Following small scale pilots between May and July, HMRC is now rolling out the Movement to Work programme across the department. This scheme is just one incarnation of the workfare schemes the government is using to force claimants into unpaid work and needs to be opposed.
The scheme is specifically aimed at young people between the ages of 18 and 24, and sees them put to work for their Job Seekers’ Allowance for 4-6 weeks. There is an official target of providing job opportunities for 50% of participants, and the scheme is sold as an ‘opportunity to develop employability skills.’ However, as with all workfare, the hype and the reality are worlds apart.
All workfare schemes operate on the basis that claimants must perform certain work activities in order to ‘earn’ their benefits. As well as undermining the basic concept of social security by marking benefits out as something that needs to be earned rather than a basic safety net when people are out of work, this allows employers to exploit free labour and undermine the conditions of their own staff.
There are plenty of examples of other workfare providers using those on placements instead of giving their staff overtime (particularly in retail environments where part time contracts mean staff have to rely on overtime to achieve full time hours) or recruiting extra staff. Far from providing job opportunities, the schemes have overwhelmingly been a dismal failure resulting in claimants being chewed up and spat out. Either going onto another scheme or being sanctioned and impoverished.
In HMRC, that the department wants to utilise 1,000 placements this year and 2,000 next year while continuing to shed trained and experienced staff is an insult. If the department wants to support young people getting into work, it should acknowledge that it is woefully understaffed and offer these people genuine jobs while retaining the jobs of existing staff.
Instead, the department is still committed to reducing its headcount while farming out jobs to private sector providers and drafting in unpaid workers with no employment rights on an extremely short term basis to do the administrative jobs of the lowest grade staff who are being made redundant.
Those brought in on workfare during the pilots were given jobs involving ‘filing, linking, correspondence and data entry.’ In other words, the jobs currently done by the AA grade who are being culled wholesale through post room digitalisation and privatisation as well as office closures.
And if HMRC can call upon reserves of unpaid, non-unionised workers with no rights when it needs to, this will inevitably undermine PCS’s bargaining power and help with the continual drive to whittle away our members’ terms and conditions.
PCS has an established policy of opposition to workfare and has previously encouraged support for anti-workfare protests and activities. Now it is in our own back yard and it is vital that this opposition continues, and that it is defined by deeds as well as words.
This means that HMRC offices which utilise workfare placements need to be targeted for staff walkouts and external protests. Directors who sanction workfare should be faced with communication blockades. Those brought in on workfare need to be informed of their rights and supported by the union in every way possible. Strikes and industrial action on the job need to disrupt the day to day running of things in the fight over jobs and staffing.
Workfare is an attack on staff and an attack on claimants. It is in all of our interest to resist it fiercely, using the strongest weapon we have. Solidarity.