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The slanging match over workfare is getting us nowhere

What’s needed is constructive criticism of the work placement programme – and I have a modest proposal

You would imagine, with unemployment standing at a frightening 2.67 million, that companies with jobs to offer would be finding it easy to recruit staff. Apparently not. Some companies are finding it so difficult to track down good people, they need the government to help them, by mining its lists of those on jobseekers’ allowance for likely prospects and funding a period of “experience” while the prospective employer makes up his or her mind. Sadly, the state doesn’t seem to be terribly good at picking likely staff. Of around 1,400 people who have taken part in work placements at Tesco, for example, only about a fifth have been offered jobs when their placement is over.

For the right, such hapless, inefficient intervention by the state is anathema. When the private sector is left to make its own arrangements, neo-liberals never tire of pointing out, it functions better, to the advantage of all. The left? Well, the left is always keen to cheerlead for state intervention, no matter how perverse the outcome might be.

The fact that the opposite is happening during the rowdy debate over “workfare” is testament to just how dysfunctional the whole issue has become. In the case of the work programme, it is the right that, counterintuitively, is lining up to argue in favour of state involvement in the employment market. The left is rather less enthusiastic, to say the least. Suddenly, the Conservative party is not remotely interested in letting the market decide. In fact, it is clutching its pearls at the shocking suggestion that market decisions mean anything at all.

The market decided long, long ago, for example, that work as a shop assistant is not deserving of a very high salary. A low salary tends to indicate low-status work (unfortunately). The Conservative party appears to believe that even a modest wage is more than an honest day’s toil in the aisles of a supermarket is necessarily worth. People, the coalition appears to think, ought to be very happy to do this work at no cost to the organisation making a profit from the labour, in the hope that at some point in the future the experience gained from this work placement can be parlayed into a job.

How the Conservatives imagine that such a scheme is good for the status of work in retail, I cannot quite fathom. But they seem to. Conservatives assert that retail jobs are not held in low esteem because the market has decided they don’t deserve much in the way of financial remuneration; instead, the culprit is, apparently, “intellectual snobbery”. I suppose it was “intellectual snobbery” that founded the union movement and legislated for a minimum wage as well. It’s perhaps a good thing that I myself am no longer involved in the hiring and firing of people. Shamefully, if an unemployed person was sitting across a desk from me, explaining that they had done a few months at a rival organisation – one that took on new staff all the time – but hadn’t been considered worthy of paid employment at the end of it, I’d tend to view this as a somewhat negative detail, rather than a positive one. That makes me wonder whether the four-fifths of people who have completed Tesco work placements but leave with no job offer, have really been done such a wonderful favour.

Apparently, more than half of the people who have been on work programme placements have since come off benefits. Just think, if the private sector had been left to select people to work in their shops all by themselves, this figure could be even higher, perhaps even somewhere heading towards 100%, especially if their personnel departments were any cop at all.

My suspicion, actually, is that the personnel departments of Tesco are perfectly fine. My suspicion is that companies taking part in the work programme are being badly served by the scheme, along with the taxpayer. I agree that unemployment is bad for people. I agree that it can isolate and lead to mental health problems, such as depression. I agree that when people get out of the habit of full-time work, then it becomes more and more difficult to submit to the discipline of routine. I agree that multi-generational unemployment has to be urgently tackled, that it is worth taking poorly paid work in the hope that it will create greater opportunities down the line. I agree that working in a supermarket can be really positive experience. My first job was in a supermarket, as a 16-year-old schoolgirl, three evenings a week and a Saturday. I had a ball. It was great.

However, I don’t believe companies should be encouraged to abandon good business practice and adopt a scattergun approach to recruitment, taking on loads of people, at no cost to themselves, then cherry-picking the ones that suit them best. My understanding is that when people have been unemployed for a long period, there are sometimes good reasons for this. My understanding is that they need extra support in getting back to work. I’d be surprised if these back-to-work schemes were really helping those who need help most at all, but instead were helping those most able to help themselves anyway.

So my own modest proposal for a work programme is this. Yes, the government ought to be intervening in encouraging businesses to take on harder-to-employ people. But its approach needs to be much more intelligent and appropriate. How about this instead? If a company wishes to sign up to participate in a back-to-work scheme, it should not be provided with masses of people on short, unpaid placements. Instead, specialist personnel staff – hired by the company – should be financed by the state, with a salary, a budget and a brief that involves recruiting (at market rates) people who are risky or troubled, but deserve and want a chance.

Obviously, if an organisation proves unable to deliver financially viable results under the scheme, in the form of functioning members of staff rescued from the dole-queue, then it’s game over. But even if one of these staff-mentor types “handled” just a small number of new employees each year, the scheme would pay for itself quite easily. Benefit-savings alone would cover it. But savings on third-party private service providers – like A4e – would be huge.

The trouble with the work programme as it operates at the moment is that it puts out fire with gasoline. It offers companies a steady stream of free labour, just at a time when the emphasis should be on creating stable and lasting employment. But the debate around “workfare” has descended into a slanging match, with one side yelling “capitalist-pig slave labour” and the other yelling “stuck-up, leftist provocateur”. The current arrangement deserves criticism, but criticism that is constructive. Sadly, driving companies out of the scheme completely is about as destructive as it gets. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds