Blog post

JSA + expenses—the future of work?

Huw Lemmey20 February 2012

As youth unemployment raises to well over 1 million, with little sign of a crest to that wave of misery, Tesco offer a chink of light. A dream job: a permanent placement (no pension) working nights (no sick pay) with training (30 hours per week). The wage? Nothing. But, if you don't take it, you're liable to have your benefits and job seekers allowance removed for up to 6 months.

Effectively, working 30 hours a week for your JSA will give you an hourly wage of £2.25 (or £1.78 p/h if you're one of the 1.04 million unemployed youth). Welcome to Workfare Britain.

From May to November last year over 24,000 jobseekers were forced to engage in Mandatory Work Activity (MWA), for 30 hours per week, providing participating corporations with hundreds of thousands of hours of free labour each week, according to the Guardian. There was also a high variance in ethnic minorities forced into unpaid labour, with 24% of those involved coming from ethnic minorities, as opposed to 13% on voluntary "work experience" schemes. Under MWA any recipient of Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) faces having their JSA stripped for 3 months for refusing the take part in the scheme, with a 6 month sanction for a second offence. Plans are currently underway to introduce a sanction for a third offence, meaning those who refuse to offer their labour for free will face being banned from claiming JSA for three years. There are plans afoot to implement a similar system for the long-term sick and disabled.

A grass-roots campaign aimed at exposing companies profiting from Workfare, and taking action against them. Boycott Workfare has already planned a UK-wide day of action against the scheme, after a successful protest against Tescos in Westminster on  Saturday 18th February. It is also attempting to build pressure from the rank and file of Trade Unions- not least the Communication Workers Union (CWU) whose leadership have backed the scheme within the Royal Mail.

The introduction of Workfare is both a retrenchment of policies introduced by the previous Labour Government under the "Flexible New Deal" scheme and a formalisation of unpaid "training" in the form of internships, whereby unremunerated labour plays a vital role in post-fordist employment policy, forcing down wages and providing a pool of desperate, precarious workers lacking financial security, workplace rights or (often) recognition from Trade Unions.

Like the reaction to Workfare, the growth of internship-as-free-labour has also created a grassroots opposition movement, with groups such as the Precarious Workers Brigade, the CarrotWorkers Collective and Pay Your Interns documenting abusive labour practices, providing practical advice for interns and organising both inside and outside the workplace. 

The issue of exploitative  internships isn't limited to high-end, white collar industries in the post-industrial West. In China, for example, Foxconn, producer of luxury Apple products, uses 100,000's of "interns" each year, some as young as 16, working night-shifts to produce consumer electronics in often unbearable conditions. In the USA, Disney employ over 8000 university-age interns a year as part of their College Program, working within their theme-parks as everything from chambermaids to hot-dog vendors, in order to earn academic credits.

Cheap labour that simultaneously reduces the bargaining power of workers; insecure, short-term contracts and now free labour, holding the unemployed hostage with the threat of poverty: is this the future of work?

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