In the news today is the story that the government acted unlawfully in requiring a woman to work for Poundland for two weeks in order to receive her unemployment benefits.
The judge ruled that the government acted unlawfully for the following reasons: ‘not giving the unemployed enough information about the penalties they faced and their rights to appeal against being made to work unpaid for.’
However, the government minister concerned, Mark Hoban, is quoted responding the claim that her treatment amounted to forced labour. This in itself is interesting, because the Guardian and other campaigners against the Work Programme appear to be treating the judgement as affirmation of this claim. The quotes in the Guardian article clearly show that the judgement does no such thing, but given that this is the issue that everyone’s most interested in, I thought I’d reflect upon it myself (and then inflict my musings on the rest of you).
Under the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (which the UK is signed-up to), forced labour counts as:
all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily’ but excludes ‘ any work or service which forms part of the normal civic obligations of the citizens of a fully self-governing country
I suspect that Hoban might claim a) that signing up for the Job Seekers Agreement (JSA) counts as offering oneself voluntarily, and b) that is might also count as part of the normal civic obligations. I think the latter sounds ropey, but the former less so. The sanction for not working is up to 26 weeks of loss of benefits. However, if I go to the Job Centre and tell them I’ve not been looking for work, and I don’t intend to look for work, and they can go screw themselves, then they will remove my benefit. That sounds like it has some similarities with the Work Programme case. To claim JSA I must first sign the Jobseekers Agreement, in other words I make a promise to do certain things, I sign a contract. What the judge has said in the case above is that the terms of the agreement were not sufficiently spelled out and so the contract is not binding. What that doesn’t mean is that the Work Programme is necessarily a form of forced labour. If the benefits provided by the JSA are given on the understanding that I must be seeking work, that I will work if I can, and that I must do what I can to improve the chances of my getting work, then it seems to me that calling the Work Programme ‘Forced Labour’ might be going to far.
One reply to that might be to say that signing up to JSA isn’t really voluntary since the alternative is pretty terrible, but then that could result in an argument that no claimant would have duties to comply with any of the rules of JSA because their acceptance of them was not voluntary. I think this probably stretches the concept of voluntariness though since there’s no coercion or duress involved in signing on, and the unpleasant alternative (lack of money) is not a threat imposed by the government.
One might also reply that if the terms were not clear, i.e. that the job seeker was unaware when signing on that they would be required to enter the Work Programme, then their labour cannot be considered voluntary. This seems like a valid argument, but I’m not convinced, given the widespread coverage of the scheme, that is a strong one. A job-seeker might not have been aware of all of the details of the Work Programme, but it’s questionable that that amounts to not knowing about the obligation at all.
All this is not to say that the Work Programme is right, or that the way that this lady was treated does not deserve criticism. But, I’m not at all sure right to claim that it’s forced labour.
Not only that, but I’m more than a bit worried that the comparison of 2 weeks work in Poundland as a requirement to receive JSA with slavery is actually rather offensive to all of those who really have been enslaved. I worry that the debate surrounding this case may diminish the moral horror of real slavery, and that a misunderstanding about the nature of benefits plays into co-opting the outrage felt at slavery for an attack on something else.
So, this post is a call for clarity about what the wrongs are in a particular case. In order to form the correct response to a situation, and one that coheres with our other moral judgements, it’s important to seek that clarity. If we’re going to focus on what’s wrong in this case then perhaps good starting points would be:
- It’s wrong not to be fully clear about all of the details of a contract.
- It seems wrong (and stupidly inflexible) to require someone to stop voluntary work in a post relevant to their qualifications in order to spend two weeks unpaid working in somewhere that isn’t (unless the extent of that voluntary work prevented active job-seeking).
Those things are bad, but they’re nowhere near as bad as slavery.