The concept of workfare (asking some people to work for free in exchange for getting benefits) has stirred up a lot of controversy recently. Logically it is difficult to question why people shouldn’t be asked to work in return for any benefits they receive. If you went to a local factory and asked them to pay you a salary would you find it objectionable if they asked you to work in exchange for that salary? Presumably not. So why shouldn’t the government (which is, in effect, the taxpayer), ask someone to work in exchange for their benefits?
The government has a responsibility to provide gainful employment for all its citizens, but that doesn’t mean a responsibility to provide free money for all its citizens. However, this isn’t just about benefiting the taxpayer, it also benefits the person doing the work. Being unemployed, especially for long periods, can have a very negative effect on people’s lives. Feelings of worthlessness and lack of respect in the community can lead to depression and other mental health issues. Also being out of work gets people out of the habit of what it is like to be employed, which means they can become fearful of jobs and job interviews. Very quickly people can go from being unemployed to unemployable. It also frequently leads to the situation that not a single person in a household is in work, so children grow up not knowing what it even means to have a job.
On the other hand being maintained in state-sponsored work programs can be a solution to those issues. There are details to be worked out – the benefits received should of course not work out at any less than the minimum wage for the hours worked, people should be given a choice of roles so they are not forced to do things they absolutely detest, time off should be given for job-hunting, and of course, carers, single parents, disabled people etc should be exempt.
Now, the crucial issue here is whether people engaged this way should be sent to work for private companies or not. Aside from the moral issue of businesses benefiting from cheap labour, there is the much more severe concern that business owners, once they see what is going on, would steadily lay off their own staff and replace them with much cheaper workfare people, leading, in the end, to what would effectively be mass slave labour. The government may try and introduce legislation to ensure that no-one loses their job as a result of a workfare person coming in, but I doubt if many people would believe that such legislation could be effectively enforced. Therefore it is essential that such workfare programs should never be directed towards private industry, but instead should only be used for local council and other public works.
Look at it another way. It is nonsensical that there is work in local communities that is crying out to be done (everything from running libraries, youth training schemes, local sports clubs, park maintenance, turning waste land into green space, road maintenance, helping the elderly, providing companionship and domestic assistance for housebound people etc etc), which is not being done due to lack of resources; while at the same time there are vast numbers of unemployed people being paid to sit at home and do nothing. Surely it is obvious that these people could be employed productively doing all the community-based things that so desperately need doing. This would also have the massively beneficial effect of the rebuilding of communities, people getting to know their neighbours once more, unemployed people taking pride in their community rather than feeling resentful that they can’t find gainful employment, and a general feeling that true fulfillment comes from working together.
It is difficult to see any argument against it – though as stated above it should only ever be used for community work and never become a vehicle for businesses to increase their profits by getting cheap labour.
This is a short documentary on Workfare which I was asked to appear in. Unfortunately it doesn’t cover the concept of working for the community, but apart from that it’s good: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdFT055Uo54