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Workfare:  Don’t think a job will mean you’re safe

With workfare likely to crumble, it’s time to get our cudgels out for another nasty piece of work compulsion looming on the horizon – the expansion of ‘conditionality’ to those receiving in-work benefits.

Universal Credit (UC) will replace benefits such as working tax credit and housing benefit. Part-time workers, low-waged workers and self-employed people whose profits are deemed too low will now face sanctions and harassment.

But there’s not been much publicity about this outside of a Guardian article published last November and several blog postings, including this recent one from the North East Child Poverty Commission.

Says Lord Freud: “We are currently able to impose requirements on existing JSA claimants who are in some work and we need to retain this capability. Obviously, we are interested in doing more and extending conditionality to claimants who are in relatively substantive levels of work but who are nevertheless capable of working more.”

Previously, if you worked more than 16 hours you were out of the sanctions system. All benefits were purely based on income. But the dubious architects of UC want to abolish the distinction between unemployment benefits and in-work benefits. If the government has its way, the punishment it metes out to the workless will also be imposed on workers – for not making enough money!

Under UC, the earnings threshold for conditionality will be ‘gross taxable pay’ set at the national minimum wage for a 35-hour week, which comes to £212.80 per week or about £11,000 per year. The conditionality threshold for lone parents and possibly those with ‘work-limiting health conditions’ will be £120 per week. Anyone earning below these thresholds could be subject to conditions, which would force them to seek full-time work within 90 minutes travel time from their home.

Implementing the bizarre

Go figure. When the thrust of policy is driving wages down, the government  and the DWP now wants to push us to earn more. Workers in retail may really suffer, given that their hours and wages are already being affected by the flow of free labour from workfare schemes.  

And just how will they impose this regime? Will they force people to give up part-time jobs that have better wages and conditions to take on full-time jobs that pay much lower rates? Will people be obliged to leave jobs where they’ve built up a pension? Could somebody be required to attend a training course that conflicts with their current work responsibilities? Will self-employed people have to give up their business to take up another job or go on a scheme?
 
There have been hints that claimants may be ordered to attend job centres or schemes on days they are deemed not to be working, but there is no conclusive information on this.

We can also look at the social care sector, where wages are low and a lot of work is part-time. Will a care worker be forced to give up a part-time job where they’ve developed an essential supportive relationship with their client?

Another issue lies in how they will they find staff to manage the thousands of new claimants. Will redundant teachers, librarians and white-collar workers be forced into roles policing these new conditions?

Links to workfare

This brings us to the ultimate absurdity. Will they force claimants to give up a low-waged or part-time job to work for nothing on a workfare scheme? Perhaps in-work conditionality has been slipping by unnoticed because it appears so ludicrous, often greeted with: “Nah… that will never happen. How will that work?” 

Everything is very vague, but mumblings in Parliament do indicate a relationship to the Work Programme. Said Chris Grayling: “Once claimants have left the Work Programme, we could then look to continue working with them to help them progress [Official Report, 26/10/11; cols. GC 295-96].

So, in-work conditionality may first appear as an extension to various workfare regimes. This conditionality will serve as a stick to keep beating claimants who move into a job that needs topping up. The groundwork for this may currently exist in the guise of the ‘in-work’ support promised by some scheme contractors.

The intrusive monitoring that this new conditionality involves could affect working life in many ways. We suspect the DWP’s plan to push working claimants into making more money does not extend to any initiatives to organise for better pay!

Previously, if you didn’t furnish the DWP with information about your new job when you stopped signing on, the company running your scheme would not be paid their bonus for allegedly getting you off the dole. But in-work conditionality can be a sly way of guaranteeing various firms of crooks their bounty.

Making work pay? Yes, it will pay very well for Igneus, G4S, Avanta and other poverty profiteers. Expanded conditionality will expand their opportunities to rip off taxpayers and exploit the poor and low-waged. But under these circumstances, will it pay for the people doing the work? Pull the other one – IDS, Lord Fraud and Chris “Workhouse” Grayling – and it just might give you a kicking.

‘Challenging targets’

Meanwhile, many part-time/low-waged/self-employed workers rightly regard their top-ups as their due. The DWP has noted this ‘problem’ in its research report, Perceptions of Welfare Reform and Universal Credit: "Many part-time workers were surprised that the Universal Credit proposition addresses them as they tended to perceive that they were already doing their bit and felt a strong sense of entitlement to tax credits". The DWP thus regards working claimants as “challenging targets”.

The DWP is definitely right about that. People who are already working, paying taxes and struggling to make ends meet won’t be receptive to anyone telling them they must work more. The contradictions of this final frontier of benefits coercion could very well trip up the architects of austerity and make them fall on their face… with a big push from us.

The initial introduction of UC is set for October 2013, though the phase that would affect in-work benefits is projected for April 2014 to late 2015. “Where possible, priority will be given to those households whose work behaviour is most likely to benefit from Universal Credit.”

Again, we are navigating through very murky waters. This could, as mentioned earlier, refer to those who are signing off JSA or mandatory schemes to work part-time or take up self-employment. Or it could mean those claiming in-work benefits who have incomes below a certain cut-off point. Or it could even be the opposite: those with incomes approaching the conditionality threshold may be first to receive an unwelcome letter through the door, with contractors working their familiar scam of scooping payments for claimants who are already well on their own way to getting a job or increasing their income.

The UC chopping block

Meanwhile, thousands of self-employed claimants of working tax credits have been ordered over the past year to provide proof that their business is ‘renumerative’ and they are working the required hours at it. Though the DWP presents such checks as routine, anecdotal evidence points to a massive sweep, perhaps in preparation for UC. This may also be an information-gathering exercise to determine whose head goes first on the UC chopping block.   

Lord Freud himself says conditionality for claimants ‘in substantive employment’ whose earnings are over current cut-offs for out-of-work claimants will be unlikely at the initial launch of UC. But he adds: “Before we extend conditionality to claimants with earnings above this level, we will run pilots.”

We’ll just have to keep an eye out for these pilots and make sure they’re grounded before they get a chance to take off.

From Lydia Molyneaux of Boycott Workfare.

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