Casual labour and unpaid work by Kevin Smith

Back in 1980 when I first started work at the age of 16 for Barclays International, it seemed much easier to find permanent employment. In the main, recruitment agencies were used to find short term, short notice temporary work and there were only a few employment agencies in my home town, Poole. The vast majority of job vacancies advertised in Jobcentres and the local press were for jobs where you would be directly employed by the employer.

After a few years working I began to notice more and more ‘agency staff’ being used within the Department I worked and it was clearly apparent that the jobs roles of these staff were not temporary positions but permanent roles. Around the same time I had become active within my Union (BIFU) and I, along with others, continuously raised this issue at Branch / Area meetings. I am certain that this was happening across the country in other industries and that concerns would have been raised. I do not think these concerns fell on deaf ears, it was a ‘new thing’ people did not fully understand or realise the full implications. Similar to the austerity measures of today, the country was in the grip of the Thatcherism onslaught and the public were being attacked from all angles so this matter did not receive as much resistance as perhaps it should.

Today when I look around my town, it is full of recruitment agencies. The vast majority of job vacancies are advertised in Jobcentres, local press and the internet by recruitment agencies to work for them for an employer. Within 30 years, we have seen the near complete casualisation of work and with that, the demise of the power of Trade Unions and the rights of the workers which has led to lower wages, less job security, pay freezes and the cutting of work pensions.

The point I am trying to highlight is that, in my opinion, we now have a similar scenario with the introduction and expanding of unpaid work placements for those claiming Job Seekers Allowance and Employment Support Allowance. This is a ‘new thing’ to people at a time when the public are being attacked from all angles. Worryingly, after years of the 3 main parties and the media misrepresenting benefit claimants as ‘scroungers’, it seems that unpaid work placements are acceptable to many. This is not helped by the DWP propaganda machine that has stated that all unpaid mandatory schemes must be for “community benefit” which for some will make it even more acceptable. However under Government rules, this “community benefit” can be defined as increasing the profit of organisations where the unemployed are sent to work without pay so it includes any kind of work for any employer.

I have always believed that a day’s work should receive a fair day’s pay whether that work is short term, temporary, part / full time or long term. If an unemployed person participates in a work placement, then not only should they receive at least the National Minimum Wage but also any relevant benefits such as Tax Credits or Housing Benefit. Benefit claimants should not be treated as some kind of underclass and should receive the same rates of pay and benefits as any other employed person.

The unemployment crisis will not be solved by forcing people to work for nothing and there is mounting evidence that unpaid work placements are reducing the overall availability of paid work. I urge everyone to oppose all unpaid work schemes or in 30 years time, similar to the universal use of employment agencies by employers today, we may well find working for benefits is the norm for all unemployed people. And I can also see employers jumping at the opportunity of having an unpaid (or greatly reduced rate of pay) for new employees. We have to fight this now at the outset not once it has crept upon us over time.

Listed below are all the govt schemes which involve unpaid work placements:

The Work Programme is an update of the Flexible New Deal to provide ‘tailored support’ for the long term unemployed. It is compulsory and kicks in after 9 months for young people and a year for the over 25s. Private providers receive cash incentives to get people back into work or training and are able to propose unpaid work placements. The providers cannot directly sanction Jobseeker benefits that refuse or end placements but can refer back to the Jobcentre to implement. Between Jun – Nov 2011 there were 370,000 people referred (figures relating to the number of work placements are not available).

Work Experience is a ‘voluntary’ scheme for people aged 16-24 who have been unemployed for 3-9 months. The unpaid work placements last for 2-8 weeks with participants working 25-30 hours each week. By November 2011, 34,200 people had participated.

Mandatory Work Activity is a compulsory scheme for people who have been unemployed for over 3 months. The unpaid work placements last between 6-8 weeks working up to 25-30 hours per week. People who fail to participate, fail to complete or lose a place due to misconduct will have their benefits sanctioned for 13 weeks. A second failure within a 12 month period will lead to a 26 week sanction. Between May – Nov 2011, Jobcentres referred 24,010 people.

Work Related Activity Group is for ESA claimants who the DWP consider will be capable of work some time in the future. People have to attend work focussed interviews and undertake unpaid (unlimited) work related activities (placements). This includes those who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer but have more than 6 months to live, accident and stroke victims and mental health problems. Latest figures reveal there are over 300,000 in the WRAG group and 8,440 have incurred benefit sanctions from Sep‘10 – Aug’11 for offences such as missing an interview with advisers “without good cause”.

Community Activity Programme is for people unemployed for over 2 years who can be referred for up to 30 hours unpaid work per week for up to 6 months. This scheme is currently being piloted ahead of a potential national roll out and it is intended to be mandatory with failure to participate resulting in sanctions to benefits.

Sector Based Work Academies offer a combination of training and work placement for people unemployed for over 3 months lasting up to 6 weeks with a guaranteed job interview with the organisation. Participation is voluntary but anyone who doesn’t complete will face benefit sanctions. It was launched in Aug’11 and by Nov’11 over 3,400 had participated.

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