Guardian writer Sarah Ditum asks in a Comment is Free piece:
“Is workfare close to godliness? Some Christian charities seem to believe so. The Salvation Army and YMCA have stepped into a murky moral swamp by joining forces with the government’s mandatory work activity programme”
The piece suggests that charities are colluding with the government’s Workfare programme.
But why shouldn’t people who are able to work, and are receiving money via the state from people who do work, not contribute something back by giving up some of their free time for volunteer work in a sector that requires volunteers.
It is wrong that businesses use free labour. A Poundland or a Tesco should be paying workers if there are jobs to be done. But charities rely on volunteers. And if you’re living off the collective generosity of others – which is essentially what unemployment benefits are – is it not quite selfish and self-regarding not to want to give something equally community-spirited, and within your abilities, back? (Whether these or any charities do good work is an issue for a separate debate.)
The unemployed person gains a lot: contact with others in a work environment, the opportunity to learn and practice new skills, the advantages of having a routine and the flexibility to move on at a moment’s notice if paid employment becomes available, and – though many sneeringly undervalue this – the satisfaction of contributing to society.
Ditum relies on anecdotal evidence to question the value of these placements. But there will always be stories of where they don’t work or are unsatisfactory – particularly when shared by the groups she cites, Boycott Workfare, whose entire raison d’etre is to rubbish any efforts in this regard. There are obviously ways to monitor whether organisations signing up for the scheme are fulfilling their obligations. This can and should be done.
Even so, these complaints amount to trivialities like “I was told I’d learn how to use a carpet cleaner instead I had to put price tags on stock” or “the manager was very rude”.
These are actually good experiences. They prepare people for real life in real workplaces. I’m not sure what sort of person honestly thinks that working people don’t have to deal with rude managers or job specifications which fall short of expectations. It seems to me indicative of a certain type of entitlement which is unrealistic and, frankly, insulting to those who work hard in mind-numbing, grinding jobs and pay taxes to support those who complain that they have to work at all in such trivial ways.
If anything, Workfare is supplying these people with a healthy dose of reality.
Even if that were the only point it would be a valuable lesson, but it isn’t. The is value in getting out of bed. There is value in getting out of the house and going to a place of work. There is value in dealing with other people: bosses, colleagues and members of the public. And there is an opportunity to make the most of it.
What’s more, there are millions of people around the world who would envy those who live in a country where, when a person is unable to find a job, the state pays them an allowance and only asks in return that they put in some voluntary work to keep their hand in and possibly even pick up new skills.
The trouble with Workfare is that it isn’t restricted to the voluntary sector. Profit-making corporations are making use of unpaid labour. This is certainly a disgrace and amounts to the tax-payer subsidising an Asda or a Tesco’s running costs. Put in more economic terms, it allows big companies to externalise certain costs of doing business to the tax-payer. This is very wrong. Those jobs should go to people who are paid.
But it seems to me then that “Boycott Workfare”, The Guardian and other campaigners around the issue should be welcoming – not objecting to – charities signing up. In fact, they should be insisting that only charities are eligible for Workfare placements.