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The new social workhouse? Workfare, the labour market, prison

By mute, 18 February 2012
Human resources. Image by Arts Against Cuts.

Workfare isn’t just an austerity measure, it’s part of a longer term restructuring of the labour market. That makes it all the more important to kill it while we still can.

Workfare has been kicking up a twitter-storm again lately. First with such joys as a permanent job stacking shelves on the Tesco night shift for your £67/week JSA, and unpaid ‘pre-employment training’ which is “mandatory; (...) Claimant informed consent is not required.” Then later it was announced that “disabled people face unlimited unpaid work or cuts in benefit.” This got me thinking. Workfare significantly pre-dates austerity. Labour introduced the New Deal in 1998 during the supposed ‘boom’ years, which was rebranded the Flexible New Deal in 2009. The idea was to ‘help’ people who’d been unemployed for more than 6 months back into work with ‘voluntary’ training and work placements. This went hand in hand with demonising the unemployed as work-shy scroungers – workfare was purportedly to get them back into work.

In the world of workfare, ‘voluntary’ of course means ‘we’ll sanction you if you refuse’. And if your JSA is sanctioned, it can interrupt other claims such as for housing benefit and cause serious cash-flow problems for claimants. The LSE professor who devised the New Deal was made a Labour peer – Baron Layard – and loads of private sector firms (many with links to Labour) got on the gravy train as ‘providers’. Notionally, this was about ‘helping’ people back to work in a context of relatively full employment and economic growth. The whole thing merrily rolled along until the recession hit, when the scheme was revamped and continued to do exactly the same thing – mandatory unpaid work on pain of losing benefits. Bizarrely, the rhetoric demonising ‘scroungers’ has escalated in keeping with the ratio of jobseekers to jobs. As someone pithily put it on twitter, “JOBSEEKERS: Empirically, there are no jobs, but ideologically, we have potential full employment IF YOU WEREN'T SO LAZY.”

The Flexible New Deal was extraordinarily expensive, and lots of firms – not the claimants obviously – made a lot of money out of it. When the Tories axed the scheme, they claimed it cost £31,000 per job. They promptly replaced it with their own Work Programme, which is essentially a rebrand of the same thing, only switching the provider contracts (presumably now to Tory-linked firms). The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) own report found that workfare is not at all effective in achieving its stated aims of getting the long-term unemployed back into work:

There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers. (…) Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.

So either successive governments and the ruling class in general are really stupid, and they keep pouring money into hugely expensive and ineffective schemes, or this really isn’t about ‘helping’ jobseekers and creating jobs at all. Another point strikes me here. Someone recently wrote on twitter that “you can’t have US levels of inequality without US levels of incarceration.” This really resonated with the plans to criminalise squatting, as well as the law and order backlash after the August riots. For context, below is a graph of the US prison population. The massive rise is more or less engineered by the ‘war on drugs’. The massive increase in prison capacity has been met by private firms, covering their costs with low wage prison labour, which is apparently a booming sector of the economy, particularly for war production (helmets, webbing etc).

Back in the UK, according to a 2008 Ministry of Justice report, prison labour already:

• provide employment places for some 10,000 prisoners in 370 workshops;
• provide some 12 million hours of activity per year;
• have an estimated value of production of over £30 million at market pressures, largely saving the Service external procurement and therefore releasing resources for other priorities;
• generate income of some £6.5 million per annum from external sales – mainly through contract services workshops.


We now plan to increase the range of constructive work available to offenders inside prison, and in turn their job opportunities on the outside. We have an existing corporate alliance with more than 70 employers, in addition to those working in individual prisons and probation areas, but the Government is now committed to expanding this programme significantly.

These plans – bound up with the proposed Titan prisons – collapsed due to a failure to get planning permission. But they do demonstrate that an expansion of prison and prison labour is certainly on the mind of the ruling class. The prison-building programme has been questioned by projections showing incarceration levelling off. But the same report found tougher sentencing could see an additional 9,000 people locked up by 2016. So the plans are likely to re-emerge in some form. Even if prison-building stalls, there could well be a push to privatise prisons as part of wider public sector cuts. Private prison providers are likely to want to maximise their profits by leveraging cheap and compliant labour. It’s not hard to imagine G4S or their ilk running a prison and being told to balance the books by exploiting prison labour.

Of course, like workfare, low wage prison labour is ‘voluntary’. But compliance will certainly help your chances of an early release, while resistance could conceivably add to your sentence. What Erik Olin Wright says in 'The Politics of Punishment' about prisons could equally go for the logic of workfare:

Contemporary prisons in the United States can be described as liberal totalitarian institutions. The apparent paradox in this expression reflects the contradictions that pervade the life of prisons. They are institutions which, at least formally, have adopted the liberal goal of rehabilitation, while maintaining totalitarian control over the lives of prisoners. Moreover, they have adopted a variety of liberal programs (the indeterminate sentence, therapy programs) which in practice often serve to further the totalitarian goal of changing prisoners into strict conformists to authority.

Workfare is not prison (or the other common analogy, slavery). But there is a similar logic at work, which is at once liberal and totalitarian. Workfare notionally aims at reforming the unemployed into employable wage labourers through training and work experience. But in practice, it does little to help people find work, and even replaces minimum wage jobs with workfare ones (shelf stacking etc). That is to say its real object is to produce conformity to the diktats of the flexible labour market, both for those on it and those who fear falling into it. The ever-present threat of sanctions betrays the totalitarian aspect of workfare liberalism, and its supposed ‘voluntary’ nature (that wonderful phrase of ‘no informed consent required’).

Just over a decade ago, the shift towards workfare prompted a pamphlet titled ‘Stop the clock! Critiques of the new social workhouse.’ The title riffs on the idea of the social factory, a claim by dissident Marxists in the 1970s that the whole of society was replacing the factory as the site of both production and anti-capitalist struggle. The subsequent development of workfare, casualisation and prison labour fleshes out this claim. The workhouse is not the physical building of the Victorian era. It’s fast becoming a sector of the economy – or rather a tier of the labour market – in its own right. Those who fall through the cracks of normal wage labour (itself nothing to write home about), are increasingly being forced to work for their dole, or perhaps even criminalised and facing prison labour.

The whole thing is vastly expensive to the ‘taxpayer’, but for precisely that reason serves as a massive state subsidy to private capital. Directly, it provides cheap labour to businesses. Indirectly, it undercuts the minimum wage and disciplines those in waged work not to rock the boat lest they be cast into workfare. Perhaps the new social workhouse is a harbinger of an emerging state capitalism to compete with the low wage economies of South and East Asia. After all, the ‘knowledge economy’ turned out to be mostly hot air, and India has far more English-speaking graduates than the UK anyhow. Or maybe that’s just one possibility – if we don’t kill off workfare in its relative infancy.

Refusal of unpaid work is running at about 50% amongst claimants. However this was seen as a success by the government in cutting the dole bill, as refusal stops benefits. So ‘the refusal of work’ in itself doesn’t seem a viable strategy. In fact, the government seems to be counting on it to cut the welfare bill. But on another front, already Waterstones and Sainsbury’s have pulled out of workfare nationally. Poundland in Brighton pulled out after one picket. March 3rd is a national day of action called in solidarity with a Liverpool Uncut anti-workfare action. If the anti-workfare movement can capture half the momentum UK Uncut had at its peak, we could still derail workfare yet.