Have you done free archaeology (or irrelevant labour) on workfare? Do you know someone who has? Out the ’employers’!

Posted: 21/05/2013 in free archaeology, News & Analysis
Tags: , , ,

As I explained before, there is a long-running, cross-party effort to consolidate and normalise unpaid labour, in which the cultural heritage sector is both victimised and (more or less naively or cynically) complicit. The coincidences of and clashes between “unpaid voluntary work” and “workfare” (work-for-welfare) highlight the realities of both cultural heritage work and workfare.

Workfare programmes

Boycott Workfare have identified eight workfare programmes, which are either explicitly or practically compulsory, the non-performance of which leads to unemployed people’s subsistence benefit being cut or stopped for weeks, months or years (apart from one practically compulsory programme, the non-performance of which leads to unemployed people’s subjection to an explicitly compulsory programme).

Workfare’s implications for the cultural heritage economy

All of the programmes can be used to force unpaid labourers to do cultural heritage work and/or to force unpaid cultural heritage workers to do irrelevant labour, which harms both the workers and the economy.

More than a million workfare subjects a year

Every year, the government plans to subject 70,000 to Mandatory Work Activity, around 200,000 (972,000-1,060,000 over five years) to Support for the Very-Long-Term Unemployed, more than 80,000 (250,000 over three years) to Work Experience placements, and 850,000 to the Work Programme; that’s around 1,200,000 (albeit temporary) labourers (and, as government statistics count these forced unpaid labourers as employed workers, this will hide huge quantities of unemployment).

Free labour worth hundreds of thousands of jobs

The potential person-hours of unpaid labour are insane: 8,400,000 through Mandatory Work Activity, 144,000,000 through Support for the Very-Long-Term Unemployed, 19,200,000 through Work Experience, and 612,000,000 through the Work Programme; that’s around 824,400,000 hours of free labour, the equivalent of 458,000 full-time workers. Currently, 17-18% of subjects find paid employment during workfare.

Even if we assumed that 35% found such employment, and even if we assumed that they found such employment without doing any unpaid labour, that would still be 5,460,000 person-hours through Mandatory Work Activity, 93,600,000 through Support for the Very-Long-Term Unemployed, 12,480,000 through Work Experience, and 397,800,000 through the Work Programme; it would be around 509,340,000 hours of free labour, the equivalent of 282,967 full-time workers.

Workfare makes the entry-level workforce redundant

Obviously, they are shared out amongst many charities (and businesses); but even if this conscript army of unemployed workers don’t prevent would-be workers from subjecting themselves to unpaid internships in the first place, they compound the problem inadvertently created by the interns; they replace the entry level of the workforce. And even if forced labourers don’t replace workers, they are given some of their hours, which doubly threatens the paid part-time workers’ income by threatening their eligibility for working tax credits/universal credit.

When an internship is required

The New Labour government designed the Flexible New Deal (2009-2011) ‘to make it slightly more uncomfortable for those on benefits, to make them want to get off it’; in this programme, the long-term (longer-than-twelve-months) unemployed had to do work experience placements or lose up to six months’ benefits. Unfortunately,

younger (18-24) customers in FND areas were less likely to be in paid work two years after making a claim than those in non-FND areas experiencing the former JSA regime and New Deals. There was no difference in the employment rates of 25+ customers.

Handel House Museum used forced unpaid labour (which was provided by A4e under the FND). (The workfare contractors staffed themselves with workfare subjects too.)

It’s not clear whether or not the Handel House Museum has been a workfare placement provider since then or will be one again, but it is clear that it offers internships that are ‘a great way to gain practical experience for working in the museum/heritage sector’. Its summer internship programme may just be work experience that provides ‘a broad understanding of the back and front office functions of the museum’.

However, the Handel House Museum’s ‘role specific internships revolve around a particular area of the museum e.g. marketing or events, and will be advertised when an intern is required‘; as the would-be worker contributes their labour in return for experience, and as the museum explicitly uses its interns to do work that is ‘required’ for its operation, that sounds very much like a “real” worker’s job, for which the intern ought to be paid.

Alongside the museum’s use of unemployed people’s compulsorily-donated labour, it sounds very much like the functioning of the museum is at least somewhat dependent upon access to free labour (especially to interns’ provision of unpaid labour, without which they have little or no chance of paid work in the profession in the future).

Unpaid commercial labour for voluntary cultural heritage workers

The illogic of workfare

Unemployed geology graduate, experienced retail worker and experienced museum worker Caitlin Reilly was misled into committing herself to a workfare programme, then incorrectly threatened with losing her benefits if she didn’t quit her professionally-relevant, skill-intensive voluntary work and perform professionally-irrelevant, unskilled unpaid labour in a nominally sector-based work academy placement at Poundland (ostensibly in order to increase her employability by giving her work experience and retail skills).

Reilly and co-complainant Jamieson Wilson took the government to court. While the judgement found that the placement constituted work instead of training, and while it found the legislation and implementation illegal, it also ruled that unpaid labour under threat of withdrawal of subsistence benefits did not constitute forced labour.

The government persists in presenting workfare as ‘programmes which will help get [jobseekers] into work‘. Yet other workfare placement providers have demonstrated that they see workfare precisely as a way to get people to do work for free temporarily instead of a way to bring people into their paid workforce permanently.

When it lost the case, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition goverment decided to pass a retroactive law to prevent it paying compensation to the 250,000-300,000 jobseekers it had ‘unlawfully stripped of their benefits‘; and the Labour opposition enabled the government to legalise its past crime by abstaining from voting.

The government also persists in implying that those who resist unpaid labour for commercial companies do not ‘take getting into work seriously‘, ‘think they are too good for this kind of stuff’. It asks, ‘who is more important: them, the geologist or the person who’s stacked the shelves?’ As Cait Reilly pointedly noted: ‘I don’t think I am above working in shops like Poundland. I now work part-time in a supermarket. It is just that I expect to get paid for working.’ (Long-term unemployment hit Wilson even harder.)

The cultural heritage economy

Caitlin Reilly’s career is like a microcosm of the crisis-ridden cultural heritage economy. She gained an understanding of cultural heritage and experience of museum work during her degree. After graduation, she got a(n ironically) Future Jobs Fund-sponsored, six-month, minimum-wage internship. Yet despite qualifications, work experience and paid work, she couldn’t find a job anywhere in the industry and fell into unemployment; then, to help the museum and minimise the harm of unemployment, she ‘volunteered’ to remain at the Pen Museum as an unpaid labourer.

Sadly, at the same time as cuts to and closures of archaeological units and museums, at the same time as otherwise-skilled labourers and generalist workers are forced into irrelevant labour at increasingly underfunded cultural heritage sites, so Cait Reilly’s would-be colleagues are unemployed and conversely forced into irrelevant non-cultural labour.

In my post on precarisation, privatisation, austerity and workfare, I contemplated ‘the perverse possibility that, when someone is made redundant, they could – or even should – “volunteer” to continue doing their old job without pay!’ Reilly wasn’t made redundant; as a precarious worker, her contract was only ever temporary; but nonetheless she had no practical option but to perform unpaid labour and has now fallen into unskilled labour, where neither she nor the economy benefits from her investment, education and skills.

Name and shame workfare placement providers

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been keeping secret the names of the businesses and charities that “host” (but do not employ or pay) ‘hundreds of thousands of unemployed people’ on “workfare” programmes; but after a freedom of information tribunal, Judge David Marks QC has ruled that the DWP must publicly identify the programmes’ host organisations.

Remarkably, the DWP argued that the public should not be allowed to know who exploited forced unpaid labour because it would cost those organisations money and it might cost some of their (paid) staff their jobs: ‘Charities… would lose donations and customers because they would be subject to extremely adverse publicity if their involvement with the programmes was revealed.’

It is also notable that one charity that stopped accepting unemployed people on the Mandatory Work Scheme is ‘now suffering inadequate staffing issues and reduced revenue’; that sounds very much like the mandatory workers were “real” workers who should have been employed and paid.

Boycott Workfare is maintaining a name and shame list of workfare placement providers. If anyone knows of archaeological or cultural heritage organisations that use forced unpaid labour, let me know! (I’d also be interested to hear if you’ve been forced to do professionally-irrelevant work-for-welfare.)

[Originally posted on conflict antiquities]

  1. […] entire institutions to the wall. Following on from my post on coincidences of and clashes between “unpaid voluntary work” and “workfare” (work-for-welfare), I wanted to provide more substantial evidence for my fears that, in the Big Society, […]

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