The Plight of the Mandatory Volunteer Worker

Lecturer in Employment Studies at the School, Vanessa Beck, considers the economic implications of the legal expectations placed on the contemporary unemployed

The social security and support infrastructure provided to unemployed individuals in the UK has weakened substantially. To seek state aid today is, as one commentator recently put it, to travel within a ‘perfect storm of benefit abolitions, freezes, cuts, failures to uprate and conditionality’. Rather than this situation being a failing of the contemporary UK welfare state, we need to understand it as a long established aim of national welfare policy, very much in keeping with broader welfare discussions. Choice has become the name of the welfare game.

In seeking to win this game, the UK has become highly reliant on a competitive market means of social security provision. This is a heavily regulated form of marketization, however. According to a recent study, the level of regulation is so high that there is little scope for client choice. The very means through which the more-choice utopia was to be realised, in other words, have become massive barriers to getting there! While this is a chin-scratching paradox, it conceals much more important issues: the conditions underpinning work-placements in general and ‘volunteer’ work in particular most notable among these.

A significant research report has recently documented a series of court cases brought against the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). In many of these, individuals contest the obligation to work without remuneration, as is their legal right. A DWP representative responded to such instances of enforced workfare as follows: “We are paying that person benefits so they should be complying with what we think is good for them”. It is hard not to suspect a degree of paternalism, if not outright hostility, within state-sanctioned sentiments such as these.

My ongoing research with long-term, unemployed individuals shows that they frequently find themselves forced to apply for a quota of jobs which actually aren’t available in their line of work and/or to apply for jobs which fall well outside their interests and/or capacities. Charities and third-sector organisations regularly report how their service users display what they refer to as ‘protective resistance’ – a form of learned helplessness – from extended exposure to the DWP’s arbitrary conditions and threats of sanction. Contemporary welfare regulation, in this sense, not only restricts the choices individuals can make. In the long-term, it also impedes contemporary work-seeker’s capacities to develop preferences and make decisions. These unintended policy outcomes should worry us.

What should also worry us is the fact that between 50 and 59% of participants on the DWP’s Work Programme are, by the Department’s own admission, still in need of further support, even after two years of participation. Charities and third-sector organisations often end up having to pick up the pieces: providing for the hardest to help whilst being squeezed out of government funding, thus remaining under-funded and consequentially under-resourced. A review of third sector delivery of employment services shows around 40% of third sector contract holders working with disabled people as opposed to less than 20% of all contracts. Despite the evidence, the government remains committed to the notion that prime contractors – i.e. the free market – should alleviate the problem. Surely it would be more sensible to build on the good work already being achieved within the voluntary sector rather than dogmatically supporting large scale provision which lets substantial numbers fall through the net yet lining private pockets.

Originally published at

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