‘how do we break workfare?’ conference report

On Saturday May 26th around fifty activists from around the country (although mostly the South-East) met in Brighton for a conference entitled ‘how do we break workfare?’. Here, Ollie Sutherland summarises the main conclusions of the conference

What is workfare and why we need to break it

Workfare is a direct and violent attack on regular working people. It is forcing those unemployed into unpaid labour to receive their benefits, claimed to be valuable work experience to make them more employable. However, the labour is things like stacking shelves – hardly valuable work experience, and is given to businesses (big or small) which have no intention of hiring more staff. In fact, because the businesses can get unpaid labour from the JobCentre or private work providers, they can fire existing staff who they have to pay minimum wage for. Some businesses, like Holland & Barrett, have explicitly said this is their aim – to exploit working people, using what is technically slave labour. The scheme originates from the government’s close ties to business: workfare is the state subsidising private companies, as in making people work in private companies to receive their benefits, the state is paying the workers’ wages (£2/hour or lower) while the businesses get free labour.

By making the labour market more precarious, workfare depresses wages across the entire labour market: it is not just exploitation of the unemployed, but of the whole working-class. This is class warfare: the intention is to further smash the confidence and organising potential of working people by making their work/survival even more precarious. This comes at a time when plans to make it easier for employers to fire workers are discussed, cuts to disability benefit extract the labour of people physcially unfit to work, and amid the recession and cuts private and public sector redundancies soar. All those three things work alongside workfare – capitalism’s drive for cheap labour by restructuring the labour market.

Workfare takes shape under five different schemes; all have the same goal (unpaid labour; class war) but operate differently. For more detail on these, see SolFed’s guide (note the blatant authoritarianism and exploitation of the Mandatory Work Programme).

Existing attempts to break it: successes and limitations

As amid protests a number of businesses have pulled out of the scheme, it’s clear we can break it. Many large copmpanies, such as Boots, TK Maxx and Superdrug have already pulled out due to grassroots pressure.

Direct action against the businesses has thus far been relentless: frequent pickets in front of retail outlets taking on workfare, reducing trade and giving bad publicity. The May Day one on Oxford Street involved hundreds and was fantastic. However, some businesses, like Holland & Barrett, have not conceded after multiple pickets – more action and pressure is clearly needed.

Looking at workfare in-itself, its survival up until now has been down to three factors: that people think it will help them get a job, its discrete and unclear nature, and the unemployed’s/working-class’ complete lack of confidence in fighting back.

But workfare’s survival is heavily dependent on how much it can hold out against protest and resistance. The main reason why it has survived until now is the relatively small size of the anti-workfare campaign. Clearly we need to expand it, which is addressed in the section below.

Not enough of the Left have mobilised to fight this attack on working people – it’s been mostly independents and SolFed (and the SWP briefly, when workfare was in the press); where have all the communists and others on the Left been? The official trade unions have been typically feeble, verbally condemning workfare but not organising anything. Some of the fakers/careerists have even supported it – ie the CWU at Royal Mail.

New tactics, strategies and considerations

The main aspects discussed here were: education/propaganda, organising the unemployed, trade unions, and direct action. I will deal with each generally here, as they overlap a lot.

An important starting point is education: people need to know what workfare is and why it’s bad in order to oppose it. As detailed, lots of the lack of resistance is due to people’s ignorance about it – we need more efforts on educating people. Public leafletting and conversation is effective, especially when picketting workfare-involved businesses. We should extend this to outside the JobCentre. Perhaps most important is education in workplaces that take on workfare – so workers themselves can see the cancer of workfare in their work-place and organise internal resistance. Educating people about workfare sounds easy, but is difficult in practice when we have the government’s/media’s relentless propaganda in its favour; we need all the support (or dissent) we can get, so the education/propaganda war is vital.

Another aspect of this is finding out which places actually take on workfare – often it’s unclear. This is especially the case with small businesses and charities, as they’re often hidden away, but at the same time, it would be easier to break workfare there.

We need to organise within the trade unions and get them genuinely against workfare. Not let them take over and inevitably weaken the movement – rather use their communicative and financial power for organisation. Lots of unionised workers don’t see workfare as a problem (to the working-class overall or as how it will affect their own wages and conditions). This is where the unions should step in: making unionised workers recognise and oppose workfare in their workplaces, and of course helping them fight it. The unions’ money can be useful for getting people to pickets and demonstrations. This extends to organising the unemployed too: on strike days, having the union marches accommodate the unemployed alongside the PCS, NUT, etc.

Direct action has thus far been good and needs to continue. Numbers at pickets need to grow. Perhaps more wealthy areas need to be targetted, as more business/trade is done there, as well as middle-class shoppers likely to be scared away by a group of crazy, shouting lefties. A new tactic discussed was occupations: these can go even further than pickets at disruption, although carry the risk of being arrested. At any rate, police have been unusually feeble in their response to direct action thus far, so there’s hope there.

Pickets and protests, hopefully with the unemployed, should be extended to the workfare providers themselves – JobCentres and private providers like A4e, Ingeus, etc. Extending occupations to these places was also discussed, although we’d need a lot of confidence and solidarity to do that. Still, claimants refusing workfare and occupying JobCentres/private providers could be spectacular and perhaps be that one push needed to smash workfare.

Other tactics discussed were light-sabotage and communications bombardments. The former would be things like those forced onto workfare reporting on bad health-and-safety standards in the work-place, having accidents at work that really slow down production (ie dropping loads of food if forced to work at McDonalds), etc. The latter is important because modern business relies a lot on internet and phone communication – we can really mess with them bombarding thier communication lines.

Callouts for organisation

The week of Saturday July 7th, all groups/every person is asked to join the nationwide action against workfare’s worst offender, Holland and Barrett. More details closer to the time.

6 thoughts on “‘how do we break workfare?’ conference report

  1. I agree with the sentiments of this thread, but nothing in the way of immediate anti-workfare public policies have been put forward (although I have my own, very radical ideas).


  2. Jacob, believe me, we all have radical ideas, we just don’t like porridge every day.. Look on boycott workfare’s site and you’ll see what we plan to do, and when. Don’t feel shy, join in, and encourage others to do likewise. We’re on the case, and there’s power in numbers. Join in, have some fun, and know that you’re doing it for you, your friends and family, and those not even born yet. Fight the and know that you’re right. Adieu!


  3. I did some genuine volunteering today to help to man one of the stalls at the “Unite the Resistance conference Austerity & Resistance – the speakers this morning were Mark Serwotka PCS, John McDonnell MP, Gill George Unite NHC, Enric Rodrigo Madrid ‘Indignados’ movement, Themis Orfanakos a doctor in an occupied hospital in Greece….. none of these speeches mentioned “workfare” – and there were MANY trade union activists at this conference trying to awaken ‘Solidarity’ with the movements against austerity across the Globe – This meetings was helf at the Bloomsbury Baptist Church in Shaftesbury Avenue in central London – “The Unite the Resistance” conference aim was ‘to give activists and trade unionists a chance to debate how we take this fight (anti austerity) forward – surely it is in the interest to fight workfare as part of the anti-austerity union agenda – it doesn’t have to be a unions vs unemployed issue, because we are ALL suffering the same misery derived from the same people – I would have liked to have heard a representative for the ‘unemployed’ speaking to the audience of many union activists. It is the activists in the trade unions that we need to make our voices hear…


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