When I decided to leave my full-time job at The Salvation Army back in 2007 I had a bit of consultancy work lined up and a fairly hefty chunk of ambition.
I soon got a job at a radio station in London and alongside some other projects I had a good amount of work to be getting on with.
When I left the radio station I needed something else. I was blessed by projects and work opportunities that were in place but it wasn’t a full weeks work and I wanted to keep my horizons open and keep working.
And so when I found out about part-time job opportunities at my local Starbucks I applied and was offered a job there.
I worked there for just over a year and thanks to an amazing manager and a lovely team was able to build up my TV work experience and now continue to work in an industry I love.
So why do I tell this story??
Well, this past week The Salvation Army has taken a bit of a kicking for being involved in the workfare scheme. This scheme provides work experience type placements to people on benefits…sounds good so far, right?
The catch is – if someone refuses a placement they can have their benefits stopped for up to 3 years…maybe not so good after all.
Opponents call the scheme coercive and compare it to forced labour (like here)
Supporters of the scheme describe it as a helpful and effective pathway back to work (like here)
In fact, The Salvation Army themselves released a statement about their involvement (actually here)
Several charities have now pulled out of workfare. Some out of conviction that the scheme is flawed, others under pressure from protest groups and in fear of public disapproval.
So, what do I think?
Well, firstly I know that work experience is vital to gaining long-term employment. Work breeds work has been my motto for a long time now and I truly believe it. Any opportunity to get people back to work should be seriously considered.
Secondly, I know that not all back to work schemes are a good idea. There are clear dangers in workfare, not least of which is turning a state provided benefit into a reward for mandatory activity.
Thirdly, just because it came from the Conservatives doesn’t make it a bad idea. The “politics” of Tory bashing is boring and makes people look ill-informed. I grow increasingly frustrated with intelligent and articulate people treating our current government with the disdain of a Big Brother viewer or pantomime audience member just because they’re supposedly the “bad guys”.
Finally, the story I told at the start of this blog is not the story of every jobseeker. I’ve benefitted from great opportunities, a good education and a supportive network of family, friends and colleagues. I recognise not everyone has shared that experience, but I also recognise that some people have and what we’re witnessing here, in some cases, is pride. Pride that views some things “beneath” us and some jobs too menial for us.
And so in the midst of this discussion, the issues need to be discovered and debated even further.
The issues around fairness, entitlement and equality must all be up for grabs.
The scheme should be weighed up in a balanced and mature way and then action taken if, and where injustice is found.
But let’s never assume that flipping a burger, tagging some clothes, sweeping a street or fastening an apron are somehow demeaning. That going to work is somehow the enemy of freedom or the end of equality.
Let’s not foster a culture in which if you’ve got a degree, the service industry is beneath you.
Because to do that does something even more worrying – it places the people who do those things beneath us. It demeans the thousands of people who get up each day and make those things their job and work hard at them.
The Salvation Army, my church, needs to take another look at the workfare scheme. It needs to see if there’s a better way to achieve the goals of helping people back into work, and if there is, have the courage to step out and try it.
The same movement that served doughnuts in trenches and opened a match business has the potential and creativity to help solve unemployment – all we need is the courage to try it.
We have members, employees and friends who have vast experience in HR and recruitment in the public, private and third sectors.
We have members, employees and friends who are paid day in and day out for their incredible strategic minds in the public, private and third sectors.
We have members, employees and friends who work creatively to problem solve and develop ideas and programmes in the public, private and third sector.
So let’s gather some of them and see what else we can come up with – or better still, let’s volunteer some ideas and see if we can’t bring something together.
The protests, bells and whistles will move on. The outrage will fade and we’ll still have too many people without the skills, confidence or support to get back to work.
Let’s see if we can’t make a difference there.