Opinion Former Article

Workfare’s ‘state sponsored slavery’ condemned as Unite announces boycott

The country’s biggest union, Unite, has announced a total boycott of Workfare, the government’s work experience programme for young people aged 16-24 years of age.

Unite is the first union to announce that it will boycott the programme.

Denouncing the scheme as ‘state-sponsored slavery’, the union says that it will mount vigorous opposition to any attempt to enforce Workfare schemes on workplaces where Unite organises the workers. Under the scheme, unemployed young people will have their benefits stopped if they refuse a place.

Unite pointed to the evidence from the United States which shows that Workfare does not fulfil its aims of reducing the number of benefit claimants overall and has ‘zero effect’ in helping people back into employment (see below). Further, the multiplicity of schemes on offer and the lack of a common approach across the UK’s four nations reveals a lack of coherence by government about what it is trying to achieve for young people.

The union is calling instead for British business to follow best practice to build skills for the nation, pointing to the apprentice schemes in the automotive sector which offer paid, high quality training for tomorrow’s workers.

Announcing the boycott at the union’s conference in Brighton today, Steve Turner, Unite’s executive director of policy said: “Workfare shows this government is among the cruellest this country has had the misery to endure.

“Leaving one million young people on the dole is cruel, pricing them out of education is cruel, denying them the chance to leave home and start their own lives is cruel.

“The scheme belongs back in the nineteenth century, along with Oliver Twist and the workhouse. It is nothing short of state sponsored slavery – and this union will not be complicit in it.

“It is high time we asked, who does it actually benefit? Not the taxpayer, who is forced to pay the wages of privately-employed workers. Not the paid worker, whose job may be replaced by a benefit claimant forced to work for free. Not the benefit claimant, whose chances of getting paid work are not helped one iota.

“Workfare only benefits private companies, who get their payroll taken care of by the public purse, aided and abetted by a government incapable of growing our economy.”

A 1993 review carried out by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) in the US concluded that there is “little evidence that unpaid work experience leads to consistent employment or earnings effects” and highlights that workfare is least effective in a weak labour market. More recently, the government’s own peer review study, published in June of this year, found that Mandatory Work Activity ‘had zero effect in helping people get a job’.


For further information please call Alex Flynn, head of media and campaigns for Unite on 07967 665869.

Notes to editors:

Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with 1.5 million members working across all sectors of the economy. The union’s general secretary is Len McCluskey.

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