Fareshare's mission statement says that their volunteers create "nutritious meals for vulnerable people". Jim*, who was made to work for the charity under a government "Workfare" scheme, tells me how close he was to being one of these people. "It's hard to explain the feeling that we were one phone call, one sanction away from receiving the same food parcels that we were delivering to people."
National Volunteers' Week is drawing to a close. Thousands of UK charities participated by sharing glowing praise for their volunteers. Fareshare said, "Volunteers really are the lifeblood of FareShare – we call them our 'food heroes'". Also shared on the hastag were stories like those of people like Brian at DEBRA – a charity for people with the skin condition EB. Or Tom at environmental charity Groundwork Northeast, who boast of their "fantastic working relationship with the jobcentre". Or Jake at East Anglia Children's Hospices. A scroll through the hashtag reveals a heart-warming community of cute old ladies running food banks and grinning school kids doing Saturday shifts at charity shops.
A Guardian article published at the start of Volunteers' Week asked, "What makes some people likely to volunteer than others?" "Starting early" and "making [volunteering] meaningful" were some of the conclusions its author reached. But what about "the threat of losing your benefits, for at least a month"?
Many charities participating in Volunteers' Week are still using an often coerced, completely involuntary form of labour.
Community Work Placements are a part of the government's Help to Work Scheme. If, like Jim, your Jobcentre advisor diagnoses you with a "lack of motivation" to find work, you could be working for your employer for six months, completely unpaid. Refuse and you risk losing your benefits for either four weeks, or 13 weeks for a second offence. A Mandatory Work Activity is a shorter placement, lasting one month rather than six.
Fareshare told me that, "The focus [of work placements] should always be on providing the individual with quality training opportunities and the best possible chance of going into further training or employment in the future."
Jim paints a different picture: "I was told I had a Community Work Placement at Fareshare Northeast. I wasn't asked if I'd had any experience in warehousing. [I haven't]. The recruiter didn't even ask for my CV. It was simply a case of 'do it or you're getting sanctioned'."
I asked Jim what kind of training he received on the job. "I was basically told where the toilets were, and that I was starting at 7.30 the next morning."
Jobseekers' Allowance claimants have no choice over where they're sent, and have provided free labour to both charities and private companies. After a number of high profile legal defeats, the scheme was quietly scrappedlast year. However, many claimants are still forced to see out their six-month placements until October, when its replacement, the Work and Health Programme, comes into effect; Jim's placement with Fareshare finished in May.
Complying with workfare is one of the constantly multiplying set of conditions the claimant must fulfil in order to receive their benefits. Last year, it was revealed around six job seekers had faced some form of sanction.
Robert Norton, a former claimant I spoke to, told me that he chose to face the consequences of giving up his welfare claim, rather than work for six months' "bogus volunteering" in East Anglia Children's Hospice's (EACH) Thetford warehouse. Their website celebrates their "hugely valuable team of over 950 volunteers" who give "the gift of their time." They don't specify how many out of this number are workfare referrals, who are only giving up this valuable gift of free labour because the DWP twisting their arm.
"The sense of being literally controlled by a private welfare to work company was, to be honest, my breaking point," said Robert. "These schemes are nothing more than punishment for the unemployed."
As part of Volunteers' Week celebrations, Groundwork costed how much labour time their volunteers give them: they concluded it would, if paid, "equate to a payroll in excess of £700,000 if they were paid the minimum wage. A costly figure for any organisation." Actually paying a JSA claimant the minimum wage for a full six-month placement would cost £5,460. I guess it's pretty costly for claimants to miss out on this.
I asked these charities if it's fair to receive workfare referrals while celebrating volunteerism and broadly they argued that these schemes are beneficial for their conscripted claimants.
DEBRA told me that "The decision [to continue accepting mandated work placements] was made based on feedback from those involved in the scheme who deemed the experience to be positive and mutually beneficial for all parties concerned – within the last year DEBRA charity shops in the east of Scotland have employed three new paid members of staff all of whom originally came through work placements."
EACH said that "In our experience, those who join our team have positive experiences with us. People tell us they value the opportunity to gain work experience, learn new skills and build confidence."
Groundwork Northeast's statement can be found in full on their website they say, "Our team works closely with new customers to ensure we source placements that match their aspirations. All work placements emulate a real working environment with the added support of our team and the host organisation." Fareshare pointed to the fact that "many of the placements have returned as volunteers to FareShare after their placement period."
An activist with Boycott Workfare told a very different story. The group often receive complaints about work placements which are either unsuitable, or actively unsafe. "Claimants have often found workfare the biggest obstacle to receiving the training they seek. They've often been forced to give up existing voluntary work and training for compulsory schemes that are irrelevant and useless."
"We've also received a lot of complaints about health and safety conditions at charities. Claimants often feel threatened with sanctions if they speak out, and many have faced reprisals for whistleblowing."
Last year a Select Committee found last year that 70 percent of people remained unemployed after completing the Work Programme.
Jim tells me that he has himself been sanctioned in the past: "They said, 'he's talked himself out of a job', and I was sanctioned for a month. It was hard, because you've got nothing at all, no way of getting any money, unless you're criminally minded. Luckily, I wasn't in a position where I was gonna freeze or starve. But a lot of people are."
Whatever great, life-changing work a charity might be doing in other areas shouldn't be used to excuse a fundamentally exploitative working arrangement. No socially conscious organisation should prop up the culture of fear that Jim describes. "The Jobcentre are always using the term 'sanctions'", he told me. "It's this constant power that they have over you, so that you never question them."
*Jim is a false name
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