Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Workfare ship is sinking

As anyone that gives a damn about the hard-won rights of the British people already knows, the Tory led coalition were dealt a huge blow by the Court of Appeals over the unlawful way they had been forcing people to give up their labour rights and work for no wages on so-called "Workfare" schemes.

Unfortunately the ruling does not explicitly rule out the practice of forcing people to work for no wages in order to boost corporate profits at corporations such as: A4e, Argos, Carrillion, Greggs, Hilton hotels, Marriot Hotels, McDonalds, Debenhams, Pizza Hut, Poundland, Poundstretcher, Primark, Serco, Superdrug, Topman, Topshop, Weatherspoons, WH Smiths, Wilkinsons and the Yorkshire Linnen Company.

The ruling was made by a three judge panel. Lord Justice Pill, Lady Justice Black and Sir Stanley Burnton ruled unanimously that the Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith had exceeded his powers as secretary of state because any such scheme must first be "authorised by Parliament". 

Stanley Burnton explained that under section 17a of the 1995 Jobseekers Act (as amended in 2009), the secretary of state could not simply do as he saw fit and has an obligation to lay the details of the those programmes before Parliament.

The legal team that brought the appeal explained the implications of the ruling; that anyone that had been thrown off benefits for refusing to participate in these taxpayer funded corporate welfare schemes should be able to claim back their lost benefits, since the sanctions had been applied unlawfully.

The DWP quickly stated that they "have no intention of giving back money to anyone who has had their benefits removed" and that they would resist paying back the benefits they had unlawfully stripped people of "until all legal avenues had been exhausted".

The court refused the government permission to appeal but the DWP said it would take the matter to the supreme court.

The Tories, the DWP and the baying right-wing press actually had the gall to describe this ruling as a victory. Citing Burnton's statement that "this case is not about the social, economic, political or other merits" as some kind of glowing endorsement of their mandatory unpaid labour schemes.

The judges were willing to gloss over the economic illiteracy of these Workfare schemes, since it lay outside the remit of the case. However it doesn't take an economics genius to see the glaring flaws in a scheme that forces highly trained people into menial unpaid jobs, that would surely be better filled by paid unskilled workers. There are two main strands to the argument:
Firstly: By providing a steady stream of unpaid and rightless workers for corporate interests to exploit, the Tories and the DWP are actually providing them with a perverse financial incentive to quit recruiting and to lay off their paid low-skilled workers then replace them with taxpayer funded free labour instead. The Tories love to claim that these schemes "help the unemployed to get into work", however it is absolutely clear that these schemes are actually job destroyers. The more people that get forced onto these corporate welfare schemes, the fewer paid jobs there will actually be!

Secondly: The whole mandatory unpaid labour ideology reeks of economic ignorance. The foundation of the capitalist system is demand. Henry Ford famously recognised that workers wages created demand and chose to price his cars cheaply enough, and paid his workers decently enough that they could eventually afford to buy them. Instead of maximising profits by paying his workers a pittance and selling his cars for a fortune he recognised this basic economic idea of demand that George Osborne and the Tories seem so fundamentally ignorant of. The Tory ideology seems to be to maximise short term corporate profits by providing corporations with an endless supply of free, rightless labour, with scant regard for the fact that consigning an ever greater proportion of the workforce to the pitiful subsistence income of unemployment benefits will actually reduce consumer demand in the UK economy, adding to the economic stagnation caused by Obsorne's other demand killing policy of ideological austerity.
Right, now that we've got past the fundamental economic illiteracy of these schemes, lets return to the moral case, which is where the Tories (absurdly) want to argue it. Take the ridiculousness of employment minister Mark Hoban's argument here:
"The court has backed our right to require people to take part in programmes which will help get them into work"
Not only is he trying to paint this catastrophic defeat as some kind of victory, he is also using the word "right" in an utterly surreal manner. If the appeal to "rights" was coming from the other side of the debate, we know exactly what people like Mark and his braying supporters in the right-wing press would say. Here are a few examples of legitimate appeals to rights:
"Workers have a right to earn the statutory minimum wage"
"Unemployed workers have the right to claim the unemployment benefits they have paid for through their National Insurance contributions, without being forced onto economically illiterate corporate welfare schemes."

"Unemployed people have a right to undertake their own voluntary work experience placements and jobseeking activities without being forced to give them up to stack shelves and sweep floors at Poundland for no pay."
Hoban and the right-wing press would condemn these "appeals to rights" as wishy-washy liberal nonsense then try to distract attention away from these legitimate rights issues by invoking "scrounger narratives" or dissembling about their fantasy of revoking the European Convention on Human Rights.

It is absolutely clear from Hoban's statement that he believes that as a member of the government it is "his right" to force people into unpaid corporate welfare schemes, in breach of their right to earn the statutory minimum wage. The man is using a fascistic definition of the word "right". He believes that any rights members of the public may have are secondary to his right to dictate what people should and shouldn't be doing, that ministerial rights supersede human rights. Essentially he is saying that the public have a duty to serve the government, not that the government has the duty to serve the public.


It is a small victory that the Appeal Court has ruled that these Tory mandatory unpaid Workfare schemes are unlawful. The Tories will now fight desperately to keep their corporate welfare ship afloat. Iain Duncan Smith has worked tirelessly to undermine the statutory minimum wage, to revoke our hard-won labour rights and to provide a stream of rightless, wageless workers to corporate interests.

We must now expect a full on barrage of "scrounger narratives" from the braying right-wing press and a desperate attempt to push these schemes through Parliament from the Tories.

We must keep up the fight against mandatory unpaid labour by writing to our local MPs, by signing petitions, by boycotting workfare scrounging companies (and emailing them to let them know exactly what we think of their exploitation of unpaid workers) and by maximising social media to assert that these brazen assaults on our labour rights are unacceptable and to demand that they are abandoned.

If you care about our hard-won labour rights here are some of the things that you can do:

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