – but a technicality nonetheless. So, despite the ruling, the government has kept a flow of absurd and bellicose justifications for workfare coming thick and fast. “It is right that we expect people to take getting into work seriously” said employment minister Mark Hoban. Presumably Hoban feels this is consistent with forcing Reilly, a young woman who had found useful volunteer work with a museum, to abandon it. The government will not pay out any money to claimants who have been illegally sanctioned “until all legal avenues have been exhausted”. Iain Duncan Smith boasted that most young people ‘love’ the schemes. He also took it upon himself to personally attack Cait Reilly, implying that she was a workshy scrounger who saw herself as too good for shelf stacking. The fact that Reilly was already doing voluntary work in a career-relevant field, and that she currently works part-time for Morrisons, did not give him pause. The right-wing press joined in with the attempted character assassination. Jan Moir of the Daily Mail recommended that Reilly “grow up” – because after all, workfare “is hardly like being incarcerated in a Nazi prisoner of war camp”.
The vacuous arguments and slurs we are offered as a defence of the policy only serve to demonstrate how untenable the position of the DWP is. Ministers cannot handle the slightest sustained challenge over this. Thus, in a heated exchange with James O Brien, IDS went completely off message and began shouting about JSA being a wage which the taxpayer provides as remuneration for the labour of the claimant. This is of course at odds with the DWP statement clarifying that JSA is precisely not a form of remuneration for work, but rather a benefit which claimants are legally entitled to. For a senior minister to make such a gaffe is indicative of the intellectual poverty of the arguments justifying workfare.
And yet young people cannot afford any complacency. As things stand, workfare is going to continue. Despite the wealth of empirical evidence demonstrating that workfare is a failure, public opinion remains somewhat sympathetic to the idea of compulsory unpaid labour for the unemployed. This means that although we should celebrate the court ruling, Reilly’s success will be a Pyrrhic victory if we do not simultaneously take up the battle over workfare politically as well as legally. We must fight hard to show workfare for the sham that it is. It does nothing to improve a claimant’s chances of finding work – it makes them worse. It does nothing to end the “something for nothing culture” – it celebrates and enshrines it, with corporations as the beneficiaries. It doesn’t make things ‘fair’ for the existing workforce – it destabilizes their position by providing free labour for the companies which employ them. It treats young people not as talented victims of capitalist crisis, but as feckless trash who should be punished in order to massage the employment figures.
How can we win that fight? In the last year, a series of protests over workfare made national headlines. These protests did not have the advantage of great numerical strength. Nonetheless, even in relatively small numbers they were able to force large swathes of companies to pull out of the schemes by making the issue a topic of national debate. The court ruling, though based more on technicality than politics, is another significant blow. If pressure is maintained by a solidaristic mass movement of young people, of the kind which exploded onto the streets in the student movement of 2010, it is likely that workfare will be broken.