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Unions should block sanctions against unemployed

Thousands of unemployed young people are working for supermarkets without pay for months on end, with the constant threat of losing their measly benefits if they leave, while others are on enforced “mandatory work activity” schemes.

The ConDems, building on New Labour’s regime of withholding benefits from the unemployed, have created a reserve army of young people simply to boost employers’ profits and cut public spending.

More than a million aged between 15-24 are out of work. That is 20% of economically active people in that age group. Unemployment, which has been rising since 2007, is as high as in the early 1980s and now stands at 2.62m, the highest since 1994.

Of course that does not include many formerly self-employed, who wait a long time to qualify for benefits, people on disability benefits who are looking for but can’t find appropriate work, and women at home with small children prevented from finding work by soaring childcare costs. The real figure is closer to 4 million.

The unemployment figure includes 286,000 students looking for part-time work to get them through their studies. Some 80% of teachers surveyed earlier this year said they were encountering students in schools and colleges who did not get enough to eat, or to buy clothing.

Many good job and training schemes for young people have had their funding cut. So far the Coalition’s main contribution is a scheme where young people work for companies like Sainsbury, Poundland, Tesco for up to six weeks with no pay. It is meant to be voluntary, but if they even express a slight interest in the scheme, and then withdraw, they lose their miserable £53 a week job seekers allowance for up to six months.

It is suggested that some retailers are exploiting this scheme to get ready for the Christmas rush, instead of taking on temporary workers as they would normally. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, employers are using government subsidies for apprenticeships to train people aged over 25 they would have hired anyway. Only 37,000 of 126,000 apprenticeships went to 16-24 year olds.

Under the new “mandatory work activity” scheme, young people are given no choice from the moment they sign on and can be sent to work for private firms or the voluntary sector for months on end. Lawyers say this is a modern form of slavery and are challenging it in the courts.

Brendan Barber of the Trades Union Congress says the Coalition must “stop the risk of losing a generation to unemployment and under-achievement by guaranteeing a job or high quality training to every young person out of work for six months”. Pathetic! What about: “The TUC will organise every unemployed worker into a mass movement to remove the Coalition government.” You won’t hear that any time soon!

Young people have done everything asked of them. The number without a qualification has decreased dramatically, and more and more make sacrifices to stay on at college or university. In 2004, 33% of 19-year-olds lacked a basic qualification; by 2010 that figure was down to 18%. Though almost half of young adults do not have a Level 2 qualification (such as GCSEs) at age 16, by the time they reach 21, most have remedied this and the proportion is down to one fifth.

Young people were the driving force of the movements that toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and, before NATO intervention, Libya. They have everything to gain from political and social change and nothing to lose. With the economy heading for recession and more spending cuts on the way, it is clear that capitalism isn’t working and we should make it history. Offering young people the opportunity to join a people’s assemblies movement to transform society is the most important thing we can do.

In the meantime, the trade unions should instruct their Jobcentre Plus members to refuse to impose sanctions on young people looking for work, training and decent pay. Carrying out government orders which turn people into slaves is unacceptable.

Penny Cole
17 November 2011

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