The consumer response to workfare – and issues in policy-making.
The campaign group Boycott Workfare claimed a couple of scalps in their campaign against a key part of the Government’s welfare reform policy. Both Sainsbury’s and Waterstone’s have pulled out, and in recent hours, TK Maxx have announced the same. Tesco has also come under pressure over its role on this programme following publicity around what they claim was a clerical error.
Doing some background reading into this, one of the things that strikes me is the varying range of phrases and names the DWP uses to describe all of its various schemes and programmes – and how they are not consistent with what campaigners are describing them as. The main references to “workfare” seem to be around the comparative studies that were commissioned under the Labour administration.
The two documents that are worth going through are Could you offer work experience? and Sector-based work academies – both from the DWP. At the same time it’s also worth looking at the collection of claimants’ experiences from Boycott Workfare. Feel free to leave your own comments at the end of this post on all of these.
There are a number of observations I have that cover both policy issues and social media issues.
The first is that in principle, the idea of putting together a programme that gives the long term unemployed some skills [Re Ellen's point - this does not mean they all have no skills to start off with], confidence and experience to seek and get work – while allowing them to maintain (or even raise) their personal dignity is a good thing. This is exactly what The Prince’s Trust Team Programme does – I did this course myself a decade ago (for which I blogged about here). I’d like to give politicians the benefit of the doubt that this was the mindset they went into when exploring workfare-related policies.
Yet something seems to be going badly wrong with the delivery. The symptom of this is the consumer reaction to the larger firms taking part in the programmes – in particular those that have since backed down for fear of a wider consumer boycott. The big point of contention is that firms which make huge profits are gaining from taxpayer-subsidised workers effectively working for free in low-skilled areas that require little training. The fear is that those forced into those programmes are replacing what should be real jobs paid for by the company.
Without consumer boycotts, the incentive for large firms is to take full advantage of this – especially those that rely on a large number of low-skilled low-paid workers. If the amount of money “invested” in those individuals to train them up (which by its nature does not take long) is far outweighed by the amount of “free labour” it gets, then such firms are likely to jump at the chance. I can imagine that working relations on the ground can’t be entirely friction-free either – whether it’s the reluctant individuals resenting having to work full-time hours for a rate far lower than their employed colleagues resenting the lack of effort their workfare colleagues may show in such a role. Far better I think to have a programme that requires firms to pay the going rate for the jobs that people are required to do and perhaps having a series of rewards or incentives for those firms that then take on and then keep on those who were otherwise longterm unemployed, in work.
The second one is a wider problem within the jobs market – that of the ‘skills mismatch’. This was illustrated by the case of Cait Reilly who despite having a geology degree found herself being sent to Poundland. It’s one thing getting people into a job per se, it’s quite another thing getting people into jobs that match their skills, qualifications and aptitude. One of the things that doesn’t seem to have been addressed in a ‘joined up’ manner is the problem of the skills mismatch. To what extent has this problem been identified and quantified and who is doing what about it?
On the social media firestorm front, I first found out about the Tesco case via one of the brightest of school students on Twitter – @LissyNumber. (She blogged about the Tesco case here). When I first looked at the screenshot, it was clear there was a clerical error in labelling the post as permanent. The problem for both Tesco and DirectGov was that no one spotted it or rectified it until the social media firestorm was in full flow – by which time it was too late.
The storm really got going just after Gareth, the chap running Tesco’s customer services Twitter account had signed off for the night. As far as social media accounts go, Tesco’s one seems to be open for comments for longer than other ones in previous firestorms. But the point still holds: Big corporations with a significant customer-facing business need to be operating and staffing their social media accounts 24 hours a day – and staffing them with people who are able to make decisions to nip these things in the bud. There is also pressure on the Government and its agencies to do the same where they are interacting with firms in a manner that puts the reputations of all at risk.
In the longer term, one of the things the DWP needs to consider is what its feedback mechanisms are for those people who go on these programmes. What quantitative information is coming back? (e.g. the number of long term unemployed who go on into full-time work) along with the qualitative experiences of people who took part. Who are the firms who provide an exemplary experience – the training and support, and which are the ones who are out to rip off the individuals on the programme as well as the tax payer?
Finally, there is only so far programmes such as these can go at a time of high unemployment. No ‘work programme’ can compensate for a situation where there are a significantly greater number of people seeking jobs as there are vacancies to go around.
Addendum – covering Ellen’s points.
1) I certainly did not mean to tar all the long term unemployed as being no/low skilled. One of the things the political establishment has struggled with particularly in this economic down turn is the large numbers of skilled workers who cannot find work because there are not enough jobs to go around. See the final para of the original article above.
2) Re your experience of one of those courses – appalled at what you had to go through. From a public administration viewpoint this shows up the skills mismatch as well as a failure of procurement and delivery – hiring a firm to deliver something that (in your case in particular) it seemed unable to deliver what it was required to do. Either that or the contract was drafted in such a way that the firm only had to deliver the bare minimum & not go beyond it.
3) Finally there is the personal impact on yourself which for me is the most important aspect. You were sent on a ‘course’ that by the sounds of things clearly didn’t need to go on. At the end of it the feedback that you got treated you with contempt. I’m genuinely shocked that any firm delivering a public service thinks that it could get away with stuff like that. If you’ve got the feedback in writing you could take it further – whether officially or whether uploading it to a blog and publicising.
To end, as in my final para of the original article, no ‘work programme’ is going to solve the problem of unemployment if there are simply not enough jobs to go around – & in particular ones that match the skills and circumstances of those in the workforce. (Thinking graduates with huge debts). It’s not just having jobs alone – with costs of living spiralling the current situation is simply unsustainable. The problem is the political establishment either have not acknowledged the situation, or if they have are so devoid of ideas because they are constrained by their own ideology they’ve chosen to be bound by.