Friday, 13 March 2015

Is all fare in charity sector?

Why are charities using forced labour in their shops? Mark Metcalf investigates 

Workfare programmes involving charities do not help unemployed people find work and exploit those forced on to them. So say welfare rights campaigners and benefit claimants who worked on them.
Workfare – where people are forced to work in return for benefits – has a long history in Britain, with workhouses lasting from 1834 to 1948. Workfare was re-introduced by the last Labour government and has been hugely expanded by the current government, with all three major parties committed to more expansion if they occupy 10 Downing Street after the May general election.
Critics of workfare claim it punishes claimants, forces down wages and replaces paid employment. The rise in workfare has been accompanied by huge sanctions against claimants for breaching benefit rules, with over 918,000 claimants sanctioned between April 2013 and March 2014.
Since June 2011, around 1.6 million people have taken part in workfare programmes. Many of these have undertaken community work placements with national and local charities, including the Salvation Army, YMCA and Mustard Tree.
Three claimants who have been required to undertake unpaid work with charities are Ray, Barney and Tom (not their real names – they fear they may face sanctions if identified). Ray worked as a chef for a decade before returning to college and completing a computer qualification just prior to the 2008 financial crash, following which he was unable to find work for over three years.
Ray was told he would have to take part in a mandatory scheme, the Steps 2 Work programme — now known as Steps 2 Success. Aware of his catering experience, a training agency placed him for nine months in the kitchen of Age Concern’s day centres. He was one of seven workers, of which four were paid. When he complained that rather than using his catering skills he was restricted to washing dishes he claims a supervisor threatened him.
“I got changed, walked back to the Job Centre and made a formal complaint,” he says. “I was removed from the Steps 2 programme but had to make a fresh benefits claim, which took two weeks to process. I had to borrow money from a relative to pay my rent and bills. The Department for Work and Pensions later dismissed my complaint.”
Barney has had numerous experiences of workfare. He has kept a detailed record in order to ensure that if he is threatened with the loss of his benefits he can appeal. This is what he did in September 2014 after the Job Centre told him it doubted he was actively seeking employment. He overturned this in 10 days by submitting a Mandatory Reconsideration request consisting of ten pages of documentation listing job searches and applications.
“I was placed with a training agency in 2008 that could not even help me set up an email account despite me being with them full time for 13 weeks,” says Barney. “In February 2009 I began 13 weeks of unpaid work with a charity-funded furniture shop. I unsuccessfully applied to many other places for paid work. With just two weeks of my placement left I was receiving hints that I might get a warehouse supervisor position as the previous one had left. I carried on volunteering for the next year – I was basically doing the supervisor post. I eventually realised I was being exploited and there never was any real prospect of the charity trustees paying me.”
Since leaving, Barney has had calls from training agencies asking if he has found a job – if he has they get a fee of £2,000. “These agencies are hopeless and should not be getting a bonus if I find work as they have been of no use,” says Barney.
Tom agrees. Unemployed for six months, the experienced personal assistant was shocked by his experiences when he was instructed by his Job Centre to attend the offices of Seetec, a workfare provider. “The agency employee was half an hour late and there were 40 claimants, including a scaffolder, a baker and a hairdresser, in a room not big enough for 20. It was clear that no attempts had been made to match any individual’s skills and experience with the placements that we were told would start the following morning at local charity shops.”
The two managers were helped in running the charity shop by a team of volunteers. Tom claims that when he arrived at the shop the assistant manager said to the manager: “There’s another one of them here.”
There were three workfare placements at the shop, including one who had previously worked as a professional animator and another as an IT manager. Tom could not see how performing a shopworker’s duties, lugging around heavy bags of rubbish and sweeping up, was helping any of them. When one had an accident outside work hours his A&E visit prevented him reporting at the appropriate time and he missed a day at the shop. He was sent packing the following day. Claiming back travel expenses was to be done during lunch breaks but the training agency only paid out at 3pm-4pm.
Tom was sacked in his second week. “The paid staff and volunteers did not want those of us on workfare in the shop. I was accused of stealing some stock and although I managed to calm everything down and get the manager to admit nothing had been taken I was informed later the same evening by Seetec that I had been dismissed for theft. My Jobseekers Allowance was sanctioned for three weeks as a result.
“I did apply later for a charity shop manager’s job but at the interview I was told my lack of previous experience of management in a retail setting counted against me. So much for learning new skills to help me back into employment!”
Boycott Workfare is committed to “ending forced unpaid labour for people who receive welfare”.
The organisation has condemned charities that participate in workfare. Recently it organised a demonstration outside Manchester-based homeless project Mustard Tree for its involvement in the Mandatory Work Activity Scheme for jobseekers, lasting up to 30 hours a week over a four-week period.
Boycott Workfare accuses Mustard Tree of participating in a system that contributes to homelessness and “actively supporting a regime of forced labour that punishes and starves those who choose not to be involved”.
Adrian Nottingham, chief executive officer for Mustard Tree, has defended the organisation’s involvement, saying: “Many of those who join us from this particular scheme are not ready for employment and would fail to hold down a regular job... We believe that many of those who have been with us have felt their lives enriched by the opportunities made available.”
Many charities and voluntary organisations are opposed to workfare and 514 have signed
up to an agreement that states: “Volunteering is where people independently give their time freely to help others... Workfare schemes force unemployed people to carry out unpaid work or face benefit sanctions. We believe in keeping volunteering voluntary and will not participate in government workfare schemes.”
A Boycott Workfare spokesperson says: “It is great that so many charities understand that compulsory work placements backed by the threat of destitution should have no place in their sector. We believe Mustard Tree should join them and we hope other organisations who deal with the charity will be making clear their objections.”
FC United of Manchester, the community football club, holds an annual collection for Mustard Tree at one of its games. Members of the club are to consider a motion next month to sever ties with it but hope it will voluntarily give up workfare beforehand.
“No charity should have any involvement in any mandatory work placement as it is forced labour that shames everyone involved without doing anything to help people obtain properly paid employment,” says Ray.

Charities respond
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.”
A Salvation Army spokesperson said: “We have seen first hand the positive benefits people gain from being in work, volunteering or taking part in a work- experience placement, becoming part of a community where you are building your confidence, job skills, and discovering new things about yourself.
“As a locally-based church and charity, we offer support to help people become job-ready, to get a job and to stay in work. As such, we are involved in the Work Programme, helping people furthest from employment, or who have been unemployed for a long time, through every step of their journey to be job-ready and to stay in work. Many people we support have complex needs.
“In some of our charity shops and centres we offer one-month work placements (MWA), which give people a chance to gain some work experience and a reference they can use when applying for jobs. We realise these placements undertaken by people whilst on benefits are controversial, but we have found that they give people confidence and new skills.

“We have declined to take part in Community Work Placements that are targeted at people coming off the Work Programme to undertake unpaid work for six months. We don’t feel that this longer period helps people overcome the barriers they are facing in getting a job. We do make our views known to government and expressed our concerns about Community Work Placements to a government minister last week.”

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