Is workfare fair?

Lucy Mair looks at the coalition's controversial work experience scheme

In 1942, father of the welfare state William Beveridge drafted an improved system of benefits to provide "income security" for the sick, unemployed and elderly, and ensure that "from the cradle to the grave" nobody in Britain would fall below a national minimum standard of living. Seventy years on, the coalition government has set out to fix Britain's "broken" welfare system, which, it argues, has created multigenerational cycles of dependency and become unmanageable. To do so, ministers are relying on one of Beveridge's lesser remembered recommendations: that unemployment benefit should be "subject to a condition of attendance at a work or training centre after a certain period".

However, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has come under fire recently for its work experience programme aimed at unemployed young people. The workfare scheme, which provides unemployed 16-24 year olds with unpaid work placements of two to eight weeks, aims to help the country's unemployed youths into work by providing them with the means to gain experience and skills. But the initiative hit the headlines in January when 22-year-old geology graduate Cait Reilly, who was assigned to do work experience at her local Poundland in order to avoid losing her Jobseeker's Allowance, claimed the programme amounted to forced labour and launched a legal action against the government.

Since then, Burger King, Sainsbury's, HMV and Boots are just some of the high-profile companies that have stopped participating in the controversial scheme. Meanwhile, work and pensions minister Chris Grayling has bowed to public pressure and removed welfare sanctions from the programme, so that participants can leave their placement at any time without being penalised by a loss of benefits.

Experience or exploitation?

The UK is currently facing the biggest youth unemployment crisis since the 1980s, with over one million young people not in work, education or training. Some argue that providing 16-24 year olds with work experience, as part of the government's broader "Get Britain Working" policy, is the most effective way of helping young people to get jobs. Even so-called "menial" labour, such as stacking shelves in a supermarket, can help those with limited work experience demonstrate responsibility, teamwork and communication skills to future employers, meaning they can apply for vacancies with some confidence.

Furthermore, there's evidence that the scheme is working. The government's statistics show that of the 34,000 young people who participated in the work experience programme in 2011, 50 per cent came off benefits within 13 weeks of signing up for a placement - most of whom went into full time work. In addition, despite calls from campaigners to put a stop to workfare programmes, a YouGov/Sunday Times poll in February revealed that over 60 per cent of the public support mandatory work placements as a means of tackling long-term unemployment.

However, the DWP's work experience scheme could also be viewed as exploitative. Boycott Workfare, a campaign that aims to end the practice of forcing those who receive unemployment benefits to do unpaid work, argues that workfare "profits the rich by providing free labour, whilst threatening the poor by taking away welfare rights if people refuse to work without a living wage." Many of the companies participating in the scheme turn over billions of pounds annually, yet the work experience scheme allows them to avoid paying the minimum wage.

What's more, the scheme risks perpetuating unemployment rather than solving it, because companies have no need to recruit new staff if they can rely on free labour from unemployed young people, subsidised by the taxpayer.

Jury's out

Unpaid work experience remains a legal sticking point. Anyone working in the UK, whether they are a permanent or temporary employee, an intern, or a participant on a work experience programme, should receive at least the national minimum wage - currently £6.08 per hour. While on the DWP's work experience programme, participants under 25 continue to receive their Jobseeker's Allowance of £53.45 per week. However, spread over the required 30-hour week, they are effectively earning £1.78 per hour - far below the national minimum wage. This creates a dichotomy between the rights of an employed person and the rights of an unemployed person, who are remunerated differently for the same day's work.

The European Convention on Human Rights provides that nobody shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour. Anti-workfare campaigners maintain that, by threatening the unemployed with a loss of benefits if they refuse to work for free, the unemployed are being unlawfully coerced.

However, Alice Carse, barrister, writing in The Lawyer, explains that the ECHR also "provides that it is lawful to require a person to obtain employment or lose welfare benefits". She argues, therefore, that it "would not be a huge extension of this principle" to require that those in receipt of welfare take part in work experience schemes to train them for work, or risk losing their benefits. Therefore, a legal argument can be made on both sides of the workfare fence.

Spend wisely

Right to Work, a national campaign defending public services and the welfare state, argues on its website that the solution to the unemployment crisis is to "invest properly in jobs and training, reinstate EMA and scrap university tuition fees so that instead of rotting on the dole queue, the million young unemployed can get into employment or education." The organisation doesn't explain where the money would come from to fund such proposals, but the announcement by Tesco this week that the supermarket will create 20,000 new jobs - and offer some of those to the young people on work experience - suggests that there is scope to invest in employment, rather than schemes for the unemployed. After all, what's the use of gaining work experience if there remains a shortage of jobs to apply it to?