The saga of the Jubilee jobseekers brought an unpleasant and unnecessary air to the weekend's events. But the lesson progressives should draw from this should not include further invectives against volunteering or unpaid work. For the long-term unemployed, this is exactly how pride, determination and character can be both fostered and revealed. In fact, it says more about our society that we consistently undervalue what people give rather than what they earn.
The unemployed or those not in work can give as much if not more than anybody else, and respected charities including Tomorrow's People, who placed these volunteers with Close Protection (the firm delivering the staff to the river pageant), have long stressed the value and worth of unpaid work experience and volunteering for the long-term unemployed. From the debate about unpaid interns to desperate attempts to argue that only state activity can be effective, it is desperately unfortunate that volunteering and free work experience is now taken as a euphemism for exploitation.
Perhaps the real issue here is the linking of the profit motive to charities and their work. The Government's work programme is well intentioned. Remaining on welfare helps no one. But how people escape from unemployment is a different matter. There is a wide professional consensus that the Workfare Programme has not practised the "Big Society" vision and that big out-sourcing contractors have been awarded the vast bulk of its contracts.
Both payment by results and the pre-tender capital requirements of the work programme effectively excluded smaller charities and local social enterprise providers. Prime contractors are meant to work with local charities, but there is little doubt that both the goodwill and the resources of the charities are being exploited. Plus the type of approach required to get people who have been out of the labour market for a long time into decent jobs requires trust and a wider remit than the longevity of paid work.
In this regard, the big contractors are not fit for purpose. Welfare to work requires a wider ethos and a more localised approach. Payment-by-results is not conducive to augmenting people's skills because the emphasis on "duration" of employment detracts from the "quality of outcomes"; the current incentive is to put people into low-wage jobs that lack prospects. Many claimants are dealing with issues such as substance abuse or mental illness, which lie outside the scope of a big standardised contractor to deal with.
Charities or social enterprises should be the main contractors for the work programme. No one can doubt their motives and they should be given a chance to prove their efficacy.
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