Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Is workfare all bad? Some evidence from Sweden

The debate about 'workfare' - defined as requiring benefit claimants to participate in some form of work-based activity - has raged this past week.  But the debate has largely been clouded by hyperbole from both   those for and against.  Depending on your position, you are either likely to see the claimants involved as slaves or scroungers.

In times like this it's helpful to have some evidence on the matter at hand.  A key argument against workfare is the humiliation it might involve for participants.  Working for huge, profit-making companies like Tesco for around £1 an hour - whilst those around you get paid 6x as much - is hardly good for self-esteem.

But what if this argument is wrong?  What if participating in work-based schemes is actually good for unemployed people and boosts their well-being, confidence and self-esteem?  This is the question posed in this paper from 2001 by Strandh, who considered whether participation in employment programmes boosted the well-being of participants in Sweden.

The theory that such programmes might be good for unemployed people is based upon arguments from social psychology that work fulfils certain human functions, like time structure, social contacts and collective endeavour.  Consequently, while workfare programmes might not ease the economic woe of unemployment, they may help the unemployed overcome the more psychological damage wrought by being unemployed.

In short, Strandh explored three different types of work-based programme: vocational training, work experience schemes (which take place outside the labour market, e.g. community work) and workplace participation.  It is this latter type of Swedish programme - workplace participation - which is most similar to the Coalition's workfare programme, as it involves unemployed people gaining experience in an ordinary labour market setting.

What Strandh wanted to know was whether participation in these schemes was associated with better well-being for participants (compared to those who didn't participate).  The results are quite surprising - especially given the furore of the past week.  In short, when controlling for a range of other factors, Strandh found that participation in work-based programmes was significantly associated with higher well-being amongst unemployed participants.

Further - and this is where it gets interesting - out of the three different types of programme Strandh looked at, he found that the programme with the strongest effect was the 'workplace participation' scheme (e.g., the one most similar in theory to the workfare scheme here).  Indeed, the 'vocational training' scheme had no effect on well-being.  The positive consequences of workplace participation schemes were even stronger for those who had been unemployed for a year or more, while the other two types of programme had zero effect for this group.

It's true that comparing Swedish programmes to British ones might be like comparing apples with oranges - and I'm also not suggesting that current Government policy is the right one.  But studies like Strandh's show that requiring unemployed people to participate in work-based programmes has the potential to have positive outcomes.  We thus need a much more nuanced debate in the UK. One which isn't about whether conditionality is 'right or wrong', but what about which conditionality is right and which conditionality is wrong.


  1. OK, fair enough, I won't argue with properly peer reviewed research. I accept that there may be psychological benefits for unemployed claimants, and most tellingly, for the long term unemployed. I would make two points which may or may not add value.

    My first point is that high unemployment in the UK has been government policy for the last 30 years (although I doubt they will admit it). So for many being term long unemployed has not been a lifestyle choice. So if unemployment has not been voluntary, and I doubt it ever has been in Sweden, it is hardly surprising that the long term unemployed are pleased to return to the workplace, or to enter it for the first time.

    My second point concerns the quality of the British workfare scheme. It is frankly insulting to the unemployed who are given nothing nut menial work to do whatever the qualifications, age or experience of the participants That only menial work is available reflects the assumptions that the UK government makes about those who have been afflicted by the curse of unemployment. Graduates, executives and skilled individuals are obliged, under threat of benefit withdrawal, to stack shelves or sweep floors as if this this is all they fit for. Such people may have already have significant work experience and yet are being treated as new entrants to the workplace. Such compulsion interferes with self-determination and it is no surprise that a challenge in the High Court is being considered.

    22 February 2012 16:45

  2. Hi, thanks for your points on the article.

    I would agree with both of your points. Firstly then - if it's not surprising that workplace schemes can have psychological benefits, then that shows the danger of having a simplistic 'workfare is good/workfare is bad' dichotomy. We need to know more about what types of scheme are best for unemployed people; both for the chance of re-employment and for psychological well-being whilst unemployed.

    Second, I agree that the quality of the British scheme is questionable. Importantly, in the Swedish study the 'workplace scheme' which was successful in boosting well-being involved a greater degree of agency on behalf of the claimant, who actually went about arranging their placement themselves. I would probably support something similar; i.e. that if there are conditions attached to benefit receipt then what those conditions are is actually negotiated with the claimant.

  3. Yes, self determination should be the starting point. Cait Reilly had arranged her own work experience (in a museum) but was compelled to abandon it in favour of JCP's instruction to work in Poundland. Her objection to this has nothing to with "job snobbery"; it is about her right to self-determination. With respect to negotiations, these should be conducted with mutual respect. There is a power imbalance between JCP and claimants which may lead to so called negotiations ending up in "agreements" which are technical only, not substantive. This would simply be disguised compulsion and counter productive.

  4. Some further thoughts.

    The UK workfare schemes are nothing other than state subsidies to private sector companies. Claimants are being compelled to provide their labour at no cost to those who benefit, that is to private companies. Any benefit that may accrue to claimants under these schemes are incidental and not intended. These schemes have been designed with private companies in mind as the beneficiaries, not the claimants. This is why there is so much disquiet about the schemes. The objections do not arise from opposition, per se, to workfare.