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Workhouse Fare
March 7, 2012 6:47 AM   Subscribe

"Workfare is the Conservative Government's scheme to get unemployed people into work. Workfare "was first introduced by civil rights leader James Charles Evers in 1968; however, it was popularized by Richard Nixon in a televised speech August 1969." [wikipedia]

The current UK Government have their own version of workfare, which has attracted some criticism.

Several large companies have used workfare, however several have now backed out of the scheme.

This article discusses Workfare from a legal perspective.

The Telegraph's take on workfare.
posted by marienbad (71 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
On a lighter note, Is Europe heading for Credit Crunch 2?
posted by marienbad at 6:48 AM on March 7, 2012


Workfare is sort of like giving somebody substandard wages for unskilled work under the guise of job training, with the mistaken assumption that after working 40 hours a week and doing other things to care for one's family, one will have the time or energy to seek better work.

Furthermore, from NYC's attempt:
...legally they are not considered workers and therefore do not receive Social Security credit, earned income tax credit, unemployment insurance, sick leave or vacations. They have no collective bargaining rights and very little in the way of grievance rights if they should get ill or wish to complain about unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Eighty-six percent of all WEPs surveyed report doing the same work as regular employees.
posted by entropone at 6:52 AM on March 7, 2012 [10 favorites]


Workfare is communism, if defined as the state participating in production (whereas socialism is the state's participation in distribution). It's not surprising to see it coming from the right, because were mainly talking about fascism (state + corporation) these days.
posted by Brian B. at 7:06 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


It took me a minute to find the phrase 'unpaid labor.'

What we are really discussing here is good old-fashioned slavery.

Also, anyone who thinks people need 'experience' for labor that is, by definition, 'unskilled' is disingenuously grasping at ways to put the yoke back on the serfs.
posted by edguardo at 7:06 AM on March 7, 2012 [15 favorites]


Does anyone non-MRDD past the age of 16-17 need to be taught just "how to have a job"? And even teenagers, I can't imagine that taking more than a week or two. This seems to harken back to the "things rich people need to stop saying" thing--the idea that maybe somehow poor people just don't know how to work yet and you're going to enlighten them through something like this.

Real job training programs would be lovely to see where I am, anyway, in the US, but I get the distinct impression that a lot of people are against them on the grounds that it's just giving poor people more free stuff.
posted by gracedissolved at 7:12 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Real job training programs would be lovely to see where I am, anyway, in the US, but I get the distinct impression that a lot of people are against them on the grounds that it's just giving poor people more free stuff.

Teach a man to fish, etc etc.
posted by edguardo at 7:15 AM on March 7, 2012


What we are really discussing here is good old-fashioned slavery.

Not really. It's more like indentured servitude, where they had to work for you and take the wages you offered, but you weren't responsible for feeding or housing them.* The thing that really horrifies me about this is that it is the government, which should be looking out for the welfare (oooh, there's that word) of the people, are complicit in the process. I think the theory is that "if we make being unemployed unpleasant enough, people will magically create jobs for themselves." ****


*Not to say that slavery isn't also evil, but they aren't proposing buying and selling the unemployed.** Nor is it serfdom, since landowners had responsibilities to their serfs.***

** Not yet

*** It's much better when you can use up your workforce and then discard them.

**** Actually, this kind of happens. The European naval conflicts of the 16th-18th C produced, as each one ended, a massive surplus of unemployed sailors, who had no prospects for going back to their previous professions (if any). The entrepreneurial of this class became "maritime trade intervention consultants," or, as we like to remember them, pirates. Maybe workfare graduates can form roving bands of marauders; that would be a blow for "unintended consequences."*****

***** I have been listening to a podcast on the history of China. This last sentence was pretty much true for about 10-30% of all the years of the various Imperial Dynasties....
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:20 AM on March 7, 2012 [10 favorites]


I might get behind a workfare program that was short, provided daycare, and a _really_ high placement rate into the real job market. Otherwise it looks like the economic equivalent of a chain gang without the room and board. And we can't forget that some of this workfare happens alongside union guys doing the same work so there's that wedge as well.
posted by drowsy at 7:22 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Does anyone non-MRDD past the age of 16-17 need to be taught just "how to have a job"? And even teenagers, I can't imagine that taking more than a week or two.

For skills like getting to work on time every day and not being wasted on drugs or alcohol when you get there? Yes. Lots of people in their 20s and 30s who haven't managed to capture that skill set. Ask anyone managing this age group.
posted by Mitheral at 7:23 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is sort of related, but the UK government is closing two-thirds of factories staffed by Remploy workers. Remploy is a government-owned company that employs disabled workers, a legacy of the post-war welfare consensus that is being dismantled (and fast).

So we now have a perverse situation where ministers are keen to hand taxpayer funds to big businesses to employ free labour through Workfare, but not to keep some of the most vulnerable members of society in work.

Still, we shouldn't be too surprised. After all, the UK is having a good stab at fucking itself up in the most cack-handed and hilarious fashion - surely more so than any other major Western country? God knows there's a lot of competition.

Check out, say, the two aircraft carriers that will probably cost £12 billion ($19 billion).

I mean, maybe (not really) fair enough if they're going to be put to good use, but one is going straight into mothballs, and the other won't have planes on it for its first years in service!
posted by TheAlarminglySwollenFinger at 7:25 AM on March 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


I think it's fair to say that there exist people who cannot hold down an adult job and could probably benefit from something like this; the problem is a) separating those people from those who are unemployed due to outdated skills or just a bad macroeconomy and 2) the assumption that not being able to hold down a job is responsible for the bulk of unemployment.
posted by downing street memo at 7:27 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Workfare is awesome because it helps to undercut wages and increase inequality. Sweet, nourishing inequality. /s
posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 7:32 AM on March 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


Not really. It's more like indentured servitude...

Leave my leftist hyperbole alone, the future of the world depends on it!
posted by edguardo at 7:44 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's always amusing to me when Brits use the word "scheme," because it doesn't seem to have the same sinister connotations to them as it does in American English (e.g. we'd never have something called the Leeds Metropolitan University Early Application Scheme Entry (EASE).
posted by Jahaza at 8:01 AM on March 7, 2012


I was listening to a radio discussion about this the other week and reading other stuff about it and it's pretty clear that one of the main ideas of this is to stop people signing on for jobseekers allowance in the first place, especially young people living with their parents who won't be getting housing and council tax benefit by making it so unpleasant that if they can manage to survive by picking up the odd bit of work here and there they won't bother (unlike the old days when you would keep some of your benefit up to a point, any work you do now is taken straight off it).

The most hilarious bit on the radio show was the bloke from the Tory thinktank justifying it by saying when he started work he had difficulty getting there on time so he needed training for that (I thought school did that)

50% of people on workfare get a job, 60% of people not doing it get a job in the same time period (because they have more time to look).

Oh and they are going to bring in automatic workfair for prisoners as soon as they leave prison... but I doubt many people will moan about that as it's not like they are real people
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:08 AM on March 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


By the way, who actually believes that a lack of work is the real problem?

As if work is lovely and fulfilling and working a cash register or waiting tables is somehow approximate to the sublime act of artistic creation that people also call their "work."

Leisure has been unequally distributed since civilization came about, and since that time, leisure has always been won on the backs of people deprived of it.

It's funny, like, maddeningly, teeth-gnashingly funny, when people who don't have to work, whose income is ensured by ownership and defended by the full force of law, get in a huff because someone else, someone 'lower class', might want to enjoy some leisure too. They call that shirking, and it is condemned as a grave social ill.

The message is clear: leisure is ours to enjoy, and the rest of you are meant for labor.

The pathos of distance cultivated by all aristocracies is clearly alive and well.
posted by edguardo at 8:11 AM on March 7, 2012 [24 favorites]


We have hundreds of thousands of people, particularly young people, who have never had a job. They have no understanding of turning up to work on time, following orders, staying focused on tasks, or any of the other skills - and they are skills - required for employment. Their prospective life outcomes are very poor. Getting them into the labour market would be a Very Good Thing. Work Experience Tips - not exactly high-value stuff, but valuable for this section of the population.

The high demand for labour in the boom of the last ten years passed much of this unskilled section of society by: jobs were largely taken by harder-working EU immigrants who don't have the option of claiming UK benefits. I don't see a likely source of demand for unskilled labour that pays better than welfare appearing in the near future. So how do we improve the employability of this section of the population? Getting them any kind of work experience at the most basic level must be a start. And saying "if you stop turning up for work, you stop getting some of your welfare" seems a useful life lesson for the few hundred people affected by this. I know my punctuality improved when I started work at a company which docked me by the minute for every minute I was late...
posted by alasdair at 8:31 AM on March 7, 2012


You don't think compulsory education teaches people about showing up on time, following orders, staying focused, and generally introduces people to the 40-hour work week?
posted by edguardo at 8:38 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


For the people this scheme is aimed at? No. 10% of 16-18-year-olds are in none of education, employment of training. They don't go to their compulsory free education.
posted by alasdair at 8:44 AM on March 7, 2012


Okay. Why didn't it have any effect from ages 5-16, and why would it have any effect later?
posted by edguardo at 8:47 AM on March 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also, what part of compulsory uncompensated labour is supposed to get people to motivate themselves to turn up on time, not be drunk, etc.

If it's not actually a real job for real pay, and I don't have a choice about it, I'm going to be more likely to slack off, malinger, steal shit, and generally get fucked up. Because fuck you.

Have people forgotten that the concept of "passive aggression" originally comes from US army training manuals?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:49 AM on March 7, 2012 [12 favorites]


If Tesco needs shelf-stackers, they can pay minimum wage to hire them. If they want to offer job-seekers the opportunity to do this work, they can target their advertising to job centres. I don't see why Tesco needs state subsidy for any of this.
posted by altolinguistic at 8:52 AM on March 7, 2012 [16 favorites]


A 10% unemployment rate for 18-20 year olds in the US who weren't currently in school would be wildly optimistic. More so if you revised that to, say, 16-20 year olds who'd dropped out of high school. But that doesn't mean that those people don't know how to show up at work and not be drunk. I've known a lot of people in that kind of category, and their primary problems are "I don't know what I want to do with my life" and "I want to do something but I don't think it's actually possible and so what's the point". I have a hard time seeing how putting people like that into jobs like this helps the problem. I hated working fast food around that age with a burning passion, and I was only biding time until starting college.

And that's presuming there are real jobs for them to graduate into at all, at the end of this, and that doesn't sound like it's strictly true there any more than it is here.
posted by gracedissolved at 8:55 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


All this does is send the economic signal that work is worthless--something not really worth paying for--and all that does is encourage people not to value work more.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:56 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Conservatives don't want to teach the value of work: they want to undermine it and then blame workers for acting in their own rational self-interest when they too treat it like the worthless thing it's become.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:57 AM on March 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


Forced labor is immoral. Am I wrong to believe that? Why? How is this not forced labor?
posted by jsturgill at 8:58 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why didn't it have any effect from ages 5-16, and why would it have any effect later?

Well, the environment is different, so you might respond more positively to that - a workplace with adults is a different place from a school. Also, by the time you're in this scheme you might be 25, or 30, and quite different from the person you were at 15 years old when you dropped out: you just need another chance to show you can work, after years out of the labour market.

That's the hope, anyway: as I said, these schemes don't work terribly well, as I understand it. The point I'm trying to make is that workplace schemes are rational policy. Ineffective in practice, perhaps, but not unreasonable.
posted by alasdair at 9:03 AM on March 7, 2012


None of this has anything to do with training, or even workers generally. It's just a tarted-up corporate handout.
posted by aramaic at 9:04 AM on March 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


As if by magic... thanks random mod.
posted by marienbad at 9:09 AM on March 7, 2012


When I was working full-time for the school system I used to get laid off for six weeks in the summer so the school could save money (there certainly would have been work for me to do, I just had to cram it into the paid time during the year or stay late, unpaid, to get it done). I had a second job as well to make ends meet; I increased my hours during the summer, but not enough to trigger that company's benefits and increased compensation for full-timers. I applied for four weeks of Employment Insurance benfits, the programme I paid into each payday for years, to slightly top up the money I could not earn at my second job. The hoops I had to go through each year were ridiculous.

I had to attend multiple mandatory generic all-day resume and job-seeking workshops (at that point I had seven years post-secondary education, had worked about a dozen jobs and had a guarenteed job I would return to within four weeks, like most of the others who also attended). There was no company willing to hire someone of my education and experience into a full-time job for four weeks, definaltey not willing to work around the schedule of my part-time job. These programmes were ONLY for the school support staff, the lowest paid employees with the mandatory workshops always held in inconvient locations an hour or two from the homes of the workers and usually the day before or after a statutory holiday/long weekend to prevent people from travelling far at those times (because the workers could not take vacation time during the school year they often used the summer to visit family a few hours away on the weekends). Interestingly, the mostly-male employees of the local auto assembly plant who also were frequently seasonally laid off for a few weeks or months were never expected to attend these types of workshops. If HRDC could find employers willing, I am sure they would have happily sold us off for workfare "to improve our employability". The systemic problem of the school board that used government programmes to improve their bottom line was never addressed.

Clearly those programmes were aimed at discouraging repeat applicants and I know for a fact a lot of people gave up and struggled though the summer with no income because the workshops were so intimidating and unpleasent.
posted by saucysault at 9:10 AM on March 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


you just need another chance to show you can work, after years out of the labour market.

So why not pay me for working? Why does the money go to a giant corporation whose "need" for taxpayer subsidies (in the form of cash and unpaid labor) is undemonstrated? When I worked in a grocery store, I got all kinds of training, and I got paid a regular wage for it, as well as benefits and so on.
posted by rtha at 9:17 AM on March 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


So why not pay me for working?

Because you are being out-competed by a lovely young Polish person who has a CV with work experience and some high-school qualifications. You, by contrast, are twenty and have never worked and have nothing to show for thirteen years of compulsory education. That's the logic of the scheme: getting you to a more employable state.
posted by alasdair at 9:32 AM on March 7, 2012


I had no job experience until I got my first job, and I was paid at that job. You haven't explained how *not getting paid for your labor* is in any way connected to getting job training, or learning how to show up on time.
posted by rtha at 9:42 AM on March 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


Yes, because we need to be "improving our quality as workers", so we can work better, faster, and more diligently for exactly the same job.

And thus the working class is divided and set against itself.

As an alternative, I suggest we stop competing like that and instead collude to fix a minimum wage worth anyone's effort.
posted by edguardo at 9:45 AM on March 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


It occurs to me that this scheme would be slightly more palatable if the workers were assigned to smaller businesses that could use an employee or two to extend their hours, open a second location, increase services, or take a chance on doing something new. Many small businesses in the US have trouble developing staff because of the complexities of dealing with personnel -- if the government were to cover payroll and the associated headaches, it would be something of a boon. This would also lead to growing small local business, keeping money in neighborhoods, and workers would probably get more actual training than "put these cans there." It might even lead to actual employment. Even if it was still an inequitable system, at least it would be supporting local businesses rather than giving a handout to large corporations so they can cut their workforce and make more money....
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:55 AM on March 7, 2012


"You, by contrast, are twenty and have never worked and have nothing to show for thirteen years of compulsory education. That's the logic of the scheme: getting you to a more employable state"

This is just trolling from the same sector that forces the selfsame 20 year old to get that education. You need the certifications to get a job you can't get because instead of working or coming from Eastern Europe they got the education that they were pretty much forced to get only to lose out to someone who didn't need to get that eduction.

That said I had a job or at least jobs from age 13 on and my education suffered for it; but that somehow makes me more qualified than the recent grad for a paid job of some form.

That's just troll crisis capitalism in action I guess
posted by NiteMayr at 9:56 AM on March 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


Next up, A steel mill in every council home yard! Riveting concrete art for the masses! Police who pay off family members as moles to protect from that neighbor who's not doing his fair share of work!

Its gonna be the UK before the US. I just know it.
posted by Slackermagee at 10:25 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had no job experience until I got my first job, and I was paid at that job.

Good for you! Me too. We are not, however, the targets of this scheme.

We could raise the minimum wage, which encourages people to move from welfare to employment: however, this will probably just mean more better-paid Poles. The introduction of the minimum wage in 1997 or so didn't "solve" the problem of the unskilled section of the population at whom this policy is aimed. Their labour is not worth very much.
posted by alasdair at 10:44 AM on March 7, 2012


Why won't you proles learn to value work enough to do it willingly for free? Your work "isn't worth much anyway"--if you just learned that lesson, you'd be more inclined to want to work, don't you see!

If their "labour is not worth very much" anyway, what's the point of all this? You just want to force people to spend their lives doing economically useless work because it gratifies your sense of honor somehow?

The truth is, the economic elites don't understand the value of labor anymore, period. And they're the fattest, most spoiled of all the privileged Westerners, so they don't even realize it, preferring all directly productive labor be performed for as little compensation as possible. There are countless economic policies encouraged by the business elite that plainly demonstrate this attitude. And that's what's sucking all the motivation out of our society.

That is why people don't treat work like it's valuable or worth their time. It isn't. It's completely economically rational behavior.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:54 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Clearly these companies are doing poorly at attracting employees. I suggest "employfare". It works like this: they pay someone money, and that person becomes their employee. But the emoloyee does no work - this is just building experience for the company in the valuable skill of "having an emplyee". After a few months of paying people to do no work, they should have no problem attracting quality employees.
posted by idiopath at 11:06 AM on March 7, 2012 [16 favorites]


The point of this is to raise the value of their labour so that they can get an economically-useful job.
posted by alasdair at 11:07 AM on March 7, 2012


And similarly, "employfare" raises the desirability of the workplace, so they can attract employees.
posted by idiopath at 11:09 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


We are not, however, the targets of this scheme.

People who have no work experience are targets of this scheme, yes?

Every single one of us here at some point in our lives had no work experience. Yet most of us very likely got paid whatever the minimum wage was where we got our first jobs. Our labor was not worth very much because we didn't know very much, but we still got paid.

If you think raising the minimum wage wouldn't do much to encourage people to work, then I can't understand how you conclude that not paying them at all functions as an incentive to work.
posted by rtha at 11:10 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


The point of this is to raise the value of their labour so that they can get an economically-useful job.

Except that the outcome is actually lowering the value of labour in general, by forcing people to work, for no additional benefit, at the cost of losing their JSA, while at the same time providing labour to large companies at below market value.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:17 AM on March 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


The point of this is to raise the value of their labour so that they can get an economically-useful job.

Exactly what TheWhiteSkull said.

And also, you are literally teaching them the wrong lesson about one of the most important skills needed in the labor market: demanding to be paid what you're worth.

Employers might not value their labor, but it costs these workers dearly, in terms of the toll hard labor takes on the body, and in terms of the lost opportunity costs spent toiling at what by your own admission are economically worthless skills rather than developing real, economically valuable skills.

Only a useless, stuffed-suit clock watcher seriously thinks "being on time" is inherently as valuable a skill as knowing, for example, how to migrate a web application to another server. Highly skilled workers have traditionally had broad latitude when it comes to scheduling, and many highly-paid executives, too, are notorious for not being able to keep strict schedules.

This is about flawed puritanical morality, not economic need.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:26 AM on March 7, 2012 [10 favorites]


This is the government failing to respond to major structural changes (that in many cases were the result of previous governments' policies), and instead choosing to present a solution that uses public money for the benefit of Capital above all else.

You can't go down the docks to get a job because it's all containers now. You can't be a brickie because, apparently, that's what Poles do now. There's no more steel in Birmingham, there's no more textiles in Manchester, and Thatcher closed all the mines. The army is laying people off, and school didn't exactly leave you with many useful skills (and if it did, you couldn't afford additional qualifications anyway).

Just because you're better than me, doesn't mean I'm lazy.

But God forbit the bankers should pay taxes.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:28 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the spirit of the conversation about acceptance of and calm engagement with dissenting viewpoints that's currently rumbling along in metaTalk:

I'm actually a bit puzzled by all the comments (here and elsewhere) about being forced to work for free. Unless I have misunderstood this entirely, which of course is very possible, participation in the Workfair scheme is a requirement for continuing to receive benefits payments after having spent a certain time on them already.

Given the Conservative desire to make sure that receiving Jobseeker's Allowance should be contingent on a genuine desire to actually get a job, continuing to give out the benefits to people longer-term in exchange for a demonstrated willingness to work isn't such an insane idea. Those who turn up to a job and are willing to work at it are evidently acting in good faith, and can continue to claim benefits for as long as they need until a "proper" job comes along; those who are not willing to work are free to reject the placements, but lose their access to jobseeker's allowance. It's not about wanting to punish the jobless or a desire to prevent them from having leisure time, it's a desire to ensure that a benefit targeted at people looking for work only goes to people who are actually willing to work.

I'm not a fan of this exact implementation of the scheme. The majority of placements being at huge businesses is far from ideal. I would rather that smaller businesses get access to a pool of subsidised staff, although having a huge pool of small businesses in the scheme would be a costly nightmare to administer. Also, if the stories about people being forced to miss job interviews to attend Workfare hours are true and typical, then that is obviously a badly broken aspect of the scheme that needs to be addressed urgently. There's also an argument that the hours required should be scaled back to match the time that someone on minumum wage would take to earn the jobseeker's allowance, although one could (and a Tory probably would) argue that this removes some of the incentive to transition from this scheme to a normal job.

I'd also want to see the data that the Tories are basing this on: how many people [do they believe] are actually on long-term unemployment (as opposed to disability, etc) benefits and either unwilling to get a job or lacking the basic skills that this scheme seeks to provide? How these data are interpreted and prioritised will, of course, be vulnerable to the usual left/right split over "everyone should be helped, even if we allow free-riders" vs. "we should encourage personal responsibility, even if people get hurt".

Only a useless, stuffed-suit clock watcher seriously thinks "being on time" is inherently as valuable a skill as knowing, for example, how to migrate a web application to another server. Highly skilled workers have traditionally had broad latitude when it comes to scheduling, and many highly-paid executives, too, are notorious for not being able to keep strict schedules.

When I worked retail, you'd better believe that my being on time was more important to my bosses than my other skills, which were not overly taxed by my tasks of re-folding clothes, running a till and telling customers where the toilets were. The targets of this scheme are not CEOs between jobs or, for the most part, salaried workers. It's people without much in the way or work experience or sellable skills, whose next entry into the job market is in largely low-skilled jobs. Whether this is a fair assessment of the makeup of the current population of long-term benefits claimants, I don't know. I'd love to see the data if anyone can point to it. But if the assessment is mostly fair, then it doesn't seem like a crazy scheme.
posted by metaBugs at 11:39 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


At least the Soviets gave you Spiffy Medals.
posted by symbioid at 11:42 AM on March 7, 2012


When I worked retail, you'd better believe that my being on time was more important to my bosses than my other skills,

So, in your ideal world, everyone is working retail? Those are the skills you want to build our future on?
posted by saulgoodman at 11:49 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Those who turn up to a job and are willing to work at it are evidently acting in good faith, and can continue to claim benefits for as long as they need until a "proper" job comes along; those who are not willing to work are free to reject the placements, but lose their access to jobseeker's allowance.

The point is, the JSA is significantly lower than minimum wage would be for the amount of time that jobseekers are expected to work. Also, they are jobseekers. It would be one thing if they were receiving actual training, or some sort of benefit from the placement, but in practice, it has amounted to providing unskillled labour (regardless of work history or qualification) to large retail enterprises, who are then disincentivized from creating actual paying positions.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:51 AM on March 7, 2012 [7 favorites]


I've worked retail too. I've worked in restaurants where I was literally one of two kitchen employees working every shift (and shucking oysters and running a seafood market). I appreciate there are some jobs where punctuality and capacity for mindless tedium are desirable skills. But training people to develop only those skills, and in the process depriving them of realistic opportunity to develop more economically valuable skills, is not doing them any favors.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:52 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


So, in your ideal world, everyone is working retail? Those are the skills you want to build our future on?
Not at all. I'm just saying that, if you buy the Tory position that most of the people on the scheme have little experience and are heading for low(ish) skilled and entry level jobs, timekeeping is an inherently valuable skill. Some of these folks may well go on to become CEOs or have other positions where it's not important, but IME the majority of people (including many, if not most, of the salaried people that I know) have jobs where they're expected to turn up on time.

As I said a couple of times in my comment, I haven't seen the data that they're basing this on.
posted by metaBugs at 11:58 AM on March 7, 2012


But if those kinds of jobs are so economically worthless, why should these people waste their time developing the kinds of skills that really only matter for economically worthless jobs?

In fact, these unskilled jobs aren't economically worthless at all. They're very lucrative for those taking home hefty salaries on the management/owner side. The fact that they may be relatively unskilled doesn't really change the fact that they represent the true bread and butter of any economy. We're just too spoiled and pleased with ourselves for having gotten educations to recognize where the real economic value is and always has been: in the drudge work. If we want people to value hard work, we need to make it worth their time. It's not. People can see that. Why should they waste their time developing skills that will in the vast majority of cases only qualify them for jobs with no security, no dignity and no realistic prospect for advancement?
posted by saulgoodman at 12:07 PM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


But training people to develop only those skills, and in the process depriving them of realistic opportunity to develop more economically valuable skills, is not doing them any favors.

I agree with you there, although I'd revise it to "...not doing many favours". I assume that the idea is to get people up to the minimum standard necessary to (re-)join the workforce, from which point they can do the usual thing of gaining experience and skills along the way. This is in addition to the desire to ensure that the benefits go only to people who are actually willing to turn up and work.

Again, I'm not saying that the scheme is perfect. I'd love to see people going to more small businesses (therefore, potentially picking up more divese skillset) instead of the huge supermarkets, and I'd love even more to see better training. I'd especially like to see the data from which the Tories are deciding their priorities. But I simply don't agree with so many of the comments I see here and elsewhere that people are being forced to work for free (it's in exchange for long-term continuation of benefits that were always contigent on willingness to look for work), or that it's "slavery" or "indentured servitude".

Painting the opposition as cartoonishly evil does nothing useful: one ends up simply titillating those who already agree, alienating the moderates and angering the opposition. It's important to engage with the ideas, think about the assumptions upon which they're based, and then criticise them on those terms. In this case, it comes down to the twin assumptions that there's a problem with people abusing the benefit system and that a decent proportion of people on unemployment benefits are (or should be) initially heading to low-skilled jobs. If those assumptions are true, then this seems like a reasonable approach. Again: I want to see the data.
posted by metaBugs at 12:11 PM on March 7, 2012


There's a difference between "teaching skills" and using economic coercion to exploit people's labor, though. Any monkey can be trained to show up on time if their access to food depends on it. That's not training people; it's conditioning them, at best, and exploiting them at worst. I think we'll just have to keep seeing it differently.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:18 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


But if those kinds of jobs are so economically worthless, why should these people waste their time developing the kinds of skills that really only matter for economically worthless jobs?

I'm not sure that I understand the leap you took here. I didn't argue that any jobs are economically worthless. Indeed, assuming that I understood your next paragraph correctly, I agree with you that it's not a sane argument: the jobs must be worth something to the businesses, or the posts wouldn't exist.

I said that some jobs require little skill (have you worked a till at a supermarket? It's easy), and that people with little experience and/or few skills will often head towards those jobs first. I'm not saying that anyone should be forced to sit working on a till for their entire careers, I'm saying that, for someone with few skills useful to the workplace, it could be a good place to start.

There's a difference between "teaching skills" and using economic coercion to exploit people's labor, though. Any monkey can be trained to show up on time if their access to food depends on it. That's not training people; it's conditioning them, at best, and exploiting them at worst. I think we'll just have to keep seeing it differently.

If I stop turning up to do my (skilled) job, my boss will stop paying me. It was the same when I worked unskilled jobs when I was younger: I turned up on time, did the work, got paid for it. Then as now, I can't/couldn't choose to not work, because there's rent to pay. Am I being economically coerced, or am I a trained monkey? Or are you only referring to the people in the Workfare scheme with this statement and, if so, why is tying money from the government to working in a government scheme different?

I swear I'm not being snarky, I honestly don't understand what point you're making. I have the feeling you're going for a wider exploitation-of-the-working-classes argument and I'm just missing it completely. My humanities education is appallingly sparse, so please don't feel afraid about appearing to insult my intelligence explaining your position.
posted by metaBugs at 12:32 PM on March 7, 2012


Every single one of us here at some point in our lives had no work experience. Yet most of us very likely got paid whatever the minimum wage was where we got our first jobs.

Good for us. We are not the target of this policy. We are not all alike. At the peak of the 1996-2008 boom we still had tens of thousands of people, especially young people, in long-term unemployment. They need assistance to enter or re-enter the labour market. I didn't need it when I was sixteen and got my first job because I had lots of social capital - good handshake, timekeeping, positive attitude, good nutrition, advice from loving parents and so on. Not everyone is so lucky, and some people need more help. This scheme is intended to provide some more help.

This is the government failing to respond to major structural changes

The British government has been battling with the decline in our traditional heavy industries - steel, coal, textiles - for what, eighty years now. There is no magic bullet. And even if there were some marvellous socialist commanding heights policy that generated lots more demand for labour, we might still want need to give our fellows who were failed by school and family some more social capital to get these new exciting jobs in the steel works rather than, say, EU immigrants.

(I keep claiming that EU immigrants have "taken British jobs". I should add that I don't believe that there is a "unit of labour", nor that EU citizens are wrong to travel to other EU states to work. I just mean that British education and employment policy should work to ensure its own citizens are able to compete successfully in the labour market against citizens of other EU states.)
posted by alasdair at 12:43 PM on March 7, 2012


Am I being economically coerced, or am I a trained monkey? Or are you only referring to the people in the Workfare scheme with this statement and, if so, why is tying money from the government to working in a government scheme different?

Well, this is being pitched as a kind of skills training program, not as a stimulus program for employers, so it seems to make sense it should involve some actual training.

Also, I see I was conflating your argument a bit with an earlier commenter, who implied that because these jobs are so economically worthless, these workers should be grateful for the opportunity to work them for less than fair market wages.

It's that argument I was addressing. Also:

If I stop turning up to do my (skilled) job, my boss will stop paying me. It was the same when I worked unskilled jobs when I was younger: I turned up on time, did the work, got paid for it.

You don't see how this attitude is paternalistic and condescending? You're implying that unskilled workers aren't bothering to show up for work because they aren't skilled enough in how to show up for work. I think it's pretty clear that the reason so many workers aren't willing to show up on time day after day in order to keep at these jobs is that they are not economically worth it to any rational person, from the point of view of someone on the labor market. Dead-end jobs can be a kind of economic trap that many people never escape. It's unfair to force people into those career paths, rather than offering them decent opportunities to develop the kinds of skills that are actually lucrative on the labor market.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:48 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, receiving your job-seekers allowance is predicated on actually seeking a job. Okay.

That makes some sense, as long as jobs worth working are out there, and as long it's just a matter of time before you reel one in.

But what people seeking jobs, in the UK and elsewhere, often find is that either:

1.) there are no jobs, or

2.) the available jobs aren't worth working.

So, understandably, you stay unemployed and keep drawing your JSA.

But with workfare, your lose the option to stay unemployed and receive your JSA. To keep it, you have to work one of those jobs that aren't worth working, and you have to do it for free.

The alternative is receiving no income whatsoever, and that is what the government is threatening: work or we take your benefits.

So what this amounts to is a way to force people to make money for (that is, work for) owners of various kinds, for less than that person would freely choose to work for.

A decision made under threat of starvation or homelessness is not a free decision, and based on that understanding, this is a kind of coercion or forced labor.
posted by edguardo at 1:00 PM on March 7, 2012 [10 favorites]


The Welfare to Work program in the US is a different animal, but I highly recommend the book American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle, which follows three single mothers as they transition from welfare to (hopefully) the workforce in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (The program developed by our ex-governor, Tommy Thompson, was the inspiration for Clinton's reforms.)
posted by desjardins at 2:01 PM on March 7, 2012


This scheme is intended to provide some more help.

I fail to see how not getting paid for working is helpful. What does it teach? What lessons are these incorrigibly unemployed supposed to learn? That if you're poor and uneducated, you're ripe for exploitation? I bet they already know that.

If nothing else, why not pay a training wage if the jobseeker is actually being trained, as is posited by the government? Presumably, if you've never had a job before, among the many things you might not know is how to read your pay stub so you know you're being paid properly and that the right deductions are being made. That would be helpful, I would think.
posted by rtha at 2:03 PM on March 7, 2012


Also, I see I was conflating your argument a bit with an earlier commenter
Ah, fair enough. Easily done in big threads.

.You don't see how this attitude is paternalistic and condescending? You're implying that unskilled workers aren't bothering to show up for work...

No, that's not what I was trying to communicate. I was replying to your earlier comment that timekeeping is not an inherently useful skill, followed by your assertion that asking people to turn up on time and work/train (and I do agree that the training could and should be better) in exchange for money is either coercion or equivalent to training a monkey.

Even though it isn't what I intended to convey, it's probably fair to say that the Tory position (again: I want to see the data) is that what you thought I was saying is true for a large enough subset of the long-term unemployed to be concerned about. The thinking is along the lines of "social capital" as mentioned in the first paragraph of alasdair's comment here. The matter is described with much more nuance in a recent BBC Podcast which I have spent the last 20 minutes unsuccessfully hunting for.* Oh well. Among other items, there was an interview with a business owner who participated in the "work placement" scheme that preceded Workfare. IIRC, he reported that a decent proportion of people coming through the scheme did indeed have problems with timekeeping, following instructions and all the other little but important habits necessary to hold down a job. Someone else on the programme commented that, in sections of the community that long-term joblessness is common, it can be about self-esteem ("I / my family never have luck keeping jobs") and ingrained mistrust of employers as much as it is about skills. These are things that a work placement scheme could reasonably be expected to help with. How important it is that these people are moved from benefits to the workforce depends on how many of them there are (I have no data), and where you fall on the left:right split that I postulated above.

As I said in a previous comment: I'm not arguing that this system is perfect or anywhere close, I'm arguing that it's not the cartoonishly evil "slavery" or "forced labour" that I keep seeing people complain about.


...that these workers should be grateful for the opportunity to work them for less than fair market wages.
A lot of your position seems to be centered around the fact that currently available jobs aren't economically viable options (presumably either not enough money, or not enough money to justify the unpleasantness of the job), and that the hours worked in this scheme are disproportionate to the benefit paid. (There's obviously more nuance than this in your position; apologies if I'm badly misrepresenting you)

Given this, what solution would you propose? Raise minimum wage to make the jobs worthwhile for people (shades of the London Living Wage here)? Alternatively, how would you feel if the scheme was kept broadly as it is (although ironing out the problem of people missing job interviews due to the training scheme, which is painfully stupid if it's true), but the hours required were reduced to the point where benefit claimants are effectively being paid minimum wage?


Dead-end jobs can be a kind of economic trap that many people never escape. It's unfair to force people into those career paths...
And that's not what's happening here. The idea is that those who stand to benefit from the training programme gain the basic skills necessary for an entry-level job. They're then free to take entry-level jobs, get experience and new skills, move up and around just like everyone else does. As a natural lefty myself, I agree that I'd love there to be money to put everyone on apprenticeships, college courses, etc. But the economy is tough and they're Tories, so they want to provide people with the boost necessary to get them independent, then let them work their ways up and around as they see fit.


edguardo: that is what the government is threatening: work or we take your benefits.
Well, yes. As you acknowledged, the Jobseeker's allowance has always been linked to willingness to sincerely seek work, and to apply for and, eventually, accept jobs that are offered. The difference is that the state is offering a job. Is that the sticking point for you, or is it that the money received in return works out as below the minimum wage? As I asked saulgoodman, how would you feel if the hours were reduced to make it work out that they were effectively being paid minimum wage?

So what this amounts to is a way to force people to make money for (that is, work for) owners of various kinds, for less than that person would freely choose to work for.

A decision made under threat of starvation or homelessness is not a free decision, and based on that understanding, this is a kind of coercion or forced labor.


Are you arguing that this should be the ultimate safety net, that the benefits should continue indefinitely until someone finds the dream job (paying what "...that person would freely choose to work for"), rather than being expected to "settle" for a less desirable job? As an atypical example, I chatted a few times to a recent PhD grad who was living on benefits, waiting to get a (rare and highly competitive) postdoc position in one of two cities that she wanted to live in. She was annoyed at the insistance that she apply for and interview with what she described as "menial" jobs that would waste her talent; given the choice, she would have claimed benefits indefinitely until her dream job became available. An extreme example perhaps, but I think there's an argument that at some point, (some) people need to be prodded to move from benefits to taking one of the available jobs, which is by your definition coercion. I don't see that participation in a work training scheme as a prerequisite for continued claiming of benefits is substantially different from that.

rtha - I fail to see how not getting paid for working is helpful.
My argument is that it's not "not getting paid for working", it's "getting money from the state for working". I could easily be persuaded that it's "not getting paid enough for working"... would you be happier about it if the hours were reduced so that they were being paid minimum wage (or whatever sum over that the position would earn normally)?

...And now I hate to duck out in the middle of an interesting discussion, but I'm on GMT here and desperately need to catch up on sleep. Also, I think I'm monopolising the thread a bit. I'll pop back into the thread sometime tomorrow.

*I could've sworn that it was either "Thinking Allowed" (sociology) or "More or Less" (examines newsworthy statistics), but I can't see it mentioned in their recent archives. I'm pretty sure that it was within the last month and from the BBC, but I can't see a reference to it in any of the programmes that I subscribe to. Odd.
posted by metaBugs at 2:52 PM on March 7, 2012


The idea is that those who stand to benefit from the training programme gain the basic skills necessary for an entry-level job. They're then free to take entry-level jobs, get experience and new skills, move up and around just like everyone else does.

There's a real problem here, though, isn't there? For a lot of people, these aren't "entry level jobs", they're just "jobs". They are the things a lot of people do to feed themselves and their children, and then they have a fairly poor and insecure few years of retirement and then die. These jobs are under-rewarded and generate genuinely disproportionate amounts of wealth for employers. Surely the history of boom, bust, unemployment and misery tell us that there is no free-market utopia to look forward to, where we all spend our lives moving upward to the next great achievement ("be aware, social mobility may be down as well as up"). If we get out of this slump, it's not going to be "different next time". Unless we make our world a radically fairer one, it'll be the same, but with a lot more bloodshed, I imagine.

With all this in mind, reducing the value of labour in any society seems like a truly perverse way to help the labouring classes. Redistribution of wealth isn't a fashionable concept, and yet I see no other way forward for the world. It's sad that so many people only seem to defend it when it is from the poor to the rich.
posted by howfar at 3:37 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


As I asked saulgoodman, how would you feel if the hours were reduced to make it work out that they were effectively being paid minimum wage?

Maybe, but if employers aren't having to pay the wages, but are instead effectively pushing workers off the dole only to get on the dole themselves, then economically, nothing's improved at all in the bigger scheme of things. The state is still on the hook for a massive dole, only now the "economic freeloader" is the employer. That discourages employers from running economically sound businesses that can support themselves.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:45 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


While I totally agree with you saulgoodman, I think it's important to recognise the subtext that underlies most modern defences of free-market economics and politics. This subtext is that the poor simply have to bear the brunt of rebuilding our economies, because the rich are too powerful to be compelled to. The idea has taken hold that some banks are too big to fail; that some companies mean more than governments; and that we can't impose proper controls and higher taxes on the wealthy bourgeoisie and the major capitalists because our society can't do without them.

So the political message goes out that we must demand more work from the poor, from anyone poorer than ourselves. This is presented as a programme of productivity and equity, but what do these least productive and least rewarded members of society owe us? Not a lot, I'd argue. But we can demand it of them anyway, because, unlike the rich, we don't believe we need them, and we don't believe they have any way of fighting back.

Neither of those beliefs are true, and the sooner their falsehood is shown the better it will be for us all, rich and poor.
posted by howfar at 6:33 PM on March 7, 2012


There are several goals to workfare. A few:

1) To punish lazy people who are gaming the system and living a life of leisure.

2) To shake people out of the mistaken attitude that they are incapable of holding down a job, and wean them off of a so-called "welfare mentality," breaking the so-called cycle/circle of dependency, and instilling a good Christian work ethic.

3) To set up a substandard working environment so unpleasant that people would rather get minimum wage jobs in earnest.

4) To minimize welfare payments by any means. For a variety of reasons, workfare will discourage some people from participating in the system. Who cares what the determining factor is, it's for the best as long as the rolls go down and fewer tax dollars go toward deadbeats.

5) To eliminate the population of people who spend their days working off the books, claiming no income and collecting benefits. If they are forced to report to workfare, they won't have the time to do their off-the-books jobs, and this will shrink the shadow economy and increase the legitimate tax rolls.

6) To strengthen the marriage institution by making it hard for single mothers to survive on their own.

(I feel I must point out that the fact that I am stating these goals in a straightforward, non-ironically-contempt-laced fashion does not mean that I agree with them.)

I've known enough welfare and workfare recipients to know that there are indeed some people who were successfully goaded into returning to the legitimate workforce, or who had to give up their off the books jobs. So to that extent, workfare is occasionally successful. But I think there are plenty of people who are simply incapable of holding a regular job, and all workfare does for those people is kick them out of welfare entirely and force them into more desperate ways of survival. Some of them can hold it together long enough to successfully apply for and receive SSI, but even that is really not enough to subsist off of. In my ideal society there would be a guaranteed minimum income for all adults enabling them to live a bare-bones lifestyle, and people who chose to be ambitious could go further and work for a living. I think most people would do so by choice and/or social pressure even if there was no danger of starvation and homelessness. Just as most millionaires of working age continue to work despite a lack of need.
posted by xigxag at 6:46 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Neither of those beliefs are true, and the sooner their falsehood is shown the better it will be for us all, rich and poor.

I agree--I was using some of the language of the arguments from the right to make the point from a different angle, but I understand this and agree completely.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:51 PM on March 7, 2012


In my ideal society there would be a guaranteed minimum income for all adults enabling them to live a bare-bones lifestyle, and people who chose to be ambitious could go further and work for a living.

But the margin of desperation is what makes it possible for people to be rich and powerful. Not just reasonably (but probably unjustifiably, so tax me more) well-off, like me and probably most of the people reading this thread, but reaaaallly rich. Some people really want to be rich and powerful.

Those people are awful people, and we should stop letting them ruin our world.
posted by howfar at 7:04 PM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Speaking of work ethic, I think it is about time bosses these days got themselves some goddamned pay ethic. You'd see more people showing up to work if they did.

I can understand concerns about waste and inefficiency regarding social welfare. Sure, a down and out bum who refuses to work can cost us some poverty level income if we supprt his lazy ass, but a stock market speculator can cost society that much money in under a minute. Which is clearly a much more efficient way to waste our money. Mind you we do partially make up for this in the US by having no socialized healthcare, so that the bum can cost us many hundreds of thousands of dollars in ER avoidable costs. But if we are vigilant I am sure we can find even more effective ways to waste maximum money in minimum time.
posted by idiopath at 10:56 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


The UK Burger King opted out of the program deciding that it was just too ugly. If Royalty thinks it looks bad just how evil is it?
posted by srboisvert at 7:45 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Because you are being out-competed by a lovely young Polish person who has a CV with work experience and some high-school qualifications. You, by contrast, are twenty and have never worked and have nothing to show for thirteen years of compulsory education. That's the logic of the scheme: getting you to a more employable state.

All those times I ditched out on remedial shelf stacking are coming back to bite me in the ass.
posted by Talez at 8:09 AM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


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