Letters to the Editor, ‘Stormont votes for unpaid labour’

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Wednesday, August 15th, 2012
Letters to the Editor

Dear Editor,

In a mixed judgment, the High Court in Britain on Monday [August 6th] ruled that regulations through which the British government has created many of its ‘Workfare’ schemes are lawful but that the decision of the Department of Work and Pensions [DWP] to strip clients of benefits for six months for refusing to undertake compulsory work was unlawful.

These highly controversial schemes expect unemployed people to work for no pay beyond their job-seeker’s allowance.

The case was brought by 23-year-old Cait Reilly who participated in the “sector based work academy” scheme against her wishes and 40-year-old Jamie Wilson who refused to participate in the “Community Action Programme” when he was told that he had to work, cleaning furniture, without pay for 30 hours per week for six months.

Mr Wilson objected to carrying out compulsory unpaid labour. In May 2012 Mr Wilson was informed that as a result of his failure to participate in the scheme he was to be stripped of his job-seeker’s allowance of £70 a week for six months.

The judge held that the withdrawal of Wilson’s dole was unlawful though merely because the DWP had failed to inform him of the consequences of not participating in the scheme.

Solicitors from Public Interest Lawyers, who took up the case on behalf of Reilly and Wilson, argue that tens of thousands of people were stripped of their benefits in this way and could have cause to demand rebates.

Tessa Gregory of Public Interest Lawyers said about the case, “The Government’s mismanagement of these flagship reforms has resulted in a complete shambles where nobody understands the plethora of schemes that have been created and where the only ones benefiting are the companies getting free labour. Nothing has been done to improve the employment prospects of those like my clients.”

Gregory added, “We continue to maintain that the Regulations themselves are unlawful and ought to be quashed. We are seeking permission to appeal the Court’s findings in this regard.”

A spokesperson for the DWP has said that they will also appeal the judge’s decision in favour of Wilson. In response to the judgement, Tory MP and secretary for work and pensions Iain Duncan Smith said, “Those who oppose this process are actually opposed to hard work and they are harming the life chances of unemployed young people who are trying to get on.”

This recent current court case attempting to have workfare ruled illegal is unlikely to be the last legal challenge to unpaid labour. If workfare is ruled to be unlawful at any point then companies who participate in the scheme may find themselves with a huge wages bill.

It is interesting to note in this context that the Stormont administration voted on July 2nd, just before the start of its summer recess, to introduce the British Tories’ workfare programme through the work experience scheme.

The scheme will initially focus on 18-24 year olds in the Six Counties, 26,000 of whom have never had a job since leaving school or college, but will be expanded to include all working-age people.

It will require job-seekers to work up to twelve weeks in order to obtain their dole, which at its most amounts to £56.25 per week for under-25s. The scheme also includes the power to sanction job-seekers, including stripping them totally of their job-seeker’s allowance.

Stormont social development minister Nelson McCausland said that the scheme will boost participants’ employability and prospects. At a first glance, this would seem welcome with the unemployment rate standing at 12.2 percent in the Six Counties and with under-25s making up almost 30 percent of those on the dole.

However, one need only look at the ‘achievements’ of the Steps to Work programme to see Stormont’s powerlessness to deal with youth unemployment.

The Steps to Work programme was introduced by Stormont in 2008. It is a mandatory scheme, in which young people under 25 are sent to work in a placement for up to a year. In exchange for this they receive their dole payment plus an extra £15.38, giving them a maximum weekly wage of £71.63.

That programme was also brought in with the stated purpose of helping young people find work, but of the 85,000 youths who have taken part in the scheme since its inception, only 19,743 (just under a quarter) found work.

Those figures should not be surprising. In May of this year, there were only 2,669 ‘live’ vacancies available to people seeking work in the Six Counties.

The Workfare programme of the Tories and the Stormont administration has failed utterly to create serious employment for young people or to deal with an unemployment crisis that continues to worsen with each passing day.

Almost 11,000 jobs have been lost in the private sector in the Six Counties in the past two years and all economic predictions indicate that figure will continue to grow. That figure does not include the number of jobs lost within the public services sector as a result of Stormont’s implementation of widespread cuts.

Out of the thousands of private sector jobs that have disappeared between March 2010 and March 2012, the greatest losses were in the construction and retail sectors, which lost 5,710 and 5,820 jobs respectively.

One example of just how many people in the Six Counties are searching for work can be illustrated by the sheer mass of people who recently applied to work at a new 24-hour supermarket in Portadown, which is not due to open until November this year.

The initial recruitment process for the 450 jobs that will be available in the county Armagh town commenced last month on July 2nd. Three weeks later, over 11,000 applications had been received – a figure equal to the total number of job losses in the Six County private sector during the last two years.

Workfare has already succeeded, however, in creating an army of unpaid labour for the likes of McDonald’s, Asda, Tesco, Primark, Topshop, Argos, Poundland and more. There have also been many cases recorded in the Six Counties and in Britain of employed workers having their hours slashed and losing overtime as bosses bring in those on workfare instead.

The workfare programme is yet another example of corporate welfare, using the current crisis in capitalism to attack the conditions of the working class – both those in employment and those on job-seekers – for the benefit of companies that continue to rake in outrageous profits every year.

This programme must be resisted. While there have been several small victories already in the campaign against workfare, it still needs to be given the death blow quickly and decisively.

Eirigi


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