Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Government refuses to name UK employers using forced unpaid labour.

For the last nine months, lawyers acting for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) have been refusing to publish the names of charities and private businesses that are participating in the government's 'Mandatory Work Activity' (MWA) scheme. Under the scheme, unemployed people who claim state benefits, can be forced to work unpaid for 30 hours per week for up to 4 weeks at a time, in order to retain their Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA).

In August, the Information Commissioner - who is responsible for Data Protection - ruled that the information should be released into the public domain, but lawyers acting for the DWP have insisted that the information must remain secret and are appealing against the decision.

In the 14-page appeal document - which has been leaked to the Guardian - the DWP say that to have released details of the placement providers at the time it was requested, would have led to campaign groups targeting placement providers, which would have forced them to withdraw from the scheme. The appeal document also says:

"Previous targeted campaigns had resulted in the withdrawal of providers from MWA and WE (Work Experience)...The DWP considered that of all the workfare programmes being described externally as 'workfare schemes', the MWA programme was the most likely to be influenced by pressure from campaign groups and negative publicity, given that the MWA programmes were generally provided by charitable organisations...and the placements were mandatory...Put simply, disclosure (of names) would have been likely to have led to the collapse of the MWA scheme, with incaculable losses to the taxpayer and many thousands of persons in long-term unemployment who are supported by the scheme."

Many unemployed people who have been pushed onto these government work-for-your-dole schemes, say it represents a form of modern-day slavery or forced labour. Research carried out by the government, also showed that MWA did not help unemployed people back into work after they had completed their 4-week stint on MWA and had "little effect on getting people off benefits in the long term." Indeed, it has been suggested that participation on the scheme, may have a negative impact on employment prospects, because it could convey to a prospective employer that people put on it, are unwilling to work and have been compelled to do so. But this also overlooks the fact that there is a punitive element which lies behind many of these schemes, which are aimed at getting people off the dole. Speaking about benefit claimants, a 'Whitehall official', told a Sunday Times reporter earlier this year:

"If we want them to tap dance, then they will tap dance."

Changes to the rules that were introduced by the government a fortnight ago, will now see unemployed people losing their JSA for up to three years if they refuse to work in unpaid 'placements'. Although the DWP have confirmed on previous occasions that the unemployed on MWA can only be placed with organisations that provide 'social benefit', the Guardian has revealed that unpaid jobseeker's are being placed with private businesses to clean private homes.

Campaign groups like 'Boycott Workfare', argue that it is in the public interest to disclose how many private companies are making profit from using unpaid unemployed people on the government's forced labour schemes, and that this should not be kept secret.

Due to protest actions taken by campaign groups like Boycott Workfare, a number of charities and firms have already pulled out of the government's forced labour schemes. One of the largest charities known to be associated with MWA, the British Heart Foundation (BHF), recently announced that they were "moving away from involvement in MWA towards schemes which provide longer term voluntary placements."

Boycott Workfare have welcomed the move and told the newspaper: "It is good to see a charity that was using workfare on a massive scale acknowledge that forced unpaid work isn't palatable for their supporters or customers...Charities should not be making people poorer by putting them at risk of benefit stoppages. They have an ethical obligation not to profit from forced unpaid work."

Although the DWP denied that the actions taken by protest groups had a bearing on the decision taken by BHF to distance itself from MWA, it is clear that protest action is having an effect and making some charities and firms think twice, about participating in these appalling government schemes.

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