Part II, Unemployment and Workfare in the UK: The Fightback

“The industrial reserve army, during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active army of workers during the periods of over-production and feverish activity, it puts a curb on their pretensions. The relative surplus population is therefore the background against which the law of the demand and supply of labour does its work. It confines the field of action of this law to the limits absolutely convenient to capital’s drive to exploit and dominate the workers (Marx, 1867, Capital, volume I, Penguin edition, p. 792).”

This post is part II of a series discussing the labour market under capitalism. In this part, I am addressing the introduction of workfare in the UK specifically and the fightback against it. Workfare, a welfare to work scheme, which forces welfare recipients to work to earn their benefit, has existed for some time in the US (see: the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act: and for a comparison between state workfare programmes see:

Originally introduced in the UK by Labour in 1998 and insultingly called the New Deal (, it enabled penalties for those that refused “reasonable work” and established courses and volunteer work to get those on benefits into work and provided tax credits for working families to keep them working. However, the attempt by the current government in the UK to extend it has led to both legal action and resistance on the part of those being forced to labour.

The 2010 “Work for your Benefits Pilot Scheme” ( and the extension of the "Mandatory Work Activity" scheme (2011 and 2012) (; which is supposedly for those that are not on board with the shift from welfare to work strategy of the government) in numbers of “customers” forced to labour without pay and in light of severe criticism in terms of the introduction of forced labour as well as the known ineffectiveness of these schemes is more than questionable. However, it is certainly consistent with the policies and beliefs of the current government.

I. The Programme

For those interested in the specifics of the current government’s “work programme,” further information can be found both at the Department of Works and Pensions website ( and specifically:; a slightly more critical (slightly) perspective can be found on the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion’s web-page (

Essentially, there is the MWA (mandatory work activity; which says that if you are referred there you must do 4 weeks of 30 hours unpaid labour at government offices, charities and private companies (

“[…] the "Mandatory Work Activity Scheme” means a scheme within section 17A (schemes for assisting persons to obtain employment: “work for your benefit” schemes etc.) of the Act known by that name and provided pursuant to arrangements made by the Secretary of State that is designed to provide work or work-related activity for up to 30 hours per week over a period of four consecutive weeks with a view to assisting claimants to improve their prospects of obtaining employment (”

Then there is the "Voluntary Work Experience Scheme" for 16-24 years olds where placement lasts for 2-8 weeks ( In both cases, companies (public and private) and charities are paid a subsidy based on how many month-long placements that they organise. In all cases, people work without pay to keep their benefits.

II. A few hiccups?

Several things have focussed critical eyes on the government’s workfare programme besides complaints from the trade union movement.:

Needless to say, all this has caused people to cast a rather baleful eye on the government’s workfare programme and has made many rather uncomfortable indeed. The fact that no one in the company (Close Protection UK) has been arrested is impressive; at the least, they should lose all access to those on workfare and any subsidies that they have earned for “getting them to work.” Of the 80 people used as Jubilee stewards, 50 were classed as apprentices, 30 were treated as “customers” of the workfare programme. This means that the former earned £2.80/hour or not (the minimum wage in the UK is £6.08/hr for those over 21; £4.98 for those 18-20; £3.68 for 16-17 year old school leavers and £2.60 for apprentices under 19 or in their first year of apprenticeship; while the latter got no pay for this wonderful work experience.

III. The Fightback

The fight-back is happening on many levels from legal suits to demonstrations, protests, name and shame campaigns, and telephone and email campaigns. It has caused the government to have to defend its policy in parliament, in the media, and in court.

On June 26th and 27th 2012, two parts of the UK government’s workfare schemes, the sector-based work academies and the community action programme were challenged in High Court. The following is an excerpt from the press release of Public Interest Lawyers that were challenging the law in court on behalf of Cait Reilly ( and other individuals:

“Our clients argue that what the Government is doing is unlawful because:
• The Regulations fail to provide any description of the schemes to which people like our client can be subjected. This is contrary to statute;
• The Government has failed to publish any policies setting out the limits of the schemes; and
• The schemes are contrary to the prohibition on forced labour under Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Government’s mismanagement of these flagship reforms has resulted in a complete shambles where nobody understands the plethora of schemes that have been created and where the only ones benefiting are the companies getting free labour. Nothing has been done to improve the employment prospects of those like my clients (”

Public Interest Lawyers, the lawyers acting for Cait Reilly and other individuals challenging the law ( have addressed a number of distortions (cough) that the government has been advocating in defence of their workfare scheme. I suggest that you read the link as the Lawyers clarify not only the distortions of the government and press, but counter them with the truth.

A week of actions ranging from peaceful demonstrations throughout the UK to phone calls, emails and tweeting has been called by Boycott Workfare:

“Protests against workfare will take place on 7-14 July across the UK in a week of action called by the Boycott Workfare network to escalate the campaign against forced unpaid work. Twenty one towns and cities are already taking part, with more locations expected to be announced throughout the week ( and"

For those that want to participate in the facebook action of phone calls, emails and tweets, here is the link to the action on facebook against companies using workfare ( which includes a sample letter, phone numbers and email addresses. In a new twist, Holland and Barrett, which were to be the focus of the email campaign run by Boycott Welfare and the Solidarity Federation this week have pulled out of the workfare scheme (, but I expect that a new company will be chosen to be targeted so, check the second facebook link if you want to participate (

“The week of action will take place in the wake of several serious challenges to the government’s workfare schemes. Leaked figures suggest that workfare company A4E is failing to meet the minimum requirements for its Work Programme contract, with only 3.5% of “clients” finding longterm work (at a cost of roughly £11,250 per person). Peer research has shown that Mandatory Work Activity has no impact on people finding work. The outcome of a Judicial Review which argued that the schemes are unlawful and amount to forced labour is expected soon.

The peaceful protests will step up the pressure on those still involved in workfare. A variety of creative actions are expected to take place including a chain gang march, guided tours of workfare providers, workfare “sleuthing”, colourful pickets and importantly letting unemployed people know their rights. A counter conference will take place in Birmingham during the industry’s Welfare to Work convention (”

Here is a list of companies (both public and private) and charities that use workfare ( Some of these companies are known outside the UK, specifically Pizza Hut and McDonalds; the first link has phone numbers and emails if you feel inclined to complain. The publication of the list is part of a name and shame campaign undertaken by Boycott Welfare and the Solidarity Federation. The second list begins with those that have dropped out of the programme due to pressure, which now includes Holland and Barrett (

Finally, a conference entitled "Making Welfare Work" ( is being held on the 10th of July in Birmingham to counter the "Welfare to Work" conference being held by the Centre for Social and Economic Inclusion ( being held on the 10th-11th of July.




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Hoping that people will participate

NY brit expat's picture

in the tweeting and email actions as they will only take a short while and are important. The fightback against the use of forced labour in the UK is essential. Consider boycotting companies that are using forced labour in the UK as some of them are MNCs. International solidarity is the only way that we can win a fight as big as this one. Thanks!

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