The government’s change on the rules for its work experience scheme was marked in a Guardian headline as a “U-turn”. Brendan Barber, the TUC General Secretary, described it as a “climbdown” and Socialist Worker called it a “retreat”. In the Guardian’s small print the new emphasis on ‘voluntary’ rather than ‘mandatory’ is described as a “relatively minor concession” and all those campaigning against the government’s schemes are well aware that sanctions for refusing work placements are still in place for Mandatory Work Activity and the Community Activity Programme.
In reality, the change came because of pressure from big businesses who didn’t like what was happening to their reputations. It’s not good for the image if there’s an impression that you have young employees who are working for you for nothing and under threat of having their ‘benefits’ withdrawn. Sainsbury’s, BHS, HMV, Waterstone’s and a number of charities had already left the scheme, and others were threatening to. Although David Cameron spoke of the need to “stand up against the Trotskyites of the Right to Work campaign” it was the withdrawal of business co-operation that proved decisive.
The government claimed that there were very few sanctions taken against those on work experience schemes. From January to November 2011 of 34,000 on work experience placements 220 had been punished with the withdrawal of two weeks benefits. This rather misses the point. Firstly, if you’re under 25 the current rate for Job Seekers Allowance is £53.45 per week, so you’re already going to be struggling to make ends meet, regardless of whether you’re on a scheme or not, and before you’ve been fined. Secondly, there is no evidence that any of the schemes actually work. Research shows that there is the same outcome, in terms of coming off benefits, for those with or without the unpaid work experience. Of 1400 who had placements with Tesco’s, for example, only a fifth were offered permanent jobs. Thirdly, and most importantly, all these government schemes are part of a policy of intimidation toward the unemployed, to stop them claiming benefits, and, now, just passed by parliament, to impose limits on what can be claimed.
The Work Programme is one of the most notorious government schemes. Where Mandatory Work Activity involves compulsory unpaid work for up to eight weeks, and the Community Activity Programme can send workers for up to 30 hours per week unpaid labour for six months, there is no limit at all with the Work Programme. This includes 300,000 people in what’s known as the work-related activity group and includes people who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer but have more than six months to live; accident and stroke victims; and some people with mental health issues. Last June Tory MP Philip Davies said that people who were disabled or had mental health problems should be paid less than the minimum wage because they were, in his words “by definition” less productive than those without disabilities. There was outrage at the time, but, in practice, those on the Work Programme can be made to work for an unlimited time for far less than the minimum wage, that is, for nothing. On top of this between September 2010 and August 2011 there were sanctions taken against 8440 people because of missing interviews etc. ‘Sanctions’ means loss of benefits.
The difficulties young people face in finding work have not been solved by the schemes of the current government or its Labour predecessor. Mass unemployment is all that’s on offer. With maybe 6 million unemployed, with another 500,000 public sector jobs to go over the next five years, and with even the official figures at their highest for 17 years, there are very few opportunities for young or old. There are more than a million young people between the age of 16 and 24, not in full-time education, who are not in work. Proportionately, and using the official figures, where 75% of older people are in work, of 16-24 year-olds only 66% are in work. Young people are more likely to be laid off, and find it more difficult to get a job because of a number of factors. Ultimately the problems they face are not just an array of dodgy government schemes but a capitalist system that offers none of us any future. That’s why the necessary struggle against new attacks on the unemployed needs to be integrated into the struggle of the whole working class to destroy capitalism.