This is a piece I wrote for a campaign group called 'Keep Volunteering Voluntary'. They believe that forcing people on job seekers allowance to do forced 'volunteer' work or face benefit sanctions is wrong. They, like me, truly believe that volunteering is a good thing, but only if you choose to do it. What if you are sent to work for a charity that supports a cause you do not even believe in? What if the work you are forced to do effects your health or mental well-being as it is unsuitable for you? I wrote to the charity with my experiences of the forced work scheme as I was so shocked at what happened to me. They then asked me to write a short blog about my experiences which they published on their website. This is that blog:
On its website, key provider of welfare to work programmes, Pinnacle People claims it "can be relied upon to do the right thing". Does that include leaving someone with the worry of sanctions over Christmas? Here's an account of workfare in charity shops:
"Work Placements, as part of Mandatory Work Activity, were sold to me as a great opportunity to learn useful skills, gain valuable experience, enhance my CV and help my local community. Instead of seeing these schemes as something you're expected to do in return for JSA, I began one with a positive and hopeful outlook. Well, it wasn't long before I realised I'd been completely misled.
My first placement in a local charity shop, which was meant to go on for 6 weeks, lasted all of two days. The problem was they had far too many willing volunteers in the shop and frankly did not need forced 'volunteers' from the jobcentre. The shop was already using one other person on work experience and struggling to find enough for everyone to do. A private company called Pinnacle People, who deal with work placements on behalf of the jobcentre in my area, found it for me. On my first day, a work placement case worker from that company turned up. The charity shop manager made no mention of already having more than enough people and made it sound as if she could really use my help. But then she let me leave an hour early, saying as it was my first day that will do for now, when it was clear she had run out of tasks for me. On the second day she had me distributing leaflets in the area. When I got back she sent me out again with another big pile. By the time these ran out, I must have delivered one to almost every local home. I got the impression the manager was trying to keep me both busy and out-of-the-way. But there are only so many charity shop leaflets you can keep on posting through people's letterboxes and, by the third day, she finally had to admit I was not actually needed. The manager sent me home and rang the jobcentre to cancel my placement. Instead of feeling pleased about no longer having to waste my time going there, my immediate reaction was fear that I would be sanctioned. The manager had to reassure me that she would make it clear to the jobcentre that the placement was ending through no fault of my own.
I was not sanctioned but told I'd have to go on another placement. Pinnacle People were, however, really struggling to find one. They said charity shops were either full with people from these schemes or had pulled out of them altogether. Then, with only two and half weeks till Christmas, they managed to find a shop that would take me. This one involved a much longer journey but turned out to be just as pointless as the first. Four of us had been sent there by the jobcentre to start on the same day. Even though it looked more like a jumble sale than a shop, there was no way it required another 4 people working there 5 days a week. I felt really messed around and decided to complain to my placement case worker. When she said it would help me find a job, I pointed I already had experience of working in retail, both in charity shops as a willing volunteer and in two other shops as a paid employee. So how exactly was this making a difference to my job prospects? When I kept on complaining about the placement, the case worker informed me that Pinnacle People were longer prepared to oversee my mandatory work activity. She said I was the first and only person they'd ever needed to effectively 'ban' from using their service. Then, just as I was trying not to laugh while feeling quite impressed with myself, she told me she'd have to inform the job centre about my attitude problem and all the things I'd complained about, which could affect my benefit.
JSA is my only source of income and my next appointment at the jobcentre was not until January. I spent all of Christmas and New Year not knowing my fate, wondering if I would soon be flat broke. But it turned out my benefit was not affected at all. As far as my advisor was concerned, there were simply no placements available for me. It seems she never heard the entire story so it looks like the case worker was just making empty threats and asserting her authority. I don't yet know if I'll be sent on another placement but think it's probably unlikely. Where I live there are now few shops willing to be involved in these schemes, and we're hardly short of charity shops in my town. I think this is a sign that campaigns like Keep Voluntary Volunteering could be working... "