Workfare: community service for the crime of being poor, or, How workfare encourages criminality

It’s already been pointed out by people like Johnny Void and the Boycott Workfare movement that workfare, as well as being immoral, is also dangerous because employers don’t know what they’re getting. What if an alcoholic is sent on a workfare in a bar, or someone with social phobia forced to work slave with the public? Or if someone who gets violent in stressful situations is sent on a stressful workfare? Because most long-term unemployed people are unemployed because they have a disability (which includes mental illness) or have been battling addiction, the risks to both jobseekers and the people they’re forced to “work” for or with are actually quite high. Especially considering that nobody can refuse to go on a workfare without their benefits being cut for up to three years.

But the issue of how workfare affects the effectiveness of our Criminal Justice system isn’t such as obvious flaw.

Community Service – a standard punishment for minor offences – involves forced labour, most often in charity shops, usually for anywhere between 50 and 300 hours. You can choose which day(s) per week you do your community service and also how many hours per week you do. So a sentence of 250 hours might take you a month to complete, or a year – it’s up to you.

Compare this flexitime option for convicted criminals with workfare, where “placements” must last 4-8 weeks and are full time, and if you miss a day your Jobseeker’s Allowance can be stopped (13 weeks for a first offence, a year for a second, three years for a third).

So, not only are Jobseekers sentenced to far more hours than some criminals (160-320 hours) [update: as of April 2014 jobseekers will be forced onto six month workfares which according to Boycott Workfare is more than double the maximum community service sentence. This isn’t just completely unethical, it also seriously undermines the criminal justice system as community service will no longer seem like an inconvenience. So wjat’s stopping people committing minor crimes?] but the penalties for sleeping in, forgetting to go, or turning up late are disastrous. Jobseekers are not sentenced by due process and there are no laws or policies to protect them. It’s down to luck, as Jobcentre advisers have unlimited power to force anyone onto a workfare whenever they want. This entails that they can also refrain from forcing a jobseeker whom they like into workfare; the extent to which jobcentre advisers pick on individuals, or, conversely, play favourites is unknown.

Jobseekers are innocent – they did not commit minor crimes. So it’s unfair to treat them like criminals. We punish criminals for a reason – for law and order. And criminals do not feel the pain that jobseekers do; as long as they’ve been sentenced fairly, they understand why they are being punished and they probably expected that they might get caught. There are no nasty surprises for them.

And it’s right that they have to do Community Service; if one enjoys an action which is forbidden, she should be punished as due consequence for the pleasure or thrill she has enjoyed, and also for her disobedience to the law. Why should she be granted the pleasure of, say, beating up an enemy, when we are denied that pleasure ourselves? She is free to commit the crime, but having experienced that enjoyment she must pay with suffering; tit for tat. A balanced equation.

But now we have a situation where jobseekers on workfares work together with those doing community service. They do the same tasks and are treated equally by bosses. Jobseekers are checked up on while at their “work” by the companies who send them on workfares, just like those on community service are checked on by supervisors. So the stigma and inconvenience usually attached to community service is fading. If someone has previously done a workfare, or their family member or friend has done a workfare, will this person really percieve community service as all that bad? And if you know that a workfare is somewhere in your future, would you be that perturbed by the thought of doing exactly the same thing under the name of community service? So, perhaps people might be encouraged to commit planned minor crimes, especially against people they have a grudge against. (Which might actually include the Jobcentre).

There should always be a balance in crime and punishment. It’s inherent in our whole system of law. That’s why we talk of “fair” and “unfair” laws, of “lenient” or “harsh” sentences. But where is the balance for those not wealthy enough to be able to avoid the Jobcentre? For what crime are they being punished – the crime of having been made redundant, of having a disability, of coming to the end of their hard-earned savings, of not being academic enough to get a higher education, of graduating from university in a recession, of not having rich enough parents. In short, the crime of being poor.

 

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2 thoughts on “Workfare: community service for the crime of being poor, or, How workfare encourages criminality

  1. TickyW June 3, 2013 at 3:17 pm Reply

    I think you make an excellent point when you equate workfare with a more lenient version of community service. Workfare does indeed appear to be intended to punish those who claim benefits.

  2. TickyW June 3, 2013 at 10:54 pm Reply

    Apologies. My comment above is not clear. I meant to say that workfare appears to be a more draconian version of community service.

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