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Working for free nightmare is here to stay

Jubilant opponents of the ConDems’ multi-faceted so-called Work Programme are celebrating two court judgements ruling that most of the schemes were unlawful.

It means that university graduate Cait Reilly shouldn’t have been obliged to give up volunteering at a museum to work for free filling shelves at Poundland in order to keep her unemployment benefits.

Neither should Jamie Wilson an unemployed HGV driver from Nottingham have been told that he had to work unpaid, cleaning furniture for 30 hours a week for six months, under a scheme called the Community Action Programme.

Tessa Gregory of Public Interest Lawyers was among those claiming that all of those who refused to take part in these schemes and were stripped of their benefits have a right to claim the money back.

But the celebrations will be short-lived. Within hours of the judgement, ministers at the Department of Work and Pensions issued new, more detailed regulations which, they insist, allow the workfare schemes to continue unabated.

And in reply to those who want to claim back benefits unlawfully taken away from them, employment minister Mark Hoban was on BBC last night looking and sounding like a character in a Dickens novel whipping up “the taxpayers”,  insisting that people without work should be grateful for the “help” they’re being offered.

Paragraph 74 of the judgement says this: “However, any scheme must be such as has been authorised by Parliament. There is a constitutional issue involved.” So there’s more than the technicalities of regulations at stake here. The government no longer consults parliament.

And it goes deeper still.

Tom Walker, employment law partner at law firm Manches, said:

This judgment upholds what is perhaps the key tenet of employment, namely the 'work wage bargain'. If someone gives their labour to a company, they should be paid for it. However well intentioned a workplace scheme may be, it is very dangerous to introduce compulsory unpaid labour into the UK employment market.

Last week the court heard another legal challenge, this time to the tightening of constraints on non-EU immigration which has split thousands of families in recent months. The operation of these schemes wasn’t subject to Parliamentary approval either.

The deepening global financial and economic crisis has brought the system to its point of breakdown. Companies like Poundland now depend on essentially free, state-subsidised labour to produce and sell devalued and debased products.

Anything so long as it’s cheap and profitable, never mind their effects on people or the planet. The same pressures are at work on companies throughout the global food chain, whether it’s the cheap labour demanded by UK fruit and vegetable growers, or the processors and sellers of horsemeat lasagne.

Now the state is sanctioning the end of the wage-labour contract, which is the fundamental social relationship that defines capitalist production.  And Walker is right. That’s a dangerous thing to do.

So its time for a real celebration.

12 February 2013 was the official first day of production under workers’ control in the factory of Viomichaniki Metalleutiki (Vio.Me) in Thessaloniki, Greece. This means production organised without bosses and hierarchy, and instead planned with directly democratic assemblies of the workers.

Social relations based on private ownership must now either revert to slavery or be superseded by a new stage in social evolution. We must learn the lessons from the past. Arbeit macht Frei – labour makes you free – was the sign posted above concentration camps by the Nazis.

So we have to move forward to a democratically-determined, collective stewardship of the world ‘s resources and sustainable production to satisfy need. This goal can’t be postponed.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
13 February 2013

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