This week the Con-Dem’s have announced that the long-term unemployed will be forced to work by putting them on 30 hour a week placements. The work under discussion is labelled ‘manual work’ and includes ‘gardening’ and ‘litter-clearing’. Those who do not show up will have their benefits cut.
This decision is, of course, hugely controversial for lots of reasons- but it is a fascinating decision from a party who claims to want small government and limited public services. The Con-Dems are certainly not the first people to come up with this idea- the Americans did during the Depression of the 1930s; the Germans tried it around the same time and again more recently; the French did it after WW2. It still continues in many ‘Third World’ countries today. And, in every single case, the cost of running the programmes so outweighed any benefit to society, or to the unemployed themselves, that they became unsustainable. For good or bad, it is cheaper to let the unemployed sit in their houses on benefit than to make them work for those benefits- that is the historical reality.
And, so the question then arises, why does a government who is trying to massively cut costs- who is making people unemployed left, right and centre- want to plough huge amounts of money into such a programme? Do they seriously think that no one has thought about this before? One might presume it is because they have never read a history book. (Perhaps if they hadn’t so dramatically cut spending to universities, they could have asked an expert for their advice. As it is, we are waiting for our invitation to cut grass for free).
Given the types of work that the unemployed will be directed into that is being spouted by the government, it also raises huge issues about the ethics of such a programme. Why is it ok to make our grass-cutters (paid at minimum wage) unemployed, and then ask them to come back and do the same job for less than minimum wage now that they are on benefits? This is the very definition of exploitation. Today, modern volunteering good practice recommends that volunteers should not do the work of a paid employee for this very reason. Volunteering roles can support those in paid position; they can run projects that would not be feasible without volunteers- but they should not be used as unpaid labour or as a way to save money. This is believed to be exploitative and unethical.
Now it is very unlikely given historical precedent that a scheme that forces the unemployed to work will save anybody money- but, the question should still be asked- how is it morally justifiable to replace paid workers with the forced labour of those working- if not ‘for free’- at least, not on the same terms as paid labour? How can they justify taking away people’s jobs- claiming that they were not necessary or a drain on the economy- if our poorest and most vulnerable are going to be forced to do those same jobs? How will you feel when your job is taken away and then given to somebody else- or worse back to you, for less money and more stigma? And, we might even ask, how is it ethical to ask our unemployed to work in any form for less than minimum wage? The reason benefit is set so low is because we are not asking our unemployed to work. If they are out doing a job that a person in other circumstances would be paid at least minimum wage to do, why are they not entitled to that same reward?
And, if we are going to start paying them an ethical wage for their labour, why are we cutting public service jobs in the first place?