Why Boycott Workfare is Targeting Charities this Christmas

by Izzy Köksal

This Christmas, why are respected charities participating in a scheme that causes deep distress to vulnerable members of our society?

First published: 06 December, 2012 | Category: Activism, Culture, Disability, Employment & Welfare, Politics

As charities look to cash in on the Christmas spirit, Boycott Workfare will be taking to the streets to highlight them as the Scrooges they are. As benefit claimants scrimp and save to eke out some kind of Christmas for themselves on subsistence benefits, they could find themselves forced to work in the high street charity shops of the British Heart Foundation, Scope, Barnardos, The Salvation Army, or RSPCA who participate in the government's workfare schemes. Those sent to work for The Conservation Trust for (non-) Volunteers could find themselves out digging trenches in the cold.[1] They could lose their benefits for 13 weeks to 3 years if they fail to attend under the recently extended sanction regime. (The government's own research showed that under the previous sanction regime lone parents and ex-offenders struggled to buy food and heat and light their homes).

Zoe Williams recently highlighted the weak and ineffective role that charities play nowadays in tackling poverty as they are too wary of challenging government policies. But it clearly goes beyond this. Many well known charities, which claim to alleviate our social problems, are actively engaging in government policies that they know (because we've been reminding them) cause poverty, hardship, and emotional and physical distress to the most vulnerable in our society.

The situation is getting even more extreme. From Monday 3 December, the United Nation's international day of persons with disabilities, the government is expanding workfare to force more than 300,000 sick and disabled people onto the programme for an unspecified length of time. People with mental health issues, cancer, heart problems, or any number of debilitating issues and who have been deemed unfit to work, could be forced to work in their local Scope or British Heart Foundation charity shop or lose up to 70% of their benefit, leaving them with just £28.15 a week to survive on.

That charities are participating in such schemes should be more shocking and fury-inducing than Tesco's involvement.[2] Tesco is evil and makes no effort to pretend otherwise: why not add workfare onto a list that includes tax dodging and poverty pay? However, these charitable organisations make statements about social change and pretend to care about us, our health, the environment, and our pets whilst happily profiting from the exploitation and impoverishment of claimants.

These charities are propping up the government's crisis prone workfare schemes through the sheer quantity of placements they are providing. The British Heart Foundation stated that: 'In every one of our shops, we have work programme placements – some mandatory, some voluntary'. One British Heart Foundation shop had 8 claimants working there one afternoon. Up there with them is the Conservation Trust for Volunteers. The government's shift of workfare placements from the commercial to the charity sector came about after the public pressure they faced when people heard that Tesco was getting free forced labour. The government changed their policy believing that workfare for so-called 'community benefit' would be more acceptable to the public, but this is clearly not the case.

As a result of sustained public pressure and campaigning, as well as the government's own disastrous policies, charities have been pulling out of the workfare schemes. Oxfam was the first to do so back in February, stating that these schemes 'are incompatible with our goal of reducing poverty in the UK'. It was followed by Marie Curie and Shelter. On hearing that sick and disabled people will be mandated to work Cancer Research is to pull out in the new year and Scope is conducting an 'urgent review'. (Scope had pulled out in the past but then snuck back in, so we'll have to wait and see.) The British Heart Foundation has also said that it is to pull out of the schemes, but has not said when.

Anti-workfare campaigners plan to step up the pressure on charities this Christmas. Boycott Workfare has called for a National Week of Action starting 8 December. Various actions will be taking place across the UK targeting organisations using workfare and giving support and advice to claimants at Job Centres and 'welfare to work' companies. As charities function to make the poor poorer, we will challenge this with direct action and mutual aid amongst claimants and supporters. Solidarity not charity.

Izzy Köksal is involved in the London Boycott Workfare group.

[1] These are just the charities that we know about. There could be many more participating in workfare schemes but the government has been refusing to answer a Freedom of Information request detailing this.

[2] Charities' involvement in forced labour is perhaps less surprising if you take a look at George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London:

'At seven another whistle blew, and the officers went round shaking those who did not get up at once. Since then I have slept in a number of Salvation Army shelters, and found that, though the different houses vary a
little, this semi-military discipline is the same in all of them. They are certainly cheap, but they are too like workhouses for my taste. In some of them there is even a compulsory religious service once or twice a week, which the lodgers must attend or leave the house. The fact is that the
Salvation Army are so in the habit of thinking themselves a charitable body
that they cannot even run a lodging-house without making it stink of


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