The Work Programme unveiled last week by Department for Work and Pensions minister Chris Grayling is in many respects another stage of the “welfare reform” process initiated by New Labour. Where the last government operated an array of schemes for the unemployed, sick and disabled, Work Programme essentially merges them into one. Many of the companies bidding for Work Programme contracts – A4E, G4S, Serco – also made large profits from running New Labour schemes like the New Deal. The New Deal like the planned Work Programme also included mandatory “work placements” of up to 26 weeks where claimants were forced to work for their benefit and were sanctioned if they didn’t. Unlike the New Deal, the Mandatory Work Activity in the Work Programme can be invoked from day one of a claim. Employers who have apparently expressed an interest in exploiting this new pool of free labour include Primark and Poundland.
Another continuity with New Labour is the attempt to include sick and disabled claimants in “work-focused activity”. The last Labour government scrapped Incapacity Benefit for new claimants, replacing it with the tougher to claim Employment and Support Allowance, and signalled its intention to extend ESA to all IB claimants, which the Tory-Lib Dem coalition is now in the process of doing.
There is already evidence from jobcentres that those who fail the medical for ESA and are forced to sign on for Jobseekers Allowance – in particular people with mental health problems – are being disproportionately sanctioned for failing to comply with JSA conditions, something that will only increase as they become part of the Work Programme.
The DWP estimate that the companies awarded Work Programme contracts will make a ten per cent profit, based on them reaching targets for finding people jobs. Leaving aside the principle of private companies profiteering on the back of unemployment, sickness and disability, previous experience with the New Deal schemes indicates that in order to meet these targets companies are likely to concentrate on those easier to find jobs for, the newly unemployed and skilled rather than longer term claimants with mental health, literacy or addiction problems, and fiddle the figures by, for example, arranging multiple work placements for one “client”.
The Work Programme is clearly modelled on US-style workfare (work for your dole) schemes with their private sector operators, stringent sanctions for non-compliance and “partnerships” with sweatshop employers eager to offer “work placements” to an endlessly rotating group of claimants. As well as opposing these schemes alongside claimants organisations, trade unions should be in the forefront of actively organising against them.