Workfare in the United Kingdom

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Activists dressed like to 19th century-prison inmates demonstrating against workfare, comparing it to 19th century-prison conditions with penal labour, October 2011.

In the United Kingdom, "workfare" refers to government workfare policies whereby individuals must undertake work in return for their benefit payments or risk losing them. Workfare policies are politically controversial. Supporters claim that such policies help people move off welfare and into employment (see Workfare) whereas critics argue that they are analogous to slavery or indentured servitude and counterproductive in decreasing unemployment.


Although actual "workfare" only began in the UK in the early-1990s with the first Major government's "Community Action" scheme in 1993 which was replaced in 1996 with the better known "Project Work" which was subsequently replaced by New Labour's "New Deal", welfare to work or "active labour market policies" go back much earlier to 1986 and the second Thatcher government's introduction of compulsory "Restart" interviews for unemployed claimants. Restart lasted until 1991 when it was superseded by the "make work" scheme "Employment Action" which lasted until 1993. "Make work schemes" are not workfare as such, but are very much a composite part of welfare to work or "active labour market policies" aka "welfare reform".

The definition used here to distinguish between "outright" workfare, and "make work schemes", is that workfare is "work for benefits" either for a company, or in the public sector, or what has been called "bogus volunteering" for a charity. This is undertaken as the condition of still being able to claim unemployment benefit, as distinct from claimants receiving that but also being in receipt of "a small supplemental payment"[1].

As such, it can be argued that welfare to work/"active labour market policies" first properly appeared in the early 1980s along with mass unemployment, in the form of the state run Manpower Services Commission created by the Heath government in the early 1970s whilst Full Employment still existed, along with the Youth Opportunities Programme scheme first introduced by the Callaghan Labour government of the late-70s but being continued and further applied by the incoming Conservative government. The YOP was replaced in 1983 by the better-known Youth Training Scheme (YTS).

Although workfare did exist in the 2000s under New Labour, it was not widely publicized or widely used. In the 2010s, under the Conservative-led coalition government it became widely used and widely known along with large scale and highly effective opposition which has continued under the Conservative government elected in 2015, leading to many dozens of organizations withdrawing from one or all of what were seven different schemes. This became five after the DWP announced in November 2015 that it was "not renewing" two of its flagship schemes, "Community Work Placements" and "Mandatory Work Activity".[2]

In November 2011, the Prime Minister's Office announced proposals under which Jobseeker's Allowance claimants who haven't found a job once they have been through a work programme will do a 26-week placement in the community for 30 hours a week.[3] According to The Guardian in 2012, under the Government's Community Action Programme people who have been out of work for a number of years "must work for six months unpaid, including at profit-making businesses, in order to keep their benefits".[4]

These developments followed years of concern and discussion by people both for and against such schemes. In 1999, the UK charity Child Poverty Action Group expressed concern that a government announcement that single parents and the disabled may have to attend repeated interviews for jobs under threat of losing benefits was "a step towards a US-style workfare system". The Social Security Secretary at the time, Alistair Darling, described the plan as "harsh, but justifiable", claiming that it would help address the "poverty of expectation" of many people on benefits.[5] In 2008 research undertaken by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) found that there was little evidence that workfare programmes increased the likelihood of finding paid employment and could instead reduce the prospect of finding paid employment by "limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers."[6] Despite the report, Digby, Lord Jones, former Minister of State for Trade and Investment, said in April 2010 that Britain needs to adopt American-style workfare.[7]

During their 2013 annual conference the Conservative Party announced a new scheme, called Help to Work, the workfare aspect of which "Community Work Placements" expected claimants to work for up to 30 hours a week for 26 weeks in return for JSA (Job Seekers Allowance). The scheme was introduced in April 2014, but scrapped in November 2015.[8][9][10]


Myriad contemporary workfare schemes exist, or existed until quite recently. The anti-workfare group Boycott Workfare list eight schemes involving the risk of benefit loss (directly and indirectly).[11]


The former Work and Pensions Minister Chris Grayling (pictured) had supported workfare policies as a means of tackling unemployment.[12]

Arguments in favour of workfare include:

  • That it is not unfair that individuals have to work in order to receive help from the state in the form of benefits, as tax-payers are working in order to pay the taxes which form part of the recipients' benefit payments.[13]
  • That workfare participants benefit from workfare as they get references and experiences of the "working world".[13]
  • That there is no compulsion to workfare as individuals are able to sign off and stop claiming benefits if they wish.[13]

Chris Grayling has attacked what he calls the "Polly Toynbee left" for failing to understand the modern labour market.[14]


The Trade Union Congress (TUC), a federation of trade unions in the United Kingdom, has stated that workfare is exploitation of the unemployed, "paying" them below the minimum wage. The TUC also highlight that workfare is unfair to paid workers who find themselves in competition with unpaid workers. In these cases the TUC claims that the result would be job losses and the deterioration of pay, overtime or other conditions. Employers who opted not to use workfare workers would also find themselves competing with other firms who are "effectively being subsidised".[15] The Guardian newspaper claimed in February 2012 that businesses in the UK which take staff via "work for your benefits programmes" included Asda, Maplin, Primark, Holland & Barrett, Boots, and McDonald's. The policy is similar to that which the Conservative Party administration hoped to introduce in the mid to late 1990s, which would most likely have been carried through had John Major not been defeated by Tony Blair in the 1997 general election. Critics also ascertain that the majority of menial, low paid jobs would end up being carried out by people on workfare who, because they are working but unpaid, would not be counted among the unemployment figures.[citation needed] In an article in the Huffington Post, Dr Simon Duffy likened workfare to slavery. [16] The Green Party of England and Wales has also voiced its opposition to workfare.[17]

Academics have argued that, as workfare participants are essentially providing work that is beneficial to the employer, whether public or private, they should be granted employment status (as a worker or an employee) or, at least, employment protection, even regardless of status.

Academic analysis[edit]

Academic analysis by the Department of Work and Pensions has cast doubt on the effectiveness of workfare policies. After surveying the international evidence available from America, Canada and Australia the report states:

There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers. Subsidised ("transitional") job schemes that pay a wage can be more effective in raising employment levels than 'work for benefit' programmes. Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.[18]


Opposition to workfare has caused a number of companies to withdraw from "workfare" schemes. A number of organisations including Maplin, Waterstones, Sainsbury's, TK Maxx and the Arcadia Group withdrew from the scheme in early 2012. Argos and Superdrug announced they were suspending their involvement pending talks with ministers.[4][19] Clothing retailer Matalan subsequently suspended its involvement in the scheme in order to conduct a review of the terms of such placements, with a spokesman for the DWP saying "The scheme is voluntary and no one is forced to take part and the threat of losing the benefit only starts once a week has passed on the placement - this was designed to provide certainty to employers and the individuals taking part"[20]



There was controversy later in February 2012 following the involvement of the Tesco supermarket chain in a government workfare scheme linked to the payment of benefits. An advert appeared on the Jobseekers' Plus website in which Tesco sought permanent workers in exchange for expenses and jobseeker's allowance. After the advert was highlighted by users of Facebook and Twitter, the supermarket claimed its appearance was a mistake and that it was intended to be "an advert for work experience with a guaranteed job interview at the end of it as part of a Government-led work experience scheme".[21] A protest about this advert later caused the temporary closure of a Tesco store near the Houses of Parliament.[22]


The discount retailer Poundland's participation in a workfare scheme has been controversial. A graduate took the Department of Work and Pensions to Court arguing that participation in a workfare scheme was a breach of her human rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. Caitlin Reilly and Jamieson Wilson lost the case but the decision was reversed on appeal.[23] However, the appeal decision was made primarily on technical grounds, and the judge found no breach of Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights.[citation needed].

Home Retail Group[edit]

Home Retail Group, the parent company of Argos and Homebase, were also widely criticised for their involvement in Workfare. It was reported they would not offer jobs to people who successfully completed the scheme (with Argos simply issuing certificates of completion to those wanting jobs). A key moment for those who opposed Workfare was when a poster produced for internal purposes by Homebase condoning that unpaid work in the scheme was a way of reducing operating costs, was leaked to the public. After this, Home Retail Group soon announced their discontinuation in the scheme.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ . "Briefing Paper Work Schemes No 0626949 Aliyah Dar p.11". House of Commons Library. 25 June 2015. Retrieved 20 December 2017. 
  2. ^ "Department for Work and Pensions'settlement at the Spending Review". DWP. 2015-12-25. Retrieved 2015-05-12. 
  3. ^ "Community Work For Job Seekers". HM Government. Retrieved 19 February 2012. 
  4. ^ a b Malik, Shiv (3 February 2012). "Waterstones ends unpaid work placements after investigation". The Guardian. London: Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 19 February 2012. 
  5. ^ "'Britain heading towards workfare', says charity". BBC News. BBC. 15 June 1999. Retrieved 19 February 2012. 
  6. ^ Crisp, Richard and Fletcher, Del Roy.(2008) "A comparative review of workfare programmes in the United States, Canada and Australia" Department for Work and Pensions Research Report No 533. HMSO.
  7. ^ "Lord Digby Jones says Britain needs US-style 'workfare'". BBC News. BBC. 25 April 2010. Retrieved 19 February 2012. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ "The government has announced Help to Work - a new scheme designed to tackle long term unemployment". 30 September 2013. Retrieved 2 October 2013. 
  10. ^ Chapman, James (30 September 2013). "Pick up litter for your dole: Long-term jobless will also clean up graffiti or cook for the elderly in Tory 'work for benefits' plan". Daily Mail. London. Retrieved 2 October 2013. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ "Chris Grayling defends Workfare AGAIN (Jeez, when will he give it up?)". Graduate Fog. Retrieved 2012-10-04. 
  13. ^ a b c "In Praise of Workfare - Guy Fawkes' blog". 2012-02-18. Retrieved 2012-10-04. 
  14. ^ Patrick Wintour, political editor (18 April 2012). "Employment minister Chris Grayling rails at 'Polly Toynbee left' | Politics". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-10-04. 
  15. ^ "Say no to workfare: a TUC Charter on work experience". TUC. 18 May 2012. Retrieved 6 June 2012. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ "Writing Off Workfare: For a Green New Deal, not the Flexible New Deal". Green Party. 28 Oct 2008. Retrieved 8 Aug 2013. 
  18. ^ "A comparative review of workfare programmes in the United States, Canada and Australia". Retrieved 2012-10-04. 
  19. ^ Topping, Alexandra (28 February 2012). "Workfare that shames UK plc or a leftwing plot by the job snobs?". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 7 June 2012. 
  20. ^ "Matalan reviews role in Get Britain Working scheme". BBC News. BBC. 18 February 2012. 
  21. ^ "Tesco drops 'job for benefits' ad for Suffolk store". BBC News. BBC. 16 February 2012. Retrieved 19 February 2012. 
  22. ^ "Tesco job advert protest closes store in Westminster". BBC New. BBC. 18 February 2012. Retrieved 19 February 2012. 
  23. ^ "Workfare scheme setback as Poundland 'slave' wins appeal". The Week UK. 12 February 2013. Retrieved 17 January 2016.