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?

On some estates unemployment has now become the norm.
Picture © Nigel Cox

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.

File:Banbury's Bretch Hill Pothole, 2010.png
Potholes – councils struggle to afford to repair them, while an army of available labour goes unused. Picture © Snow storm in Eastern Asia

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:


4 thoughts on “Workfare

  1. I’m all for people going out to work for benefits – getting them out of the house and involved in something with people in a workplace is essential. However, they should only work the number of hours that they would have to work on the minimum wage to get the same amount as their benefits.

    My brother went into Workfare and he ended up with a job with them. He’s now been employed for more than two years. Before that he was depressed and withdrawn from society, unable to go out with his mates or travel anywhere – he lost so much weight through starvation that I thought he had cancer. Now, he has some self-respect and money enough to pay for food.

    It’s not so good for some, though. For some, they work far longer hours than they should have, for the money they get (benefits) and when their time is up they’re back on the dole queue and the employer takes another signee on Workfare. It’s very cheap labour and they offer nothing at the end of it. In theory, it could work – getting people into the routine of going out to work. In practice, there will be companies who see this as a way to lay off their permanent staff in minor roles and replace them with cheap (sometimes enforced) labour.

    1. Yes I completely agree, which is why I think it’s wrong to allow private companies to partake in workfare schemes, and so profit from low-cost enforced labour. Workfare schemes should operate for community based/local govt projects only. Peter

  2. The only argument against it, is, of course, that if the unemployed are performing works of use to the public, then it is impossible for a private company to charge for these works.. and that won’t do! Until every human activity is monetized, the corporations cannot rest for the thought that some sliver of profit might escape their grasp…

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