Now working part-time, volunteers part-time. Cares what happens to UK society full-time
This week there is an article in the Guardian discussing workfare titled ‘The charities who are challenging the government’s workfare programme‘ so I thought now was a good time to post about my own experience.
I was told to do workfare as a punishment for my benefit sanction. The adviser said my sanction indicated to her I needed to learn a work ethic and therefore I would be put on Mandatory Work Activity (MWA). MWA lasts for 30 hours a week for 4 weeks, 120 hours in total. DWP describes it as a “community benefit work placement” that is “intended to help claimants move closer to the labour market, enabling them to establish the discipline and habits of working life, such as attending on time regularly, carrying out specific tasks and working under supervision while delivering a contribution to the community.” The letter I received said it would help to ‘develop work-related skills and disciplines’ but really it was nothing more than Citizens Advice describe on their website – a work for your benefits scheme.
What is meant by that is ‘learning’ how to get to work on time, taking instructions and doing what you are told. Then ‘learning’ to go home at the end of the day.
My adviser didn’t bother to check that before my period of unemployment I had been in work for over 20 years, which I suggest shows a reasonable work ethic. She also didn’t care if the work was suitable for the employment I had been seeking. It didn’t matter to her at all. The only thing that was important was that I attend.
I struggle with a bad back after injuring myself playing rugby. In 99% of jobs I’ve done in the past it is not an issue, but the work I was assigned to do involved heavy lifting. The adviser had not checked my suitability for the placement and dismissed my complaint when I told her of my concerns. Instead I was warned that failure to attend would result in a sanction. Having just experienced a sanction and having had a thoroughly miserable time, this was a serious threat which I didn’t take well as I ended up in hospital having swallowed too much anti-depressant medication (More on that another day).
My workfare was carried out at Sedgemoor Furniture Store in Bridgwater, Somerset. It is a charity that collects and reuses furniture for people on low incomes or benefits. The letter I received said there would be training but on my first day it quickly became apparent this was not the case. The only ‘training’ offered was that of reading the health and safety document followed by a short test to show I’d understood it.
Work consisted of lugging furniture around, often for no obvious reason. We would assemble and dissemble tables simply to keep ourselves active. We would help customers move furniture into their cars and re-organise furniture to keep the place tidy and make space for new donations. Sometimes we would move furniture around simply to keep warm, as it was a really cold warehouse with little heating. The busy time was loading the van which happened first thing in the morning and again after lunch, and unloading it just before lunchtime and just before closing time. At lunchtime we were not allowed to go into town wearing any jacket or sweater with the charity logo. Their explanation being it was bad for their reputation and that volunteers had been attacked verbally in the past.
A few days in and we arrived at work to find one of the vans had been vandalised. Someone had slashed all the tyres and broken the windscreen. We were never told who it was who did it, although the staff seemed to have a good idea. Later we learnt that one of their previous employees had been let go and he had not taken it too well. There was a suggestion that workfare and community payback volunteers had replaced him.
Most of our time was spent sitting down drinking tea as we were not allowed to take any initiative and the more involved work was not trusted to those of us doing workfare. We quickly learnt that there was a pecking order and that workfare volunteers were at the bottom. Above us came those on community payback, above them genuine volunteers and those employed by the charity. The charity was run by a committee and every now and then one would pop in and order us about. We had no idea who they were as they never bothered to introduce themselves.
The people on community payback spread their hours over a longer period of time, often broken up by doing a college course, so they built up a trust with the charity and were given the more involved tasks. They did stock-taking, tested the newly donated electrical items and used the computer for admin and data input. They also got the ‘coveted’ job of going out in the van to collect and deliver stock. When we asked if we could do any of these tasks we were told there was no point as we were not there long enough so it was a waste of their time training us. So instead, we watched as the guys being punished for a crime did the work while those who had committed no crime, other than to be unemployed, did nothing… sending our self-esteem into an even steeper nose-dive.
While observing the charity one thing became apparent – the purpose of the charity is to serve people on very low incomes and benefits, but the most frequent sales were to landlords. They bought stuff to replace or furnish houses they had bought. A few of them came in more than once a week. They should not have been served, but the manager dismissed this by saying the users of the furniture would be on benefits and low incomes. It stuck in my craw that not only do landlords exploit the housing benefit system but they also exploit these charities to save themselves a few quid on furniture.
During our 4 weeks we often talked about the media. All of us were very aware of what the media said about workfare. In many respects this knowledge didn’t help as it reinforced the negative feelings we had built up. We knew that what we were being forced to do had been researched and proven to be a waste of time. The ‘benefit’ of workfare was not for the individuals doing it but for the politicians and the employers getting free labour. In fact, the charity, along with everyone in the workfare chain was being paid, except us!
In the 4 weeks I learnt nothing new and came away feeling it was a waste of time. My back ached constantly but more from standing around and drinking tea than from heavy lifting. The ‘work experience’ could not be used on my CV as it has nothing to do with the work I am seeking. Similarly, the people I was doing workfare with, one an engineer and the other a chef, also thought it a big waste of time. In fact, it made life harder as on top of the workfare we were expected to continue to meet our job search agreement outside of ‘work’ hours.
During our time the manager admitted that the only way the charity could break even was through workfare and community payback ‘volunteers’. The previous year they had made a £3,000 surplus because of our ‘work’. That fact didn’t make any of us feel any better. We felt we had hit rock-bottom. It was a thoroughly miserable time of our lives.
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