Shortly after they were evicted from their camp outside St Paul's Cathedral, one of the "Occupy" protestors boasted that it was thanks to their movement that workfare in Britain was now "a dirty word".
It was tantamount to an admission that the behaviour of the young woman who made the original complaint about being required to do work experience in Poundland while on the dole was not a spontaneous event. Somebody, somewhere, was orchestrating it. Poundland, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Superdrug, Argos and Waterstones have all now backed out of the scheme after being accused of exploiting young people and profiting from unpaid labour.
If this is a "success" on the part of the anti-capitalist campaigners it is a very poor one, that does no good for anybody. Unemployment in the UK is at a 17-year high. It is officially 2.67 million and the way these statistics go, that is probably an under-estimate. It does not include all the people working part-time who want full-time jobs. According to the BBC, "the number of 16 to 24-year-olds without a job rose 22,000 to 1.04m, taking the unemployment rate to 22.2%."
The number of people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance is 1.6 million, and there are another million claiming disability benefit. In short, we have a vast pool of jobless people. many of of who have never had any job at all.
Now while I don't believe for a moment that the workfare scheme will solve all our problems in this respect, I do think it is reasonable for those getting money from the state to have to get out of bed and go and do something. To call it slavery is absurd. Since when did slaves get money? Just because they are not paid by the companies employing them does not mean that they are unpaid. Slaves [and there have been cases of genuine slavery found in this country even recently] are usually locked up in cellars or sheds and cannot run away, or leave the country. They can be beaten, abused and raped. To call workfare slavery is just melodramatic.
Last month a Pakistani couple in Britain was revealed to have been keeping a deaf girl as a slave in their house for ten years. She was beaten, raped and made to sleep in the cellar. The Ashars of Eccles in Manchester had trafficked the girl into this country deliberately to exploit her. That is what slavery means. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2098871/Deaf-girl-10-trafficked-UK-kept-sex-slave-cellar-elderly-couple-10-YEARS.html
The fact is that too many of our 16-to-24 year olds have had a very soft life. They are so soft you could spread them on toast. They have never done anything at all for themselves or others. They never had to help with any housework in their homes. They don't know how to cook a meal or knit a jumper. They have never washed a plate or a shirt because everything is done by machine. They have never sat an exam because all their dumbed-down qualifications were gained by course-work. They have never walked anywhere, as there have always been cars to take them wherever they choose. They don't really know what work means.
A typical young graduate appeared on TV saying that he did a degree in computer game-programming and is now seeking a job in that field. In other words, he wants to spend his whole life playing games and expects to be paid for it. But what if nobody will pay him a salary to do that? Shouldn't he have to adjust to the fact that work is doing what somebody else wants and needs?
A charming young man I know personally has been on benefits for a long time. He got into university, to study a science subject, then dropped out after a few weeks because he felt it was "just not for him". Since then he has drifted and done nothing but occasional casual work. He was offered an apprenticeship in a company that provides carers for old people. I thought he was very well suited to this type of work, but again after a few weeks he gave it up, saying that it was "not for him". He found fault with the way the system worked, giving him only twenty minutes with each old person. The fact is that work means doing something that needs to be done, not something you fancy. I think there are an awful lot of similar cases and nice though he is, he is part of a generation that expects to be permanently on holiday.
The work placement scheme is for many of these young dreamers a chance to find out what work actually means, and it is also a chance to get a reference from an employer and something to put on their c.v. Stacking shelves in Poundland may be boring but it proves that you can turn up, be punctual and reliable and do what somebody else tells you to do. For those who come from a family where nobody works, this is an opportunity to find out what having a job is like.
The Oxford Star and other local newspapers has huge whole-page advertisements every week for care workers, from companies that provide training. So why are young people not taking those vacancies?
I doubt if the companies who take on youngsters will gain much from "exploiting" them. They will have to be supervised and frankly, many of them won't be much good. If the criticism is that Tesco's can afford to pay people, then the answer is to extend the workfare scheme to small and medium-sized businesses which do not make vast profits.
The attitudes of the anti-capitalist protestors are not representative of the majority of people in the UK. In a recent poll. 80% of people said that it's fair for people claiming benefits to have to do something for society in return.
And what's more, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), out of the 34,000 young people who have taken advantage of the scheme, half have managed to get some work and come off benefits as a result. Employers respected them more for having shown they were capable of doing what needed to be done.
These young people are not being expected to go down mines - as Bevan's boys did in World War II. They are only being asked to make an effort to contribute in a small way to their community.
The International Declaration of Human Rights says, in article 4, that "no one shall be held in slavery". But it also says in article 29, that "Everyone has duties to the community". Surely doing some kind of useful task is a reasonable way for young people to fulfil that important duty.
Lenten Meditations: Saturday 25 March
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