Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Workfare slavery debate.

A lot has been written about the Tory obsession with making the unemployed "work for their benefits" under Workfare schemes. There are many valid criticisms of Workfare, here are 10 of the best.
  • Many of these workfare placements described by the Tories as "valuable work-experience" involve nothing more than months of menial tasks like shelf stacking and floor sweeping with no real training at all.
  • Many unemployed people have been forced to give up education, training or skilled work in the voluntary sector in order to stack shelves at places like Poundland on Workfare schemes.
  • Future employers are hardly going to be more impressed by a period of mandatory unpaid menial labour at Poundland or Argos than by the use of initiative to undertake training or find skilled work in the voluntary sector.
  • Early evidence shows that very few workfare trainees get taken on full time at the end of their mandatory period of unpaid work, often to be replaced by another mandatory Workfare placement.
  • The provision of an unlimited supply of workfare labourers actually gives companies the incentive to sack their paid low-skilled employees, thus exacerbating the unemployment situation.
  • The main beneficiaries of these workfare schemes are certainly not the unemployed, they are the corporations provided with free rightless labour at the taxpayers' expense.
  • The other main beneficiaries are corporations like A4E, G4S, Serco and Atos who have landed lucrative government contracts to administer these schemes. Some of whom have engaged in fraud in order to soak up even more taxpayers' cash.
  • Apprenticeships are already a proven system for providing "work experience", the £millions that have been poured into parasitic companies like A4E to administer workfare schemes would surely have been better spent funding apprenticeships with small and medium enterprises, with a view to providing long-term employment opportunities for skillful and dedicated youngsters.
  • If the work is worth doing, then surely it is worth paying someone to do it.
  • Mandatory unpaid labour schemes like Workfare can be seen as a deliberate attempt to undermine employment law and the minimum wage. Hardly surprising given the Tory contempt for the value of labour.
The problem is that many of these criticisms are completely overshadowed by allegations that Workfare is a form of slavery. The main problem with the allegation that Workfare is a form of slavery is that it gives Workfare apologists a point of attack. They can take the upper hand in the debate by feigning moral outrage that such "work for your benefits" schemes are nowhere near as harsh as the traditional forms of slavery; American cotton plantations, Japanese prisoner of war camps, Soviet Gulags or modern day sex-workers trafficked into Britain from Eastern Europe.

My position is that it is fair to compare Workfare schemes with slavery, after all "mandatory, unpaid labour" would seem to be a fitting description for both mandatory Workfare schemes and of the previous examples that are unquestionably considered to be slavery. The difference of course is in severity, Workfare victims are not treated as the legal property of the slave owners, as in the US cotton plantations. They are not provided starvation rations, viciously beaten and eventually worked to death as in the Soviet Gulags and Japanese prisoner of war camps and they are not held captive like modern day slaves working in the UK sex trade.

If we use sexual assault as an analogy, there are many grades of sexual assault, from drunkenly groping a co-worker at the office Christmas party to appalling sexual abuse inflicted upon very young children in the production of child-pornography films. The argument that Workfare is not a form of slavery because it demeans the victims of "real slavery" is akin to the argument that getting groped by your boss shouldn't be referred to as sexual assault because it demeans the victims of "real sexual assault".

Obviously the argument that getting groped by your boss is not sexual assault because it isn't severe enough is absurd and wrong. I've been drunk many hundreds of times and have always kept my hands to myself so other people, especially people with big responsibilities should be able to control themselves too. The argument that unwanted sexual contact is not sexual assault because it wasn't as severe as others have suffered is unsustainable, therefore the argument that mandatory unpaid labour is not a form of slavery because it isn't as severe as others have suffered is also invalid.

My view is that describing mandatory Workfare placements as slavery is not wrong, since mandatory unpaid labour would seem to be an almost perfect description of slavery. However it is an unhelpful tactic because it gives Workfare apologists the opportunity to create an argument based on the appeal to emotion strategy, which is a very persuasive argument to people that are not versed in analytical thought.

The typical workfare apologist has to resort to appeal to emotion tactics because when it comes to evidence and socio-economic arguments, they don't have a leg to stand on. Take Tory Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith who stated that "those who oppose this process are opposed to hard work". This is a clear example of the appeal to emotion strategy. He disparages opponents to his schemes as lazy, workshy parasites, rather than people with legitimate concerns about the state forcing people to work for free, with no labour rights in order to boost corporate profits.

Giving Workfare fans the opportunity to raise a strong appeal to emotion argument by invoking comparisons to slavery allows them to completely sidestep more rigorous criticisms (as listed above) and put up a smokescreen of moral outrage.

My advice to those that wish to voice their opposition to Tory mandatory unpaid labour schemes is to avoid comparisons to slavery and to stick to facts and analysis. This way the Workfare apologist is left with fewer options; they can try to counter the facts and analysis (extremely difficult given the growing weight of evidence), they can simply remain silent or they can try to raise their own independent appeal to emotion by castigating "the unemployed" as feckless workshy scroungers. If they resort to name calling and generalisations about the unemployed out them as unthinking reactionaries using using obvious appeal to emotion tactics and counter their ignorant assertions with facts.

A famous quote says "Do not argue with idiots, they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience" however if you feel as strongly as I do that these Workfare schemes are a combination of blatant attacks on labour rights and taxpayer funded corporate handouts, then it is important that our voices are heard and that the argument is won. Therefore we need to avoid getting bogged down in emotional arguments and attempts to define "slavery" and stay focused on the facts and rigorous analysis.

More articles from

The Tory contempt for ordinary working people
The Beecroft Report; nothing more than a corporate wishlist
A letter to fans of Workfare
Gaming the Work Programme 

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