Jobcentre Work Experience: Community Service For The Crime Of Being Unemployed

It’s already been pointed out by the Boycott Workfare movement that workfare (Jobcentre-mandated 'work experience') is dangerous. 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 with the public? Many long term unemployed people have a perfectly legitimate reason to be unemployed, be it through disability, or just inability to get a job. With jobseekers who refuse to go on a workfare having their benefits cut for up to three years; it seems that jobseekers are being punished for the crime of being unemployed. How the issue of workfare mirrors our Criminal Justice system is actually quite worrying upon closer inspection.

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) but the penalties for sleeping in, forgetting to go, or turning up late are disastrous. Unlike convicted criminals, Jobseekers are not sentenced by due process of law and there are no laws, precedents, policies or solicitors to protect them. It’s down to luck, as Jobcentre advisers have unlimited power to force anyone onto a workfare whenever they want. 

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 of course 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 perceive 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.

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, having a disability, or graduating from university in a recession. In short, the crime of being unemployed.