In a great many cases, the testimonies revealed that claimants were expected to complete physical labour at an intense pace. This ruthless extraction of labour power is a consequence of being forced into the labour market under very particular conditions. A section of the labour force that works under the threat of having its benefits sanctioned, and involves virtually no wage costs to the employer, can be readily exploited to meet the rise in demand as and when required. As part of this labour process, employers can make welfare claimants work “faster” and “harder”, which can often mean them being refused respite or rest. In some cases, those that did not work hard enough or fast enough were sent back to the JobCentre. One claimant in our sample noted that: “[There were] 10 workers all from JobCentre, none paid workers except management. Forced to recycle rubbish and cardboard and paper… at least 3 of the boys asked to leave and [were] sent back to JobCentre for not working at a fast enough pace.” Another described how his work involved: “Hard labour on feet all day heavy lifting despite my medical conditions. Out of eight that started, only three remain after working all day in the heavy rain and getting soaked and chilled to the bone.” A number of claimants also reported that they were discouraged from taking lunch or rest breaks, and one reported only being allowed one 20-minute break per eight-hour shift. Another said he was charged several pounds per week to have access to the toilet facilities. It was reported that employers would go out of their way to find work for claimants even when it was clear that there were no jobs that needed to be done. There was therefore an expectation that working should permeate almost every moment of a placement, regardless of whether there was work that genuinely needed doing or not. This process of constantly “creating” new work indicates that employers are determined to exploit this system to their advantage even when they don’t need the labour. After all, this is free labour. But this process also indicates the way that the principle of absolute management control is embedded within workfare. Failure to complete or start a work placement can lead to the person on workfare having their benefits sanctioned. (…) As the testimonies here indicate, workfare placements in practice can mean being coerced into working long hours at the whim of an employer. This can mean backbreaking work, exposure to chemicals and dust, and the denial of protective equipment. In extreme cases, it can mean the refusal of access to food or water while at work. Moreover, the evidence provided here indicates that workfare placements constitute a dangerous – and very often illegal – threat to the safety of claimants. If being employed in workfare schemes can be read as a forced and therefore violent process in itself, it should also be read as a process that contains the potential for a different type of violence: the violence that confronts workers when they are told to stand in the cold, to lift heavy loads that they physically cannot lift, or to endure other forms of physical and psychological degradation. Moreover, the testimonies analysed in this chapter reveal how workfare, as a form of forced labour, effectively permits employers to breach health and safety laws with impunity. The threat of sanctions that underpins the arbitrary power of employers is used as an economic force that compels claimants to comply with such violent working conditions.

Jon Burnett and David Whyte in Violence of Austerity (ISSUU)

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