by Emer Morrison
One of the saddest recurring acronyms coined during this ‘age of austerity’ is NEETS denoting youngpeople not in education, employment or training. Of the 1.04 million young people currently unemployed these are the most worrying for the coalition being termed ‘a time bomb’ by Nick Clegg. The spectre of feral youths conditioned by habit, the current economic conditions and a failed education system to a lifetime of brazen idleness and sporadic petty crime at the expense of honest citizens is conjured by some of the more hysterical press coverage. Therefore, it is no surprise that the coalition was keen to be seen to be taking action though the events which ensued could, hardly, have been foreseen.
In November, the Prime Minister announced a workfare program to respond to this social problem. Similar schemes have been created in other countries, such as, the USA and Japan. Under the proposals Job Seekers Allowance claimants who haven’t found a job once they have been through a work programme will do a 26 week placement in the community for 30 hours a week. In return, they would receive their benefit entitlements and ‘valuable experience’ setting them it was hoped on the path to a life of gainful employment and contribution to society. The proposals have proven divisive to say the least with some seeing them as the great hope for the problem of multi-generational unemployment and others as ‘slave labour’. Unease about the proposals saw several of the corporate partners, most notably Tesco and Poundland, decide independently to participate in the program but pay volunteers minimum wage.
Champions of the policy are keen to emphasise its voluntary nature. Moreover, they argue that it gets people into the habit of employment and provides the self esteem boost of feeling a part of society. If these claims were true the program would indeed perform a valuable function.
However, closer examination reveals the flawed logic undermining the program and it is not difficult to understand the decision of the withdrawing partners. The idea of companies with huge profit turnovers receiving the benefit of unpaid labour at the expense of the taxpayer and exploitation of those at the bottom of the economic food chain sits uneasily with the Coalition’s mantra of ‘responsible capitalism’ and ‘the big society’. It also suggests that these companies need the services fulfilled by these volunteers but are unwilling pay a fair wage for them. To put this in context Pizza Hut, one of few companies to profit and expand during the recession is a participant.
Secondly, can 26 weeks unaided by commensurate job creation or further education opportunities, really counteract a culture of low aspiration and press which stigmatises these young people as predestined to be social pariahs, free-riding off others work? Given that these young people receive no extra remuneration for services rendered and gain no impression of life on even minimum wage (which would in most instances exceed their benefit entitlement), it is not unreasonable to believe any incentive to rejoin the job market is minimal or non-existent.
Last but not least, it is unclear how ‘voluntary’ the program actually is. There is a fine line between encouraging people and twisting their arm. Compelling young people with threat of losing their benefit entitlement unless they do the same work as their ‘colleagues’ but for less pay is hardly likely to be the start of a beautiful relationship with the big society or the world of work. When multibillion pound corporations have more scruples about profiting from cheap labour than either government party, the sort of alienation from society and anger, characteristically associated with NEETs, seems set to remain.