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What community organising can teach workfare

The left can't afford to seem snobby about opportunities, but employers have obligations too.

The left can't afford to seem snobby about opportunities, but employers have obligations too.{C}

"I'll be part of history," says twenty-seven year old Jesus with a shy smile. He's just landed his first job as a caterer for the Olympics, but he didn't get it through conventional channels. His college told him about it, and the interview was held in his local church. Community organising is stepping up to the unemployment challenge.

"It was way different to a job centre," he says, "They just give you paper - these guys gave me a chance."

News that unemployment benefits might be cut off if claimants don't do unpaid work experience has infuriated the left this week. But the real crisis is not conditionality.

The biggest problem is that if you walk into a job centre, you often face a cold, bureaucratic system that treats you like a number rather than a human being.

London Citizens has found a way of doing things differently. An alliance of faith, community, union and civic groups, they have managed to place 1,200 people in jobs at the Olympic site in Stratford at a fraction of the cost of most corporate workfare giants.

They started by making announcements from the pulpits of churches, in classrooms and through their other member institutions. If you were looking for work, you were invited to screening events where local community leaders offered training and advice. If you were ready, you were given a formal interview.

The hollow transaction people were used to having with a stranger in a job centre was replaced with a conversation with someone they already knew and trusted. Holding the interviews in familiar locations meant that people performed with extra confidence.

"They were coming in with groups of friends excited to be in places they owned and belonged to", says Tricia Zipfel, a member of London Citizens who helped organise the scheme through her Hackney Parish, "There was a kind of ripple effect that went out when people told their friends they'd found work, and more kept coming."

In the end some 1,280 people got jobs out of 1,747 who participated. Many were in the "hard to reach" category, but London Citizens said it cost them an average of just £60 a place.

When employment contractors like A4e are facing corruption charges and the government's workfare programme seems expensive and non-transparent, this is a refreshing change.

Of course the Olympics are something of a special case. Employers are desperate to recruit, and the jobs they offer are often low skilled and time limited. Jesus said he was working "in catering", but he didn't know more than that. London Citizens succeeded in making sure all the jobs were living wage, but we need more information. At the moment their report for the IPPR is startlingly thin.

But as David Cameron's speech today shows, the left can't afford to seem snobby about opportunities. If the alternative is loneliness and under confidence in the home, there is a case for making work compulsory for those who are able. Responsibility is something all humans need to flourish; it's degrading to expect less.

What the right misses is that conditionality shouldn't stop with the claimant. Employers have obligations too. If you force people to work, it's fair to pay a living wage, and to offer genuine meritocracy. Few people mind going in at the bottom if there's a genuine chance of making it to the top. Employers should invest in their workforce and offer more than tick box training.

And government has certain conditions to meet too. We need to make sure that those at the bottom are given dignity in work and some kind of say over the bigger decisions in the company through genuine worker representation. The state also needs to provide the best investment, infrastructure and policy environment for businesses of all types, so we don't just have a low wage economy with low skilled jobs to offer.

When those conditions are met, conditionality on the claimant won't just cease to be a problem, it might not even be necessary.

Rowenna Davis is a councillor, journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.