Saturday, 3 September 2011

Free Labour

Free labour anyone?
Towards a very British gulag

Work for free? You must be joking! Sadly no. The British Government is working on normalising the practice of forced labour and it begins with an easy target – the unemployed. So much for an end to so-called welfare dependency, why should employers hire when they can take a free ride at the taxpayers' expense…

By Mark Cantrell

GULAGS are often associated with the incarceration of political prisoners but behind all this rhetorical justification they tend to have a rather more practical economic purpose: the provision of state-subsidised labour.

To put it in less euphemistic terms, that would be slavery. Under this model, the State ‘harvests’ a captive labour force, either for use on its own projects, or to farm out to clients, but either way it bears the costs for the upkeep and secure management of the unwilling participants.

By their nature, forced labour camps are – forgive the pun – labour intensive and costly institutions so we’re not likely to see them here on British soil any time soon. Anyway, it’s not as if they’re really in keeping with the national spirit. For a society that prides itself on its progressive credentials, labour camps most certainly give out the wrong message. Barbed wire fences and armed guards make for bad PR as do the incarceration of people simply on the basis of economic misfortune or supposed incapability.

With the right approach, however, these unfortunates can be suitably criminalized into an institution capable of extracting some shareholder value out of otherwise obsolete livestock. Labour is one of the biggest costs any business faces, after all, so the opportunity to gain some basic manpower free at the point of delivery has to be of benefit. Why pay when you can simply take? That’s got to be good for the bottom line.

One might consider it the ultimate in externalised costs, getting someone else outside the business – that's the still remunerated tax-paying public – to stump up for the payroll, but it needs some serious spin to sell it to we the suckers.

Forget ‘political crimes’. That’s dubious territory and likely to backfire. Better that the inmates are seen as feckless layabouts leeching off the good will and charity of the citizenry. Put them to work and they’ll learn a thing or two about thrift and self-reliance. Better still, if the carrot of ‘self-improvement’ can accompany the stick of hard reproach then it surely proves a boost to any progressive reputation, but there still remains the problem of ‘harvesting’ and stockpiling this plentiful resource.

'Workfare': Soviet-style

Nationalising the labour force

Fortunately, there’s a better way than labour camps for offering private business the chance to partake of this nationalised resource. Indeed, in many respects it already exists ‘pre-herded’ into suitable ‘enclosures’ ready to be farmed out.

Successive governments and media outlets have also long-since prepared the ideological ground needed to justify a crackdown on the ‘burdensome parasites’ riding free at our collective expense. With the scapegoats at the ready, all that needs to be done is to modify the existing system into something that can manage the resources accordingly. The current Government appears to be doing just that. And there’s not a barbed-wire perimeter fence in site.

Nice work, if you can get it (and be paid for it).

The solution relies heavily on the legacy of the Welfare State, throwing together some old-fashioned Dickensian thinking, with the latest wave of 21st Century reforming zeal to twist some cruel barbs into the economic ties that state benefits invoke. Welcome to the re-forged Welfare State, harnessing the dismissed and excluded to furnish a little welfare for business. Just don’t call it slavery, okay – it sends out the wrong signals – think of it as charity.

Back in the old days, Britain witnessed the dubious charity of the workhouse. These were brutal and callous institutions – deliberately so, lest the poor succumb to the temptation to indigence that was somehow inherent in their nature (very much a similar line to the attitudes taken today). Once incarcerated under the thumb of the Beadles, there was little chance of ever escaping the hopeless regime of gruel and back-breaking toil, beyond the Reaper’s tender mercies that is.

Workhouses were to all intents and purposes prisons – ‘micro-gulags’ – for people who had committed no crime other than the worst sin of all – to be out of work and utterly poor. Oh yes, and utterly desperate too.

Fortunately, Britain in the 21st Century is a progressive nation utterly dedicated to the pursuit of social justice, so there will be no return to the workhouses any more than we will see traditional labour camps arising. At least, not just yet, but even so it appears the good old Job Centre is fast becoming the modern equivalent.

In a nasty twist on the whole concept of the Job Centre, Government welfare reforms are slowly transforming them into ‘command and control’ centres for amassing and directing an army of state-subsidised labour. Essentially, once their grace period ends, the unemployed are increasingly expected to work for their benefits.

Often the justification is that the work helps the unemployed regain the skills needed to find and hold down a job, but according to opponents of this burgeoning ‘workfare’ aspect of the welfare system, they are being used to displace paid workers from employment.

The organisation Boycott Workfare is taking issue with the new Government Work Programme, a crucial component of its transformation of the welfare system. Essentially, its concerns hint at the shift from ‘safety net’ and support system for individuals and their families to a punitive mechanism that effectively undermines hard-won employment rights – even employment itself.

“The Work Programme is a cash gift from the Government to businesses which can replace employees with a constant free labour source mandated to work by the Job Centre at risk of destitution,” said Joanna Long, a spokeswoman for Boycott Workfare.

“It is a disgrace that Government and providers are talking about this as a boost to job seekers’ prospects when it is putting them to work – often in unsuitable roles – for far below the minimum wage.”

So much, then, for the valuable lessons and positive benefits of hard work the politicians often hector us about from on high.

In place of direct provision for the inmates' upkeep – food, clothing, shelter – this 'gulag' out-sources the means of subsistence to the inmates themselves via their meagre benefits. Okay, it's still an expensive system to maintain, but you have to speculate to accumulate. In the meantime, those on the receiving end can kiss goodbye to social mobility and working hard to get on in life – just keep toiling in the hope the benefits won’t be stopped and there might be a real job at the end of it.

Well, when it comes to the second aspect, dream on suggests Boycott Workfare. The organisation is a coalition of organisations and groups, taking in the unemployed, anti-cuts campaigners, charity workers, trade unionists and others. It alleges that the Government’s Work Programme undermines opportunities for paid employment and does nothing at all to help people find work. Instead, they are being exploited as cheap labour – essentially free from a business’s perspective – under the threat of losing their benefits.

This might not seem like much of a sanction, for those not struggling to make ends meet on JobSeekers’ Allowance; of course, loss of benefits includes housing benefit, which means that the threat doesn’t just cover food in the belly, but the roof over someone’s head too. Losing the first is bad enough; the two combined is one hell of an argument for compliance.

The Work Programme ups the ante on unpaid ‘work experience’; it has already been carried out in some areas under the Flexible New Deal programme. Boycott Workfare alleges that some companies have reaped the benefits, stringing people along in unpaid work with the suggestion of jobs that never materialise.

Poundland and Primark are two of the companies the organisation has accused of using a succession of people mandated by their local Job Centres, replacing them one after the other, as each person’s mandated work period ends, but the two businesses aren’t alone – a number of charities are said to be making use of such mandated labour too. One might expect business motivated by the margins to make the most of the Government’s schemes, but charities? That’s another matter.

“It is astounding that some of the larger voluntary sector organisations are collaborating with the Government on the Work Programme to replace volunteers with mandatory unpaid labour,” Long added. “This flies in the face of the sector’s values and will surely damage their reputations.”

IDS: Commissar for Workfare

Will work for food?

Obviously, the application of mandated labour is somewhat limited; but with the British economy now so reliant on the service sector, it remains a potentially sizeable pool of subsidised labour, but for how long and what ultimate cost to our society?

So far, it’s early days for the Work Programme. For the moment the prospect of learning on-the-job-skills and boosting the CV remains a persuasive argument, but sooner or later scepticism will turn to resentment. That’s the downside of forced labour: sooner or later it gets uppity. But there are always means of applying discipline to a captive labour force, and Britain’s very own ‘open plan’ gulag is no different.

For one, the numbers mean there’s plenty to play with. Second, the ‘inmates’ of the system exist in a scattered and fragmented form; difficult to crystallise into organised resistance (though not impossible). And thirdly, the threat of losing benefits can be a potent persuader of the benefits (sic) of obedience. And if that fails, there’s always the conventional State apparatus to deal with the recalcitrant. This brings us to the cruel twist incorporated into the Welfare State: the move from social security to social disciplinarian.

True, the Welfare State was never built to cope with mass unemployment of the kind we have seen these past 30 years: in its origins – and for much of its later use – its purpose was to provide a safety net to citizens. This was the social contract that said we were all in it together and if we fell on hardship we would be supported. But it wasn’t just about a safety net; it was about standards and values for a decent, humane society.

The system was far from perfect, of course, even before it was expected to mop up the 'collateral damage' of economic 'restructuring', but for a while at least it proved a handy ‘warehouse’ for the unemployed created by the Thatcher Government’s abolition of whole industries and the communities that had arisen to serve them. Since then it's creaked along, bursting at the seams, to carry the heavy burden imposed on it, not to mention wave after wave of 'reform' proposals motivated by a combination of ideological prejudice and realpolitik convenience. In the face of all that, it's a system that has remained remarkably resilient; the same cannot perhaps be said for many of the hapless inmates.

Left with nothing, it’s hardly surprising that many went ‘to the rot’, passing on the legacy of the dole to their children as they once passed on the legacy of their industry down the generations. A proud culture of hard work was obliterated practically over-night, with nothing left to replace it for many, but the dour visage of the Job Centre and the accusing fingers of the very same politicians who trashed their lives and – by now – those ancestral livelihoods. In a sense, this phenomenon of social decay has been an essential precursor for the transformation of the system into something insidious.

Now, we have a new regime, a curious amalgam of Tory leaders and LibDem lieutenants, that is forging ahead with the solution to the trans-generational worklessness their political forebears fostered; the poverty and the unemployment of communities that are being trashed by the latest recession, even as they were still struggling to recover from previous downturns – they will grant their labour free to clients in the private sector.

The transformation of the unemployed into state-subsidised labour, delivered free at point of delivery, is welfare for the business class. It rips the concept of the Welfare State inside out and utterly revokes the social contract of old. More than that, it epitomises the transformation of the welfare benefits system into a mechanism for social control – one that can be used to herd us all into quiet compliance.

Every Job Centre becomes the local ‘command and control’ hub, where the unemployed must duly report; where every aspect of their lives is subjected to intrusive scrutiny, gathering intelligence that may be used against them; where the fear of losing benefits replaces watchtowers and guards and barbed-wire fences. This is the surveillance state – one aspect of it – that will strip the citizenship from all but the wealthiest.

Some may welcome the ever-more draconian regime that those on benefits face in this day and age, but the wise citizen must surely realise that few of us are more than a P45 away from reporting for duty in this brave new world of a very British gulag. Over the last two years, there have been many in 'secure' employment who suddenly found themselves reporting, bewildered, for duty at their local Job Centre; how many will subsequently find themselves back at work – on pain of losing benefits?

First they came for the long-term unemployed. After that, everyone else was easy.


The Social Security Advisory Committee is said to be scathing of the workfare proposals. It released a critical report about the Work Programme in April 2011. Find it here:


Mark Cantrell,
29 August 2011

Copyright © August 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Category: COMMENT


Brilliant blog Mark Cantrell ….

I have an issue however with the suggestion that the unemployed passed the “legacy of the dole to their children” since it implies that the unemployed are at fault when the plain and simple fact is, it is the economy!

The unemployed have no other choice but to organise now as either way they will `Starve and be Homeless’, it is hoped visitors here will help build upon the Unemployment Movement`s campaign to organise from the ground up an army to fight the `insidious` the author talks about, as a war is literally being waged against us.

Thanks for the comment. The issue you raise about the piece is a very fair point; a loose thread that needed tugging. I was feeling a little over-stretched and tangled up in my thoughts by that stage, I'm afraid.


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