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Cait Reilly, the graduate who was forced to leave her voluntary work in a museum to stack shelves at Poundland on the government’s Workfare scheme, has lost her case against the government.
Mr Justice Foskitt, at the High Court in London, said, “characterising such a scheme as involving or being analogous to ‘slavery’ or ‘forced labour’ seems to me to be a long way from contemporary thinking”.
What an interesting choice of words!
Back at the turn of the century, contemporary thinking stated that a woman’s place was in the home, and that she must never contradict her husband, take a job, or be allowed the right to vote. A few decades ago, contemporary thinking about homosexuality forced Alan Turing, the Bletchworth Park genius who cracked the Enigma code, thereby hugely boosting the Allies’ chances of winning World War II, to commit suicide.
Contemporary thinking has been responsible for terrible injustices and this is one of them.
I wonder if he really meant “contemporary thinking”, anyway. Did he, in fact, mean it’s a long way from what the government of the day thinks?
The judge ruled that Workfare does not contravene article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits forced labour and slavery.
A friend of mine looked up “slave” in the dictionary and found among its definitions the following: “A person who is forced to work for another against his will” and “A person who works in harsh conditions for low pay”.
I think we can agree that Cait Reilly was made to work at Poundland against her will (we’ll get to the failings of the DWP’s correspondence in a moment) and, while I can’t comment on the conditions, it is certain that her benefit payment was below minimum wage and therefore, by definition, was low pay.
So by dictionary definitions, she was a slave. Perhaps the judge was commenting on the fact that the legal definition needs to be rewritten?
It wasn’t all good news for the government, though. Although this scheme will remain unpaid, it seems it must be totally voluntary, and communications between the DWP and claimants must reflect this. In other words, the DWP must clean up its correspondence to make it clear that claimants can say no.
Those who have already had their benefits removed for refusing Workfare might now be entitled to compensation. Law firm Public Interest Lawyers, who acted for Ms Reilly, said more than 22,000 people had been stripped of their benefits for refusing Workfare by January 2012. By now (August) this figure may have doubled.
The DWP has announced that it will appeal against the decision. A spokesman has been quoted by the Guardian, saying: “We do not believe there is anything wrong with the original letters and we will appeal this aspect of the judgment, but in the meantime we have revised our standard letters.”
This begs the obvious question: If there was nothing wrong with the original letters, why change them?
The saddest fact about the case is that none of the above touches the real problems with Workfare.
It is not the taxpayers’ responsibility to pay the wages of people employed by a private company. If Poundland wants people to stack its shelves, it should hire them at a living wage, rather than ask the government to provide workers and pay them only in state benefits.
Poundland’s annual profit in 2010 was £21,500,000. Split among its 390-odd stores, that’s more than £54,000 – or enough to pay three extra employees, per store, on minimum wage, with cash to spare. Make it a decent, living wage, and that’s still two extra employees (with a lot more cash to spare).
It could be argued that Poundland has been providing a public service for the government by taking on Workfare jobseekers when it didn’t need any more employees. If this is the case, we must ask why Cait Reilly was promised a job interview at the end of it. The fact that the promised interview never happened, I think, also provides our answer: Poundland has been taking advantage of the scheme to get cheap labour.
If that is true, then the company has gained financial benefit from having Ms Reilly – and others on Workfare – stacking its shelves. Poundland has made money from it, so Poundland should pay all those working for the company a decent wage – including those on Workfare who have helped create that profit.
If this does not happen, then no employer in his or her right mind would think of paying the full amount for an employee when they can get them on Workfare instead, and have the taxpayer foot the bill. Workfare is therefore a way of ensuring that the current lack of full-time jobs continues into the future.
At a time when the government is complaining that the benefits bill is too high – and trying to blame that on so-called workshy scroungers fraudulently claiming they are disabled (fraud rate on those is less than 0.4 per cent) – it is insane for ministers to send those on benefits to work for profitable firms at no cost to the employer.