From the current edition of the Big Issue in the North magazine - please buy the magazine when you see a seller.
The YMCA has defended its involvement in the government’s workfare programme after it was among a number of leading charities heavily criticised by welfare rights campaigners.
Under workfare, individuals must undertake work in return for their benefit payments or risk losing them.
Workfare had come to an end in Britain in 1948 when workhouses introduced in 1834 were abolished. Inmates had performed a range of tasks, such as sewing and weaving, in return for relief. However, the last Labour government introduced the New Deal programme, under which claimants lost their benefits if they failed to take up full-time education, voluntary work or a job placement with companies that included Primark.
The current government has expanded workfare. These now include the mandatory work activity placements that last four weeks, which a Department for Work and Pensions report in 2012 showed did nothing for participants’ long-term job prospects.
Many of Britain’s major companies, including Asda, Greggs and Poundland, are known to have used or be using workfare. The same is true of many national charities.
Boycott Workfare, an organisation committed to “ending forced unpaid labour for people who receive welfare”, has condemned charities that provide community work placements under workfare. They include the Shaw Trust, Groundwork UK, the Salvation Army and the YMCA.
In December, the Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty blockaded a Salvation Army store in the city for two hours after a member of its group was forced to work there or lose his benefits. The charitable organisation responded to its critics by stating: “It is offensive that volunteering and work experience can be referred to as ‘forced labour’ as we help support victims of human trafficking who go through unimaginable ordeals.”
Liz Wyatt from Boycott Workfare said: “The motivation for many charities using workfare is because they can’t find regular volunteers who can commit to more than one or two days a week. Workfare provides an endless stream of workers at little cost to charities, who often become reliant on workfare workers to operate.”
Through the mandatory work scheme some charities can receive payments – normally around £50 week – while some also boost their income by administering schemes. The latter includes the Shaw Trust, which The Big Issue in the North approached without success for comment.
YMCA England does not receive any payment in exchange for work placements in its retail shops and community construction and gardening projects.
The organisation has justified its workfare involvement by claiming participants may get their first experience of a work environment or acquire new skills to allow them to get back into work.
A YMCA spokesperson said: “We have read media reports of bad experiences through workfare but we find it difficult to condemn any scheme that carries the potential to help individuals gain new skills or prepare for future employment.
“Anecdotal evidence reveals many people on our projects have progressed into paid roles within YMCA or in other organisations. We cannot provide any figures as YMCAs are independent charities.”
The spokesperson also defended the use of benefit sanctions against claimants who did not comply with workfare.
“Many young people felt sanctions could provide motivation to get some people into work,” said the spokesperson. “However, we have supported people not wishing to work at the YMCA to return to the Job Centre and find an alternative role.”
But Wyatt said there is “no evidence that unemployed people or society at large is benefiting from charity involvement in workfare”.
She added: “No wonder therefore that many charities have withdrawn from the schemes as the public are angered by their involvement.
“There is no evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work when there are so few jobs anyway. Workfare is about pushing people deeper into poverty and any charity that doesn’t recognise that is the case isn’t worthy of the name.”
In October last year, the Chancellor, George Osborne, said there was “no option of doing nothing” for welfare payments. He announced a £300 million nationwide scheme to force 200,000 long- term unemployed to undertake community work, attend a job centre every day or undergo an intensive programme to tackle their failure to find work.
Osborne’s statement came in the same month as it was revealed that benefit payments had been suspended 580,000 times to people who were ruled not to have done sufficient to find work in the previous 12 months.