Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A good decision - but don't rely on courts to stop slavery

WHAT does the Con Dem government do when it is found to be breaking the law? It alters the law to suit. Just like that! No ifs, no buts, no democratic debate in parliament.

Appeal Court judges agreed yesterday that government schemes supposedly aimed at "helping" unemployed people into work by forcing them to take unpaid work for their benefits were legally flawed. University of Birmingham geology graduate Cait Reilly, 24, and 40-year-old unemployed HGV driver Jamie Wilson, from Nottingham, both succeeded in their claims that their treatment had been unlawful.

Mr Wilson was told that his Jobseeker's Allowance would be stopped after he refused to take part in the Community Action Programme, which his lawyers said would have involved him working unpaid for 30 hours per week for six months.

Cait Reilly is the young woman who had taken voluntary work at a local museum which she hoped would be suitable experience to help her find a job. But in November 2011 she had to leave this voluntary work to work unpaid at the Poundland store in Kings Heath, Birmingham, under a scheme known as the "sector-based work academy".

She was told that if she did not carry out the work placement - which involved stacking shelves and cleaning floors - she would lose her Jobseeker's Allowance. Cait argued that this breached the law against forced labour. As she said yesterday, she was not objecting to stores work as such -she has a part-time job now -  but she expected to be paid wages for it.

She might have added that at one time graduates like her would have been accused of "wasting their education" if they took such jobs for the wages. By taking her out of the museum job the authorities are depriving the community of services, just as by sacking library staff or teachers. And far from creating jobs, this scheme only encourages firms to not bother employing paid staff, when they can use people paid a pittance by the public, and provided free by the government.

Both the claimants lost their original case, but the Appeal Court judges have ruled that the government schemes were legally flawed. This was because the regulations behind the schemes did not comply with the Act of Parliament that gave the DWP the power to introduce the programme.

Last night however, while opponents of "Workfare" slavery were celebrating, the government was bringing in new rules so the unpaid schemes could continue while it appeals. It wants to appeal to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile pilot schemes affecting young people particularly are being introduced in London and Derbyshire.
"These new regulations mean there will be no break in the support we're able to offer jobseekers, and we continue to have the power to remove benefits from those who aren't serious about getting into work," said a spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions.

This is the usual lying from government. Every Job Centre and before that every Labour Exchange always had the power to stop a person's unemployment benefit if the claimant did not sign on as available for work, or was unwilling to take suitable employment which was offered. Then as job vacancies which the centres could offer started to dry up, the onus was put on the unemployed person to prove that they were actively seeking work. In a case like that of Jamie Wilson, under a scheme brought in during the 1990s he could have taken a part-time job for up to 30 hours and still claimed dole on top of his wages. This was to encourage people to accept part-time jobs, and it also reduced the unemployment statistics!

But now, when the government knows that unemployment has risen and been made worse by its austerity policies, it wants to keep up the pretence that people are out of work because of their own lack of skills or sheer laziness. The notion of "suitable" work is being removed, it is up to the applicant to make themselves suitable for employers, and to be ready to work without wages. 
Last night emplyment minister Mark Hoban said the government would carry on with its schemes and not pay out money to anybody who had lost benefit. 

But Nicola Smith of the TUC said this was a good time to take a step back and look again at mandatory back-to-work schemes.Tom Walker, employment law partner at law firm Manches, said: "This judgment upholds what is perhaps the key tenet of employment, namely the 'work wage bargain'. "If someone gives their labour to a company, they should be paid for it. However well intentioned a workplace scheme may be, it is very dangerous to introduce compulsory unpaid labour into the UK employment market."

Perhaps it is also a good time to look at whether the unions and Labour Party are doing all they can to unite the unemployed with those still in jobs, and oppose Workfare exploitation, rather than leaving it all to public interest lawyers and protest campaigners?

Last year at the annual conference of trade union councils, a resolution was adopted from the Greater London Association (GLATUCs) attacking the government schemes and the effect they had on the poorest people in society, and calling for a boycott of Workfare. I seconded the motion as it had originally come from Brent trades council of which I was a delegate.

An amendment from Merseyside calling for occupations of companies carrying out workfare schemes was also carried, although as Mick Houghton from GLATUCs who moved the main motion pointed out, we might need to be careful in applying such tactics. His own union, the CWU, had not opposed workfare persons being placed in the post office, and members might not welcome outsiders arriving unannounced to "occupy" their sorting office!

As it happened, despite the Merseysiders' impassioned speeches for "action", neither they nor conference voted to prioritise the workfare motion going to the main TUC later in the year (to which the trades councils are enitled to submit one motion), preferring one on "greenwash" and renewable energy. 

As for CWU, some members were recalling yesterday that the union's youth conference a couple of years ago refused to discuss the workfare issue.

The Merseyside amendment last year also included a call for unemployed and claimants' unions and Unite community branches to be brought into the fight.  As a member of Unite I certainly agree that the brances should back members refusing Workfare, and campaign against it. I will also be interested in hearing what the TUC response is to our resolution last year, and whether trades councils or other bodies have been supported in taking any actions such as occupations.

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