By Tim Hardy
A proposal was once made in the senate to distinguish slaves from free men by their dress; it then became apparent how great would be the impending danger if our slaves should begin to count our number.
Seneca, On Mercy, I. xxii. 3-xxiv. 1
This passing aside in a discussion on mercy by Seneca reveals an important truth. All it takes to make the rule of a cruel elite untenable is for the downtrodden to realise that their oppressors are a small minority. We suffer in solitude. Together we are strong.
I don’t wish to reinforce the common accusation that workfare is slavery. Injustice incites strong emotions and strong words but the comparison is wrong:
Workfare is not slavery but wage labour on the terms common in most of the world: work or starve. £64/week is a wage – a poverty one.
Workfare only appears as slavery in relation to the welfare ‘safety net’ which many of us have grown up with.
Instead I want to stress the weakness of those in power.
Workfare doesn’t work. The Department for Work and Pensions admit as much:
Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high
DWP Research Report No 533 (PDF)
The governments’ objectives are clearly not the creation of jobs. Workfare is part of a strategy to feed tabloid prejudices against “scroungers” designed to turn the lowly paid against the unpaid so neither recognises the real source of their misery.
On workfare, Labour are as bad as the Conservatives. Opposition has been coming not from the political establishment but from the streets, leading to a first victory:
Escalating protests against workfare over the last few months have led to news of a first major victory today.
Campaigners are claiming a major scalp in the fight against workfare after retailer Holland & Barrett announced they were pulling out of the scheme. On hearing the news, Brighton Solidarity Federation tweeted “we’ve won an important battle against workfare, but the war is far from over.” The announcement came just 24 hours before a planned national week of action against workfare organised by the Boycott Workfare Network. Holland & Barrett had strongly backed workfare, announcing that they were committed to taking 1,000 people on unpaid work schemes this year alone (out of a workforce of just 3,500).
However, since their April announcement at a workfare conference organised by Department for Work and Pensions Minister Chris Grayling, escalating protests have singled-out the firm with regular pickets across the UK turning away shoppers shocked at the firm’s involvement in the scheme. Outraged customers have also been bombarding H&B’s Twitter and Facebook accounts with complaints. The sustained pressure has forced a u-turn, with Holland & Barrett’s official facebook page announcing late last night that: “the 60 people currently undertaking the work experience scheme will be the last to complete the eight week placement. After this time Holland & Barrett will not participate further in that scheme.”
Holland & Barrett intend to replace unpaid work placements from the Job Center with a salaried apprentice scheme. The Solidarity Federation will keep a close eye on Holland & Barrett and meet any backsliding with renewed direct action, but for now we are celebrating a victory against unpaid work. As a revolutionary union initiative made up of workers and claimants, the Solidarity Federation sees workfare as an attack on all workers by undermining pay and conditions. For example, staff at Holland & Barrett told us that overtime was no longer available in some stores as it was being done by unpaid workfare labour instead.
We will now support the national week of action called by the Boycott Workfare Network against remaining workfare firms before meeting to discuss the next steps.
We are not slaves but what Seneca wrote about slaves is just as true of lowly-paid and precarious workers and the unwaged. We are the majority. We need to learn to see beyond the tactics of Labour and Tories who while pretending “we are all middle class” urge us to blame immigrants and the feckless for the structural inequality in our society.
Today’s news is a sign of what happens when people ignore this propaganda and come together to stand in solidarity against exploitation.