The United Kingdom is grappling with a double-dip recession and a disturbingly high youth unemployment rate which has left over one million young workers without the prospect of gainful employment. The situation in the United Kingdom has been marked by widespread protests by students opposing neoliberal reforms that have trebled tuition costs at post-secondary institutions and last summer's riots which rocked urban environs.
Underscoring all of this is the austerity agenda of the Cameron government which has slashed social spending, reduced government expenditures, decimated economic growth, and pushed the unemployment rate sky-high. Austerity is a highly suspect policy tool that has been roundly criticized as an policy approach defying the lessons of history, a hundred years of economic theory, and lacking common-sense. The vast human toll is astounding and one of the groups most impacted by this agenda are young people - this blog post will examine a recent decision on the Cameron government's forced labour initiative which are a key feature of the austerity agenda.
A British decision from last week deserves comment as it stands as a great example of the strategic abandonment perpetrated by political classes in advanced economies against young people. The decision in Reilly & Wilson v. DWP deals with a challenge to the Jobseeker's Allowance Regulations, the sector-based work academy scheme, and the community action program scheme.
The claimants, Caitlin Reilly and Jamieson Wilson, were unemployed jobseekers forced into participating in government mandated workfare programs. Reilly was a recent university graduate forced to work for free at the British grocery giant Poundland, while Wilson was an unemployed truck driver who was forced into living with friends after being cut off benefits.
The claimants challenged the regulations and schemes on four grounds: the regulation were ultra vires the governing statute; that s. 4 of the regulation failed to warn participants about the consequences of failing to participate in the schemes; that the government failed to publish a policy clearly delineating the particulars of the schemes; and, that the schemes violated the Human Rights Act 1998 and Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting the use of forced or compulsory labour.
For the most part Justice Foskett rejected the main arguments of the claimants and upheld the schemes as legally sound, but found some problems surrounding the government's failure to warn the participants about what the consequences would be if they didn't participate in the program and found problems about how s. 4 of the regulation was explained to the claimants. Despite the schemes being found legal, the decision could be a pricey one for the government as now tens of thousands unemployed workers could now claim that they had their jobseeker benefits illegally cut off as the government failed to provide proper information to the unemployed.
The decision is disturbing as Justice Foskett avoids addressing the neoliberal punitive ideology behind the forced labour initiatives that holds that the unemployed are solely responsible for their condition rather than addressing the wider social inequalities that persist in the English labour market. The forced labour initiatives are premised on conditionality which Guy Standing comments on in his excellent book The Precariat that: "Part of the libertarian paternalism agenda is to make social policy more 'conditional', providing state benefits as long as recipients behave in ways set by the state, ostensibly in their best interests. This includes programmes that require to accept jobs or training after a short period of benefit entitlement or lose benefits and risk a permanent blot on their record, held somewhere in an online database".
The unstated policy goals behind forced labour is to make claiming social benefits undesirable, push people out of the labour market, and artificially push the unemployment rate down. This type of policy has also been recently seen in Canada with the Harper government's move to reform employment insurance benefits and push workers to take jobs at much lower salaries than their previous positions - this all being part of the Harper government's anti-worker low wage labour market strategy.
This decision appears that will be appealed by both sides and we'll follow up on it as it winds it way through the appeals process. For more information on unpaid work in England take a look at the Boycott Workfare website and watch this video about youth unemployment and forced labour in England: