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Workfare Is Modernised Slavery

Posted: 27/02/2013 23:00

Workfare is a government scheme to force people into unpaid work. Recently the Archbishop of York made clear that this scheme is immoral, that it should be stopped and that employers should not join the scheme. There are powerful objections to workfare - both economic and moral and it is worth examining them.

The economic objection to workfare is that it damages the effectiveness of the labour market. When governments force people to provide free work for particular employers they both distort the supply of labour and the demand for labour. Or, to put the matter more simply, when governments force geologists to stack shelves they both stop the geologist from finding the best use of their skills whilst taking a paid job away from the person who had been previously stacking shelves.

Workfare is an inefficient and self-defeating policy and it is disturbing to see the UK's Conservative-Liberal government embracing one of the most disastrous economic policies of communism.

Workfare is not only bad economics it is morally wrong. Workfare is a modern form of slavery. This may seem an extreme statement, for we tend to associate slavery with racial oppression, when black people were forced to work for white farmers. But slavery is not always racial and it is not always achieved by violence.

Often people have had to give themselves up to slavery simply to survive. Economic slavery has existed for thousands of years and it is still a common phenomenon today; for example in India many people live in this kind of debt-slavery.

Slavery is forced labour. It makes no difference whether that force is the fear of death by violence or the fear of death by starvation. Calling forced labour 'workfare' may make it sound better, but it is still slavery.

Even when slavery was common people knew it was wrong. The ancient Jewish law created a system of Jubilees to ensure that nobody would be forced to live in slavery for too long. In the Jewish calendar, every fifty years, all slaves would be freed and their original tribal property rights would be returned to them.

Slavery is also in conflict with the basic idea of fair exchange, or, as Christ puts it, "the workman is worthy of his meat" (Matthew 10:10). Fair exchange is free exchange. This is not the same as forcing someone into work. Slavery strips away the dignity of the person by taking away their freedom.

None of this means that it is not important to think about how we help people to find work. The great Jewish theologian Maimonides argues that the highest form of charity is to help someone find work or self-employment and put them beyond the need for charity. But he also makes clear that even the lowest form of charity is incompatible with slavery.

Instead of forcing people into unpaid work we need to design a benefits system that both guarantees us enough to live on and us all with natural incentives to work and save. This is a feasible and affordable reform that would help us make much better use of the freely given talents of all citizens.

Justice and slavery are not compatible. Dressing slavery up as a new kind of welfare reform will not help. Employers and citizens should support Boycott Workfare and stop pretending there is any justification for modernised slavery.

 

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