Last week the government announced plans to force the unemployed to work for free in the community or have their benefits withdrawn. This is intended to incentivise the 1.4 million people currently claiming jobseekers’ allowance to seek gainful employment, in so doing reducing the £190 billion deficit and waging war on the ‘benefit culture.’
It is true that many people choose to claim benefits rather than seek work, but the Coalition needs to understand why this is. The minimum wage in Britain is so pitifully low, and unskilled jobs so monotonous and depressing, that in many cases it is logical to choose the miserable condition of long-term unemployment over the miserable condition of wage slavery. This is not a reflection of the inherent laziness of the disadvantaged; it is a simple, rational calculation.
The Conservatives won’t introduce the living wage of £7.14 an hour that Labour have recommended, and the Universal Credit system that is likely to replace jobseekers’ allowance will mean the unemployed will stand to gain only £5 a week by working. That £5 is a miserly compensation for hours of the unrewarding, menial and often humiliating work minimum wage earners will no doubt be expected to accept.
Benefit claimants don’t enjoy living on the dole. Anybody who has spent a day home from school is familiar with the boredom, loneliness and purposelessness that comes from watching daytime TV in your pyjamas. Not having a job or a hobby is depressing. But so is spending eight hours a day on your feet without a break, washing up plates encrusted with the remains of meals it would have taken you three hours (before taxes) to earn. As is pulling pint after pint, without the opportunity to sit down even when no customers are around, knowing that you would have to work for 40 minutes just to afford a single drink you serve. When you work for such a pittance, you end up calculating everything in time-money units. It is no way to live.
The biggest irony of the Tories’ unemployment forced labour scheme is that it is a pernicious inversion of Keynesian ideas about government job creation. If the Tories were throwing the money that would otherwise go towards jobseekers’ allowance at national public works programmes, as were so successful under Roosevelt’s New Deal, a culture of respect for labour and the right for work would be formed. Rather than formulating a ‘benefits or forced work’ dichotomy, which marginalises and demeans the unemployed, the government could bankroll community work schemes, which would both inject confidence and hope into the chronically jobless, and help the economy by revitalising industry. This is an ideal time to create a green infrastructure, for example.
The fact is that the Conservative government has an ideological aversion to public services, in whatever form. They would rather slash and burn public spending and penalise the jobless, at the same time revealing contradictions and hypocrisy in their own policy, than allow the taxpayer to help alleviate structural injustice and unemployment. In the same week that they have cut hundreds of thousands of jobs in the public sector, the Tories are announcing plans to force the unemployed to work for free.
The dehumanising grind of meagre pay and mind-numbing work in the private sector has already alienated millions of people. Unskilled workers in the commercial sector feel no attachment to or purpose in the work they do. The ‘benefit culture’ is a direct result of public sector cuts and government courting of exploitative private business.