Slave Labour

Cutting benefits will undermine society

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 22nd October 1998.

November’s Queen’s Speech will contain a curious mixture of disappointments and surprises. There will be no Food Standards Agency, no Freedom of Information Act, and no integrated transport. But there will be parliamentary time for a dramatic new welfare policy. The government intends, we’re told, to extend the principle of compulsion to all recipients of benefit: in future, anyone hoping to receive social security payments will have to prove that she or he is seeking work.

The proposal will doubtless be widely applauded. It will be hailed as a bold move to reduce a benefits bill which now costs every household in Britain nearly £80 per week. The idle and unmotivated will be made to do something useful and encouraged to feel like valued members of society. In truth, the government’s new policy is as misguided as Eddie George’s enthusiasm for Northern unemployment and Lady Thatcher’s call for single mothers to be sent to Salvation Army hostels.

People on benefits are almost universally portrayed as both helpless and useless. Lacking either opportunity or enterprise, their lives, we are told, are a miserable round of waiting and wasting. Some recipients do live like this, and many are desperate for work, but hundreds of thousands of people in Britain use their benefit payments as a very low wage for the most socially useful employment of all. Among them are those who devote their lives to bringing up children or caring for the elderly. Voluntary organisations rely on people who would rather do something useful for next to nothing than something destructive for many times more. It’s arguable that no one has made a greater contribution to the economy than the activists using their dole to highlight injustice and ineptitude: protesters saved Britain £19 billion when they helped force the last government to cut its demented road-building programme. Our £80 a week is trifling when compared to the extraordinary sacrifices many of our dole bludgers make for us: they subsidise the social fabric with their lives.

The introduction of the Job Seekers’ Allowance, which is withheld if people seem reluctant to take employment, has already caused appalling hardship. The Salvation Army and the Citizens’ Advice Bureau have been handing out food parcels to people who have been arbitrarily deprived of benefits. Young artists and musicians trying to build their careers have been cut short. Even athletes at this year’s Commonwealth Games were told that their JSA would be discontinued as they had not stayed in Britain to make themselves available for work.

There are also many welfare recipients who would like to take paid employment, but know that, with poor wages and miserable conditions, it would do nothing for their quality of life. The government’s social security plans were revealed just two days after Peter Mandelson hinted that its Fairness at Work proposals will be watered down. While working conditions remain manifestly unfair and while the proposed minimum wage is set at little more than half the European Union decency threshold, the Department of Social Security is becoming the enforcer for exploitative employers, compelling people to take work that no one who could exercise a choice would accept. The government is running a protection racket: you work for The Boss, or we break your piggy bank.

For years the DSS has puzzled over the problem of reducing Britain’s welfare bill. Now it seems to be abandoning its half-hearted attempts to lure people into work in favour of forced labour. Yet the answer to its problem is so painfully obvious that it could only have been deliberately ignored. To get people off the dole, you pay them more.

What this means, of course, is a decent minimum wage, one, perhaps, which respects the European guideline of £6 an hour. Proposals like this are met with horror from bosses and unions alike: it would destroy jobs and make British business uncompetitive. But the 21 per cent increase in the United States’ minimum wage, introduced in 1996, was followed by 18 months of solid growth in jobs, with those at the bottom of the pile benefiting most: decent wages meant lower recruitment and training costs and a motivated workforce. The current collapse of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment provides the perfect opportunity to propose a new global treaty, which would aim to raise rather than lower employment standards, ensuring that exploitation is not a prerequisite for competitiveness.

The stick has been broken repeatedly over the backs of the unemployed, and it still doesn’t work. Isn’t it time we used the carrot?