Workfare: Unexpected Intern in the bagging area

The truth of the matter is that the government cares more about statistics than genuinely tackling unemployment.

Children have a terrifically simple way of exploring the limits of adult knowledge. They do so by asking a question, then responding to each new piece of data with “but, why?” The, almost inevitable, ending to this line of questioning is either “because I said so” or “I don’t know, that’s just how it is”.

James O’Brien on LBC seems to have elicited similarly impatient but illuminating responses from Iain Duncan Smith on the subject of workfare. Talking about Cait Reilly, who was recently successful in challenging the legality of the state compelling her to take an unpaid placement in Poundlad, Smith declared: “She was paid. What do you think the taxpayer was paying, for God’s sake? Job Seeker’s Allowance? That is what we are paying her to do.”

The interview reveals the dark heart of the matter when it comes to Work Experience, Youth Training Schemes, Mandatory Work Activity, Community Action Programmes and the rest of a panoply of such schemes. Smith ended up describing workfare schemes as “us allowing people to continue to earn their JobSeeker’s Allowance, but also to take experience in companies that allow them to do that.” That’s a lot of allowing; a lot of noblesse oblige.

However one chooses to dress it up, at the core of such policies is the idea that by paying a benefit the state (and by extension the taxpayer) assumes part-ownership of the labour of persons in receipt. I find this position irreconcilable with the ideological basis of a party which believes that the state needs to shrink to as small a size as possible and stand out of the way of individuals who wish to “get on”. The action does not match the rhetoric. What the state is actually doing is buying the labour of millions of people, en masse and below market rate, in order to then contract it out to large and profitable businesses for nothing.

Such schemes do not end the “something for nothing culture”. They simply elevate it to the corporate level. It is a paradox for traditional right-wing commentators who object to funding an individual’s benefits, to appear quite happy to cross-subsidise a huge conglomerate with global revenues of $100bn in 2010.

When opposition to the scheme was first gathering pace, Tesco explained that of the 1,400 people who have been made to serve them (because to use the verb “employ” would require some consideration on the part of Tesco), 300 got a job with the company. This means one of three things, all three very worrying. Either:

  1. Tesco were genuinely trying to fill 1,400 positions, but  were only capable of training roughly one in five people to stack shelves in six weeks. Or:
  2. There were only 300 positions in the first place (probably due to natural turnover, which I imagine is quite high), but Tesco decided they might as well conduct six-week interviews on our buck. Or:
  3. There were 1,400 genuine vacancies in the relevant stores, but why on earth would they fill them with paid employees, when they can have a rolling six-weekly army of 1,400 free ones?

The effectiveness of such schemes is also highly contentious. The government commissioned its own research before implementation. It concluded:

There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers. Subsidised (“transitional”) job schemes that pay a wage can be more effective in raising employment levels than “work for benefit” programmes. Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.

Perhaps most importantly, these schemes are a state-form of denial; a particularly egregious case of ostrichism. We know from an official response to a parliamentary question that the Office for National Statistics includes people on such unpaid schemes in their data as “employed”. Such schemes are being rolled out on a massive scale. 370,000 unemployed were referred to the Work Programme in the first few months of its existence. Over a million people are expected to be caught by Community Action Schemes. The manipulation of statistics at such a scale may go some way to explaining the continuing disparity between rising “employment” and stagnating or contracting GDP.

Policy on these schemes has become axiomatic. It has become the art of “because I said so” or “I don’t know, that’s just how it is”. It has done so in the face of evidence to the contrary, creationist in its resistance to the truth. There is an overwhelmingly idiotic assumption at its basis; that the reason 2.5m jobless will not fit into 500,000 vacancies, is not mathematics, but a lack of willingness on their part. How can the state tackle unemployment if it is unaware of how many people are genuinely unemployed, where they are and which industries they are trying to find work in?

All this lays bare a stark fact: the Government is interested in the figures looking good, rather than genuinely tackling unemployment. For how can one solve a problem by hiding it in dark statistical recesses and denying it exists? With increasing job insecurity, that is something that should concern us all, regardless political persuasion.

 

Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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A night out at the Punderdome 3000

Becca Rothfeld watches Brooklyn’s best punners battle it out with headline writers from the New York Post.

Girls just want to have pun, so last week I headed to Punderdome 3000, an epic pun-making competition at the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea. The event pitted previous Punderdome winners against headline writers from the US tabloid the New York Post, best known for gems such as “Osama Bin wankin’” (when US officials unearthed Osama Bin Laden’s personal stash of pornography) and “Headless body in topless bar” (self-explanatory).

Broad-shouldered and apparently corporate types nursed overpriced cocktails while women teetered tipsily in heels. The crowd seemed ill-fitted to the proceedings, which wed the raucous atmosphere of a fraternity party with the cringing embarrassment of a high-school talent show. When the hosts, Fred Firestone and “his alleged daughter”, the local comedian Jo Firestone, called on members of the audience to complete a series of terrible puns, I braced myself for an evening of campy spectacle. “When chemists die, we . . .?” they cried, to which the crowd responded in unison, “Barium!”

Gradually the teeterers and I succumbed to the earnest charm of the punners, who competed under pseudonyms such as Daft Pun and Forrest Wittyker. In the first round, reigning Punderdome champions had 90 seconds to come up with two minutes of puns on a given topic. The results were assessed by the Human Clap-O-Meter, a device operated by a blindfolded volunteer who moved a pointer to reflect spectator sentiment. The rankings ranged from “rotten tomato” (near silence) to “punderful” (thunderous applause). Riffing on “the digestive system”, the punner Words Nightmare vowed not to date men without feet, as she’s “lack-toes-intolerant”.

A panel of “celebrity judges” offered input during the elimination rounds. There was Bevy Smith, co-host of the television show Fashion Queens; Pat Kiernan, a morning news anchor of the NY1 news station; and Éric Ripert, a chef of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Bernardin – a Frenchman who speaks English poorly with a thick accent and was an illogical choice of judge (“Between the accent and the not knowing what’s going on it will be hard, but I will romaine calm,” he assured spectators).

In the final round, Ally Spier (Words Nightmare) and Jerry Gwiazdowski (Jargon Slayer) faced two New York Post writers for high-stakes prizes: “New York bragging rights” and the contents of two “mystery boxes”. The teams were asked to come up with pithy headlines for a piece that originally appeared in the Huffington Post under the punless title “Student forgets to plug in his headphones while watching porn”. Clad in matching “Headless Body in Topless Bar” T-shirts, the Post writers held their own with “Oral exam”, “He got a D” and “He studied hard”. But the Punderdomers triumphed with “Audio-erotic”, “Wacks on, wacks off” and “Masterbeats by Dre”.

The event put a face to the anonymous voices behind a local institution. “At work, it’s work, but here, there’s so much enthusiasm that it’s not work, it’s just fun,” Billy Heller, the deputy features editor of the Post and a Punderdome 3000 finalist told me. It was a wonderfully weird and wonderfully shameless way to spend an evening in New York. 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism