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Thursday, February 16, 2012 

The only way is Tesco.

(The only way is workfare doesn't work quite as well as a headline.)

In a way, it's a little odd that the issue of unpaid work has suddenly exploded in the way it has over the last 24 hours. The root of the furore, an advert on the Jobcentre website that advertised a work experience placement with Tesco where the wage was jobseeker's allowance plus expenses, mistakenly describing the "job" as permanent, is part of the government's sector-based work academies programme, a scheme that has been operating since at least last October. This is separate from the work experience programme that Cait Reilly and others have complained about in that it is entirely voluntary and it doesn't seem as though you can be forced onto it; it otherwise though looks exactly the same, in that if you pull out after the first week you may lose your benefit.

Indeed, the only real difference between these schemes seem to be the period of time the placement lasts. On work experience it can be between two and eight weeks; on the sector-based work academies programme it seems to be six; and on the far more objectionable mandatory work activity programme (PDF) it seems to be four weeks, although considering it seems as though you can be instantly placed back on MWA if you haven't found a job the scheme is potentially never ending. Crucially, it seems that regardless of the different names, the companies involved are all the same. Tesco, as John Harris wrote last year, is involved in MAW, as is Poundland, and both are also offering places on the other two schemes. This more than suggests that the work involved is also the same, which casts substantial doubt on the claim by the government for the "sector-based work academies" that the placement "will be tailored to help you prepare for an actual job vacancy". The specific carrot offered for those taking part in SBWA is a guaranteed job interview at the end, but this doesn't seem as promising once it becomes clear that when your placement is over someone on one of the other programmes is likely to take over.

Tesco in response have claimed that "in recent months 300 young people have got a job with us after work experience", which while seemingly reassuring is potentially nothing of the sort when they haven't provided figures for how many people have gone through the scheme with them. It also isn't clear whether those 300 have all been specifically on SBWA, or whether it also includes those on the other programmes we know Tesco is involved in.

The way this issue has emerged is slightly unfortunate in that there's the potential for a wholly voluntary scheme similar to SBWA to be beneficial for all concerned. Yes, it is objectionable for highly profitable high street retailers to be provided with what is in effect free labour courtesy of the taxpayer, yet if that's the sector the individual wants to look for work in and there is a real chance of a job at the end of it then the ethical dimensions can be overlooked. Far more problematic is the pure work experience scheme, where it seems as though personal circumstances are often ignored, and where the specific details of the programme are not always fully explained to those who express an interest. It simply doesn't make any sense to put someone who has plenty of retail experience into a placement with Tesco for instance, especially if there's not even an interview on offer at the end.

Or it doesn't unless all these slightly different dressed schemes are a subtle expansion of the workfare principles behind the mandatory work activity programme. Seeing as it looks as though those involved are the same partners, it's more than reasonable to reach this conclusion, and it looks even more damning with the announcement that those in the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance may well soon find themselves obliged to go on open-ended "work experience".

Put aside for a second the inequities of the state subsidising the likes of Tesco in this way, and it's worth looking at whether workfare actually, err, works. The DWP commissioned a study back in 2008 looking at how "work for benefits" schemes functioned in America, Australia and Canada, and the findings were stark (PDF). While there were "few systematic evaluations that isolated the impact of workfare from other elements of welfare-to-work programmes", the evidence there was suggested that the programmes could if anything reduce employment opportunities as it meant those on them had less time available to look for an actual job. Crucially, it found workfare was least effective in "weak labour markets where unemployment was high", or if you prefer, Britain in February 2012.

The mandatory work activity programme originated in Labour's last package of welfare reforms, and it's been eagerly adopted by the coalition. Those placed on it were meant to do work of "benefit to the community", but that definition is obviously being stretched to the absolute limit. If anything it's proving to be the exact opposite, as it seems what would be full-time or at least part-time positions are being filled by a succession of those working in one way or another just for their JSA. For those wondering how the government is benefiting if it's still having to stump up for JSA, we can look at the 2008 study again: it found there was a "deterrent effect", with many dropping out before the "workfare" element of their benefit began. While some of those may well have been the scroungers and malingerers we hear so much about, others are those who couldn't face the demeaning prospect of working for a pittance and would rather take their chances with charity or rely on friends and family. Combined with how making people work for their benefits polls well, this seems to be the reasoning behind expanding the programmes, as well as how it seems to be those offering the placements that cop the flak, rather than the government.

Always worth remembering is that one of the coalition's first acts in government was to abolish the Future Jobs Fund. Despite being characterised as another example of Labour's profligacy and reliance on the public sector, it provided a job for a full six months rather than weeks, something which looks far better on a CV, and it paid at least the minimum wage, giving those on it a semblance of independence, and so in turn they put money back into the economy. The best that can said for the non-voluntary work experience placements is they will help *some* of those on them to acquire skills they may previously have lacked. The reality is that the long-term unemployed need tailored help, which is both expensive and undermines the narrative from the government that all they need to do is brush up their CV, look harder or alternatively even lower their aspirations. When they won't even accept that there are not enough jobs to go round it ought to be seen that something is badly wrong, and these latest revelations bring that even further into focus.

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