Following Cat Reilly’s victory over the DWP, which found the workfare scheme forcing her to give up her voluntary role at a museum in order to stack shelves in Poundland for no wage, the workfare debate has re-arisen.

Iain Duncan Smith isn’t deterred; he says the problem is that some people think they are “too good to do this sort of work” and reminds people that Terry Leahy, Tesco’s CEO, started out his life stacking shelves.

In fact, senior government sources have even suggested they will “toughen up the rules” since the ruling.

 When unemployment figures are a key economic indicator, and therefore a key part of how we measure the government’s economic performance, the rationale for, and success of, workfare schemes should be a lot more central to political analysis than it is. People on workfare are counted as employed. But they’re still getting benefits, and they’re not getting a wage. So before we praise Iain Duncan Smith for increasing employment, we have to ask what do even mean by employment – and what is the point of it? Iain Duncan Smith says work is good because it’s the best way out of poverty. So why is unpaid work being counted by him as a success?

We know the left-wing arguments against workfare. The employer profits from the labour of a worker who is forced to perform tasks for them without receiving a wage. In fact, it’s not even a particularly left-wing argument; it’s just stating a fact. It’s pretty impossible to argue that Tesco or Poundland employ (or even ‘employ’) people to stack their shelves than for any other reason than it makes them a profit. They wouldn’t have people in stacking a shelf for the fun of it. It very obviously makes them money.

We also know the factual analysis of the scheme’s success rate; international research commissioned by the government themselves says there is “little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work,” and warned that “it can even reduce employment chances.”

The government was also advised that “workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.” That’s hardly surprising; if your profit margins remain more or less unchanged regardless of the quality of the labour – as is the case with many of these jobs – why would you pay competitive wages when you can get perfectly capable workers to do it for free? There have been reports of some shops, like Argos, actually hiring fewer people, even cutting jobs, because they have enough labour resource provided via workfare schemes.

But the workfare scheme isn’t just an antithesis of social democracy; it’s also an antithesis of the free market. It’s the Tories who keep trying to paint themselves as a party of aspiration. It’s the Tories who want to promote a Big Society model where people volunteer in their communities. It’s the Tories who say they believe in risk and reward.
Workfare is anti-aspiration, anti-civic duty, and anti-risk and reward. Cat Reilly is not the first person to be hauled out of doing community-spirited volunteer work in order to do work that profits someone else instead. Iain Duncan Smith’s comments about people thinking they are too good to mop a floor for no wage are not only inaccurate (Cat Reilly says she has done those kinds of jobs herself) but also strangely dismissive of people’s aspirations – a supposedly Tory principle. It’s something we see across a lot of policies that come from people who call themselves capitalists and free marketeers; a token nod to meritocracy and aspiration followed by nothing but hoarding jealously guarded privileges, and a slashing away of the ladders beneath.

If you believe in risk and reward, why should the taxpayer soak up the risk in the form of wages – or any other outgoing for that matter? If we believe in the rationale of the profit motive, why would paying someone less, or indeed, paying them nothing, improve their work ethic?

Is Iain Duncan Smith deliberately being dishonest? It’s possible that it’s just cognitive dissonance, but it’s hard to see how anyone can simultaneously be a passionate defender the importance of shop floor work, whilst also sneering at the idea that such work should be paid, unless they are being a tiny bit wilfully disingenuous about it.

The unemployment figures released today are good economic good news. But we need to ask ourselves: what is the point of getting people into work, if that work is not paid a wage? What is the point of work? And who is our economy actually for?

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