Well Unfare

The semi-voluntary Work Experience programme has been in the news this week, along with bonkers Tories like Iain Duncan Smith calling people names like “job snobs” if they criticise it. What kind of jobs has he had then? According to his profile on the Guardian he was an officer in the army and then went into some kind of management role at GEC, followed by election to Parliament in 1987. Compare that to my work record. I’ve never been unemployed and had to sign on, but I have done some pretty strange jobs during summer vacations as a student.

Just after I did GCSEs in 1995 I worked in a post room putting things in envelopes for a mailshot. When things got slow we got to take things out of envelopes as well. In 1996 I worked on a nightshift sorting and packing shampoo bottles. 1997 was pretty good because I worked for a bank for 3 months between finishing A Levels and going to university. 1998 had a week in a bacon packing factory and 2 weeks working for a different department of the same bank. 1999 was the strangest year, when I spend one day sticking sanitary towels to leaflets for another mailshot and I went back there the next day but there was no work and the temp agency still took the cost of minibus transport out of that week’s pay. 2 days later I worked in a shoe factory sorting cured cow hides at the “wet” end of the place, which was as malodorous as it sounds. Then I got to work in a college for the last 2 weeks of summer printing ID cards during registration. It was slightly lower pay and pretty long hours (10 – 19.00 in the first week) but it was much more pleasant work. In 2000 I stayed in halls over summer and got a job in Manchester. It started out as data entry but I managed to let them give me a go in the technology department playing about with VB and SQL Server. After I graduated in 2001 I got a temp job with another bank over summer and then got the job with a large telecoms company that I still have now nearly 11 years later.

The minimum wage didn’t exist until April 1999 so some of the earlier jobs were pretty badly paid. My first job paid £3/hr and the nightshift work I did in 1996 was £3.40/hr for a 12 hour shift from 7 pm to 7 am. However the temp agency I was working for took off £2/day for minibus transport from their offices to the factory. When I registered with a different temp agency a year later they were surprised at how low the pay was. Of course this was 16 years ago, but allowing for inflation that’s about £5.13/hr. The current UK minimum wage for workers 21 and over is £6.08.

At least all these jobs paid though. That’s one of the main problems with this workfare scheme. It’s all very well claiming that the purpose of it is to give people experience of work, but the whole idea of business is that you do something in return for a payment that covers your expenses for doing so, plus a bit more. Compensating someone for providing skills you need or for doing something they wouldn’t do by choice is also a fundamental principle of work. As well as the job itself, there’s also the whole rigmarole of understanding payslips, paying tax and national insurance, getting the hang of workplace etiquette and politics, and being with colleagues who you may not be with by choice.

So what’s wrong with expecting the unemployed to have to work for their benefits? First of all the point of JSA, Unemployment Benefit, Outdoor Relief or whatever the dole is called is to pay basic subsistence while you try to find another job. There’s a certain level of expense involved with having a job. Apart from transport and buying suitable clothes there are incidental things like buying drinks, or things like office collections for birthdays and leaving presents. JSA + expenses might cover bus fare, but it’s probably safe to say a grumpy advisor isn’t going to fork out cash for the tea kitty or Alice and Bob’s wedding collection. If you have a heavy manual job you’ll probably also need to provide your own toiletries for the shower at the end of the shift.

Another problem with workfare schemes like this is that they replace proper jobs. The employer may have to pay for things like health and safety training, and equipment required to do the job, but it looks like there’s been more than a few cases where jobs haven’t been advertised because it’s cheaper to get someone unemployed in without having to pay them wages.

There’s also the element of compulsion. As an employee I have the right to quit my job for any reason as long as I give my employer the notice that we agreed when I signed my contract (I have no intention of doing so because I’m quite happy with the job I’ve got). People on the work experience programme don’t have that option. Quit after the first week or so, and you lose your benefits. There are also mandatory schemes where you must work, or else. Some of these even apply to the disabled who claim benefits because they can’t do certain types of work. As a manager I’d say having someone working ineffectively in a job that they don’t want to do can be worse than being short staffed.

Personally I’d like to see a scheme where politicians have to get experience of work or being on benefits before they can stand for election. The PPE degree -> political research -> parliament route is pretty common but it doesn’t really lead to experience of the real world. For all their (many) faults at least Margaret Thatcher and John Major have a more rounded background than many of the current lot.