Workfare – another policy in the social media firestorm


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.


10 thoughts on “Workfare – another policy in the social media firestorm

  1. The myriad of names used for these schemes makes things very confusing. I’ve probably got this wrong, but I’ve come across The Work Experience Scheme, Mandatory Work Activity Scheme, The Work Programme, Sector-Based Work Academies, The Business Compact…

    The confusion has also resulted in companies signed up to the Business Compact such as The Co-op being accused of using unpaid labour when they actually have a high-profile apprenticeship scheme as part of their commitment to the compact.

    I can’t blame people for calling the whole lot Workfare, even Neil O’Brien, director of Policy Exchange referred to “Workfare type schemes” on Newsnight this evening.

  2. “gives the long term unemployed some skills”

    I’ll not bother reading any more past that. Such a terrible insult. Right wing thinking has really seeped into your bones.

    After a period of long term unemployment I was forced onto one of these ‘courses’. Before lunch, I’d sorted out the companies internet connection, and explained to the staff member what the internet actually was, how it worked, and given the ‘class’ a whirl after she’d admitted she didn’t know anything of this thing and was supposed to teach us and asked if any of us could help her out, helped 7 people work on their CVs and was hungry. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t afford lunch. The paid staff, who were unskilled, didn’t have that problem.

    The course was to last two months, and included time for us to complete the EDL. I had that finished by the Thursday.

    Are you honestly suggesting a joiner who has been unemployed for a long time needs to gain skills? That’s shockingly insulting if you are. That statement I’ve quoted clearly says you do think so.

    The presumption that the long-term unemployed stare at wallpaper and have lost the ability to read really has sunk in here.

    Feedback from the promised interview said I was obviously an employee of the company and there as a plant, because I couldn’t possibly be a long-term unemployed person; I clearly had skills ‘no unemployed person had’. They thought I was testing them to make sure the interviews were undertaken properly. I was therefore, not offered the job.

  3. I had a brief encounter with the Work Programme but luckily was offered a job I’d been interviewed for before the first appointment. The providers pressured me to tell them where I’d been employed so they could write to the employer and check that I was actually turning up at work (mainly so they could claim they’d found me work and could get paid for it). The compulsory courses I would have had to attend were ‘one size fits none’ job searching and interview skills sessions that were aimed at people with no experience of either of those at all. There was no privacy in the interview areas, with other participants only 2-3 feet away when you are having to disclose personal information. The whole thing was a shambles.

  4. I note the last commenter suggests it ‘was a shambles’. I suggest it did exactly what it was supposed to do – enable the transfer of public funds to a private company. That’s all this so-called welfare reform is and it’s getting more obvious every day.

  5. Claimants I know fear the programmes will be used as a threat, leaving a huge amount of discretion in the hands of JobCentre staff or private employment contractors. Comply with xyz or be sent on a programme. The programmes cause a lot of concern amongst single parents. I call them workfare as generic term because they feed into the idea that people should “do something” in return for their money.

  6. I agree entirely with general public opinion on this issue. I am a lone parent who managed projects, wrote proposals, including business plans, budgets, monitoring schemes, etc. to create for myself a job requiring completely different skills–I am a nutritionist. But the money PCTs were given to improve and maintain health was cut two years before the PCTs went. Skill building, confidence boosting, CV writing skills are the least of my worries. I would happily change careers (again, I was a general manager and a web designer before becoming a nutritionist) but I would be very disappointed to find myself working night shifts at Tesco for less money than the childminder keeping my kids safe through the night. The money being spent on ‘workfare’ programs and ‘research’ (IDS’s think tank?) could go a long way toward boosting the economy to create jobs, and toward genuine retaining programs.

  7. A really interesting blog as usual 🙂
    What we have is a very very big mismatch and system that is fundamentally flawed in its current form because for 10 years or so actually more really – in times of recession the system of getting unemployed people back to work falls apart somewhhat and thats what happening.

    Some background – from 2000 – 2006 i worked in the voluntary sector doing all sorts of things, in deprived communities (official jargon term for poor council and inner city estates) srounf 2003ish i ended up somehow possibly cause im a bit gobby, being a rep on a board that brought public, private and vol secvtor together. sorry this is important waffle – fromt here i ended up on a Skills board.

    As we had high employment, the vast and i really do mean about 80 – 90% of people coming through the doors of JC+ were young school leavers who had dropped out, or people who had not worked ever, or rarely and many could not read or write. In effect the entire system has been set up to “support” – yes its patch and while ther eis some brilliant work out there, there is some terrible examples too. I remember one tendering discussion where we were awarding a large contract worth 3 million i think – the collective sigh when we saw who had tendered. One company had put my name down as a supporter that did make me chuckle as Id told the company to not darken my office door again.

    So back to my point – the policy is fundamentally based on the notion that long term unmployed people have never worked, dont want to work and its just a case of giving them some very basci cv polishing, pep talk and off they go. forward to now – Highly skilled, proffesional, articulate, well versed in the ability to wroite a CV, dont need interview workshops, or any of the well used but often poor quality tools compaines use..

    Instead of accpeting that, acknowledging the whole system is failing the powers that be and Puffles best Fried you and I both know from the inside there are som shockers poicy wise, joined up working is a well used badly implemented idea and it is like turning round an oil tanker

    you can get retraining money but only if you have no GCSE’s – if you have Alevels, a degree even if its 15 years out of date and you have been at home having children for instance – doesnt matter you have the qualification.

    Minsiters and senior offcials are so wrapped up in its peoples own fault and they are just lazy rhetoric they fail to see the truth until an acceptance that its not just people who havent worked ever and litterly dont have the employability skills – some of this can coem down to basci hygene
    then its going to continue to go very horribly wrong..I worry even more what ine arth is going to happen when many of the people on Incapactity benefit on a larger scale than now end up in the mix…

    sadly the truth is they will be parked – as in left to fester and that is the biggest truth no one talks about but is the elephant in the room – the easier to help are the difficcult ones ex offenders, homeless, people who probably shouldnt be looking, addicts (of what ever kind), angry people, people with disabilities that emmployers wont touch, people from industries that dont exist, people who cant read or write, people with mental health problems, people with personality disorders, people who for what ever reason are unable, ill prepared for working..

    Thats the saddest part and the biggest travesty – no pressure or real work is doen with employers except at the endges or offering incentives to sugar the pill – as i said there is some fantastic work out there but the 4 big boys on the back to wrok arena have it sewn up and they are simply not fit for purpose.

    sorry i seem to have written a very long reply

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