Long reads

The real Work Programme

3 Mar 2013 By Robert Jeffery

Companies are finding thousands of new employees through the government’s flagship scheme. But some call it exploitation. Which is the real work programme?

If you go down to your local high street between 18-24 March, you’re sure of a big surprise. It probably won’t involve bears (though animal costumes are not unknown), but you may find dozens of activists picketing retailers, from charity shops to giant supermarkets, with banners threatening to “close you down”.

They’ll be taking part in a nationwide “Week of Action” in protest at the government’s Work Programme – or “Workfare”, as they call it, aligning it to grim compulsory work schemes in the US under Richard Nixon’s presidency. And if past blockades are anything to go by, these will be embarrassing affairs for companies just trying to go about their business. How did something that was designed to tackle a pressing, public-purse-draining problem – and that has undoubtedly transformed thousands of lives – end up the target of such unrestrained enmity?

The Work Programme is the collective name for the coalition’s flagship welfare-to-work scheme, launched in June 2011 to move people from benefits into jobs and tackle the debilitating economic effects of long-term unemployment. Its structure is far from straightforward, comprising five (or six, or possibly seven) separate strands affecting people of different ages and employment experience, from fortnight-long “work trials” for those on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) to “work experience” for young people.

The schemes have taken more than 800,000 hard-to-reach people out of job centres and placed them with a panoply of private providers covering different regions, who brush up their basic skills, boost their confidence and find them suitable interviews, openings or work placements with local companies.

At heart, it is attempting to address a crippling problem (the number of people out of work for more than six months stands at 904,000, double the 2008 level) with a proven strategy. “People need help to become more employable, and work placements are key to that,” says Ben Willmott, the CIPD’s head of public policy. “We know that good quality work experience plays a really important role in the labour market, and is the best way to get hard-to-reach groups into employment.”

“Employers are reluctant, for all sorts of reasons, to take on people who have a period of unemployment in their background,” adds Dan Finn, professor of social inclusion at the University of Portsmouth. “We need a low-cost way of getting some of them into work, because the longer people are unemployed, the less engaged they are with the labour market.”

Sally Fry is the archetype of the Work Programme in action. Though she had worked in pubs, the 53-year-old mother of four hadn’t held a job for a decade. By her own admission, her CV was lacking, she had few qualifications and job centre schemes were full of “deadbeats” and offered little practical advice. Under the Work Programme, she was given interview tips, guided into online job searches and could even borrow clothes to meet employers. She was soon working in the food and drinks team at the Swindon Jurys Inn hotel, a role she has held for 15 months and that has provided “structure” – and an Employee of the Quarter prize.

Her hotel boasts two other staff members who joined from the Work Programme, and almost a third of its 51 employees joined after work placements, including partnerships with local colleges, which saw HR manager Sophie Courtney hosting practical sessions for students.

When TNT Post won a contract for the Royal Mail, it took on more than 100 members of the Work Programme, who were well-suited to the roles because “they have at least been through the process of thinking about a career, rather than jumping from job to job,” says director Gary Robinson. “They come to the business knowing about work, and knowing themselves,” thanks to providers.

Such success stories are under-reported. In fact, what scant public dialogue exists about the Work Programme is a PR catastrophe, from the jobless stewards asked to sleep under London Bridge during last summer’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations to Panorama revelations that one provider referred to disabled candidates in internal shorthand as LTBs (“lying, thieving bastards”). Cait Reilly’s ongoing court battle over her work experience stint in Poundland (see below) has, says one Work Programme adviser, led to potential employers invariably asking: “Is that the Poundland thing?” before politely declining to be involved.

Meanwhile, the biggest beef of Boycott Workfare – the group behind the town centre protests – is that unpaid work placements are compulsory under certain elements of the scheme. Sanctions (normally the removal of benefits) are used against those who refuse to turn up, effectively creating “forced labour”, says the group, which also alleges that some large companies have placed regular employees on zero-hours contracts in order to cancel shifts if they can bring people in on work experience. A host of employers, including charities and some retailers, withdrew from the programme after negative publicity about “forced labour”. In 2012, the mandatory element was removed from three parts of the Work Programme.

It’s not in providers’ interests to force claimants into work experience, as they are only rewarded for providing stable, paid positions. And though 130,000 people have received sanctions under the scheme, the numbers have slowed dramatically, and many of them are handed out for other trangessions, such as missed interviews. But that’s where it gets murky. “Whether or not it says it’s mandatory on paper, [providers] tell you it’s mandatory,” says David Dennis, who undertook a Work Programme placement for a nationwide chain of garden centres in 2012 and wrote a book, Disregarded, about his experiences. Dennis claims he was promised sales training, but instead was lifting bags of sand, and has accused the government of “bringing back slavery”.

While he acknowledges the programme offers structured skills, and says a hardcore of unemployed people have played the system for years to milk benefits, he is scathing of the mandatory elements: “These companies are making big bucks. Why can’t they hire people on the minimum wage? That’s nothing to them, and it would get money back into the economy by putting it into people’s pockets. Once you’re on the Work Programme, you’re in other people’s hands. You have no control. You live in fear of their sanctions. I know people who felt suicidal.”

Jennifer Lee, HR director of Jurys Inn, says the company has used unpaid work experience, but “we would only do that if we really felt there was a vacancy at the end of it”. There are few routes into hospitality without experience, she adds, and while she “empathises” with Reilly’s predicament, the media attention has created wider difficulties. “I worry about the stigma,” she says. “It has put off genuine employers who want to help out, particularly those who want to help Neets. Most employers go into this with very genuine intentions.” Placements cost the company money in admin and staff time, adds Courtney, and there is no benefit to bringing in jobseekers who are forced to attend.

TNT Post’s Robinson offered two unpaid work experience placements under the programme in 2012, one leading to a full-time role, but plans 96 more this year. “Work experience is for somebody who’s not confident, needs support in the workplace or doesn’t have the right sort of documented evidence in their application,” he says. People on work experience are merely shadowing employees to learn the ropes, he says, so it is not the equivalent of paid work.

The discrepancy between the experiences of Dennis and Fry almost certainly comes down to the differing quality of providers. While Jurys Inn is largely pleased with its pre-vetted interviewees, an HR manager in Manchester reports that she has lost count of the number of times she has asked potential recruits about their ambitions, only to be told they are there “because the agency told me to come”.

Mark Hoban, employment minister, tells People Management the government will keep providers in line. “We’ve learned lessons from previous schemes, so instead of paying organisations lots of money up front irrespective of whether they get people into work, almost all our money is paid out when someone has moved off benefits and been kept in work.” Work experience, he adds, is “proven to be effective. It has been a common complaint that young people lack workplace experience. Thousands of companies offer places, and lots of jobseekers make such an impression during their placement that they are offered a paid job at the end of it.”

Government figures show 56 per cent of Work Programme starters spent time off benefits, with 200,000 job “entries”, though the 3.5 per cent rate of those in employment for six months is below target. There are questions over whether these are new vacancies, or “displacement” of other employees. Hoban cautions there is no quick fix: “We’re talking about some of the hardest-to-help… If participants could get into work easily, they wouldn’t need the programme’s help.”

Finn agrees it is too soon to judge the programme’s success on one full year’s data, and is supportive of its aims. But he would like to see a code of conduct where work experience placements are no longer than four weeks, always offer the prospect of a job and do not displace current workers, with private sector employers kept away from mandatory placements. It is a laudable aim, but it may become a necessity –as long as Reilly and Boycott Workfare hog the headlines, HR’s numerous good news stories will continue to be buried.

Has Cait Reilly broken the Work Programme?

When Cait Reilly stood sheepishly outside the Court of Appeal in February, campaigners claimed a decisive victory against the use of sanctions for those who reject mandatory work experience on the Work Programme. The TUC claimed the court’s ruling – that regulations underpinning the use of sanctions breached the law – had “blown a big hole” in government policy.

Reilly’s case had become a cause célèbre after she declined to leave a work experience placement in a museum to stack shelves in Poundland. Her victory led to predictions that thousands would be able to reclaim their benefits, but Hayley Robinson, an employment law specialist at Macfarlanes, points out: “The way it’s been reported is confusing – talking about “forced labour” is a red herring. It’s true to say it has completely undermined the schemes that are in place, but it is only a technicality. The government has made it clear it has no intention of changing course.”

Within hours, legal moves had been put in place to shore up the scheme in lieu of further court rulings, but while Tom Walker, an employment law partner at Manches, agrees the Work Programme is in no immediate danger, he says the government may not be able to brush the ruling aside: “The court found that it didn’t breach the Human Rights Act – you do have an element of choice because nobody frogmarches you off to work at Poundland. But they will argue [at the Supreme Court] that if your benefits are threatened, that breaches your human rights. If any aspect of this has to go back before Parliament as primary legislation, MPs and the media will stage a rerun of the fundamental question of whether people should work for less than the minimum wage just to obtain their benefits.”

How to make work experience work

  • Bypass formal interview processes – try chatting about skills and enthusiasm rather than credentials
  • Create a list of tasks and duties, and a formal work plan if appropriate. Be clear about the role
  • Consider an induction to the organisation, with an opportunity to ask questions and give feedback
  • Allow the participant time off for job searches and interviews
  • Offer regular conversations – including a mentor or buddy scheme – to review progress
  • If the placement is offered under the Work Programme, be clear about why the participant wants the role and what they hope to get out of it
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