Why I struggle with the government work programme

Today’s Guardian reports that coachloads of jobseekers were brought to London to work as unpaid stewards for the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations. The participants were told to sleep, without shelter, under London Bridge, were made to change their clothes in public and were given no access to toilets for over 24 hours. The jobseekers understood they would receive a wage but, upon arrival, were told the work was unpaid and ‘if they did not accept it they would not be considered for well-paid work at the Olympics’. Not only has this security firm, Close Protection UK (CPUK), been granted similar contracts throughout the Olympics but this whole sorry affair was conducted as part of the government work programme for jobseekers.

I am sure many of the most unpleasant elements of this particular work placement scheme are not typical of the overall government programme. Clearly this, nonetheless disgusting, example of a work placement scheme does not represent the norm. However, there are two key elements of this case that are typical of the overall scheme. Firstly,there is a private company utilising the services of individuals who are desperately seeking work. Secondly, individuals are unpaid despite the evident existence of work needing to be done.

I have long had an issue with the government work programme and do not want to use the abnormal elements of this particular case as an exemplar. However, I will comment on the elements that are typical across the work placement scheme. Let me briefly outline why I find this work programme so repellent.

In the first instance, scripture states that ‘the laborer [sic] deserves his wages’ (Lk 10:7; 1 Tim 5:18, ESV). This statement is clear enough: where there is work to be done an individual ought to be paid. Paul even quotes the Jewish law which states ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain’ (1 Tim 5:18; 1 Cor 9:9, ESV). This is then applied to Christian workers – if God cares about the welfare of a working ox to the extent that he enshrines care for them in the law, how much more should we care for the welfare of working people – but has clear applications in the wider working world. Equally, in Malachi 3:5, ‘those who oppress the hired worker in his wages’ are listed on a par with sorcerers, adulterers and ‘those who swear falsely’.

In stark contrast to the scriptural requirement that a labourer is worthy of his wages, the government work programme appears to say the opposite. By asking individuals to undertake work for no pay, they suggest that a worker is not worthy of his wages. Indeed, they suggest the worker requires no wages because the work undertaken provides the individual with valuable experience. However, there is evidently valuable work to be completed – certainly if it is not valuable then the argument for it being useful experience goes out the window – and if a company wishes such work to be done, it should be obligated to pay for its completion. To do anything other is to stand in contradiction of scripture, to deprive an individual of their due and to inhibit them from undertaking work that will allow them to receive a livelihood. There is something eminently distasteful about private companies running a rolling placement programme without paying the individuals undertaking the work. In truth, if there is the work to be done there is no reason why such a programme cannot offer paid jobs rather than unpaid experience. If there is no work to be done, the experience can hardly be said to be valuable.

Those who, at a difficult time of recession, are struggling to find work were pushed toward a programme which is supposed to help them find a full-time role. However, most of the jobs on offer are not ones for which any prior experience is required. Shelf-stacking in Tesco and stewarding at events rarely requires previous experience and will do very little to offer individuals any advantage when applying for paid work. In the early days of the programme, individuals were threatened with the removal of their benefit were they not willing to participate. This strong-armed individuals into giving private companies free labour and ate into any time they had to search and apply for paid positions. Since the government u-turn on this element of the programme, the less savvy are still likely to feel the weight of pressure.

I am certainly not against the principle of offering those out of work a short-term placement to give them work experience and bolster their employment opportunities. However, if there is work to be done, the least we can do is pay the individuals who undertake it.