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Say no to workfare: a TUC Charter on work experience

Issue date

This Charter explains why unions are opposed to workfare and looks at what makes the difference between good and bad work experience programmes for unemployed people. It has been written for everyone campaigning for jobs and fair treatment for unemployed people.


Unions believe that workfare is a failed policy.

  • It exploits the people who take part by paying them much less than the minimum wage.
  • It is unfair to other workers because it threatens their jobs and pay rates.
  • It is unfair to other businesses if their competitors are being subsidised by the government in this way.
  • And it does not work - unemployed people working full-time on a workfare scheme do not have time to get training to look for a real job.

The Government's own research has revealed that workfare in other countries made unemployed people less likely to get off the dole and was particularly ineffective when unemployment was high.

Workfare is often presented as 'the answer' to long-term unemployment, but the government research found that people with extra barriers to work (who are most likely to become long-term unemployed) are the least likely to get proper jobs through workfare.

All workers are threatened by workfare but the poorest and weakest are threatened most because it is at the bottom end of the labour market that workers in real jobs are most likely to find themselves in competition with those on workfare, as the Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Solow has pointed out.

What's wrong with the government's employment policies?

Too many employment programmes assume that unemployed people are either a problem to be solved or are guilty of causing their own unemployment. These programmes presume that unemployed people have a 'motivation problem' and that the answer is make unemployment even more unattractive than it already is - the same attitude that inspired the workhouse.

In fact, unemployed workers have worse health than other people, are less happy, more depressed, more stressed and more likely to commit suicide. People who are unemployed are poorer, more likely to be the victims of crime, more likely to have family problems and their children are less likely to do well at school. Most unemployed people are already strongly motivated to get jobs.

Unemployed people need jobs but there are more than five unemployed people chasing every job vacancy. Unemployed people did not cause the recession and the rise in unemployment that followed; they aren't responsible for the policy of austerity that is prolonging mass unemployment. They aren't criminals, they are the victims in this story.

Bad work experience policies

Many government programmes for unemployed people and some other benefit claimants involve 'work experience' - which may not be substituting for the work of other workers but still has all the other characteristics of a job.

Unions are especially concerned about abuse of work experience where unemployed people are required to do a few days' work for no pay, with no training and no expectation of an interview, let alone a job offer. When this happens, we strongly suspect that unemployed people are just being used to provide unpaid labour and it is very unlikely that it does anything to help them get real jobs.

We are also particularly opposed to work experience that is imposed as a 'penalty' for becoming long-term unemployed. There is no evidence that it helps long-term unemployed people to get jobs; employers are not impressed by experience of this sort of scheme on an applicant's CV.

Earlier this year campaigns by unions and unemployed people and concerns raised by employers forced the government to concede that participation in the 'Work Experience' programme (which accounts for half the places in the Youth Contract) should be entirely voluntary. There is now some early evidence that this programme improve the employment opportunities of some jobless young people, but significant concerns remain about the misuse of the programme by some employers and it is still too early to tell how useful the programme will be in the longer-term.

Good work experience

But work experience is not always a bad idea for unemployed people who are finding it hard to get a job.

Since 1989, a scheme known as Work Trials has been available for people who have difficulties getting jobs (such as lone parents, long-term unemployed and disabled people). Work Trials are voluntary, there is no penalty for deciding not to take up the job and they must be in a real vacancy with the expectation that the participant will get the job if everything works out. The idea is that the participants test whether a particular job is suitable for them and have an opportunity to overcome any misconceptions or concerns that the employer may have.

One of the key characteristics of Work Trials is that they are voluntary and there is good evidence that Work Trials have made a difference to employment opportunities for people who would otherwise find it difficult to get jobs and that people who had taken part thought their Work Trial had given them an advantage in getting a job.

The TUC believes that voluntary participation in employment programmes should be the norm. Voluntary participation means that participants are likely to be motivated to get the most out of a scheme. Even more important, voluntary participation is the best quality control possible - low quality schemes will struggle to recruit participants, but experience suggests that once a programme has a record of getting people into jobs there is no shortage of people keen to take part.

Unions can help promote improved standards by negotiating for enhancements to work experience in unionised workplaces. At the Royal Mail, for instance, the CWU have negotiated a Royal Mail Work Experience Programme that builds on the original government initiative that offers:

  • 80 places on a scheme that lasts 4 weeks, with each participant working 25 - 30 hours a week.
  • Voluntary participation.
  • An agreed pay scale - the same as that paid to casual and agency workers.
  • Both parties working on any future issues on remuneration and benefits.
  • A scheme designed solely to help young unemployed people back into work and will not be at the expense of paid jobs or additional earning opportunities for existing employees.
  • A commitment to equalities and diversity.
  • An in principle commitment to a job offer on completion of the programme.

The TUC is happy to advise unions on model agreements based on best practice examples. The sections on protecting the jobs, pay and conditions of existing workers are important. No matter how good a scheme, job creation has risks as well as benefits: when incentives are offered to employers, there is always a risk that they may cut other jobs or reduce overtime to take advantage of the subsidy.

Job creation schemes, especially those that involve private sector employers, need to be monitored to avoid this 'displacement' as it is known. The TUC believes that the most effective way to do this is by involving trade unions in negotiating the company's participation and then in monitoring it. The more that job creation takes place in unionised, well-organised workplaces, the higher the quality is likely to be.

A better way

Of course more broadly the government must accept its responsibility to create jobs. The TUC campaigns for a Job Guarantee that offers a job to everyone who has been unemployed for six months or more. Unions strongly supported the last government's Job Guarantee scheme (the Future Jobs Fund), which offered a real job, paid at least the minimum wage, to young people who had been unemployed for at least six months. We believe that the current government made a serious error when it abolished this programme and would strongly support a new job guarantee scheme.

The Government also needs to recognise that Jobcentre staff are far better placed than those from private welfare to work firms to support unemployed people who are looking for work.

And we know the best answer to unemployment is a growing economy, creating the jobs unemployed workers desperately want. And that means that the government must accept that austerity is choking growth.


Although there has been a great deal of public concern about workfare and work experience schemes these terms are not always used in a clear way. In this Charter:

'Workfare' means making unemployed people or other benefit claimants do unpaid work in jobs that would normally be done by paid workers. 'Work experience' means other work done as part of a government employment scheme.

It does not mean placements undertaken by school or university students as part of their course or by school students as part of their preparation for life after school. Nor does it cover informal arrangements made by employers and individuals. We do not discuss internships or other unpaid work that can be an entry to a career - this is an important issue in its own right and the TUC has set up a Rights for Interns website to provide advice and information.

'Contracting-out' means contracting with private or voluntary sector organisations to provide services previously provided by the public sector. The TUC has published an information note about Government Employment Programmes that describes these schemes.

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