Last month Brighton Benefits Campaign received information that the Synergy Centre in West Street was involved in workfare (working unpaid for your benefits under threat of sanction) having taken on claimants referred by Seetec – a private provider of the work programme infamous for the number of sanctions it hands out.
Representatives of the campaign therefore took a letter to the Synergy Centre asking them to confirm or deny whether this was the case, and explaining why workfare was destructive to both paid work and genuine volunteering. A long discussion followed, during which a very defensive manager and two directors of Synergy admitted that at least some of the ‘volunteers’ had been referred from Seetec, but indirectly via sub-contractors which they seemed to feel absolved Synergy from responsibility. During the discussion, they also revealed highly reactionary attitudes about unemployment and the unemployed, in stark contrast with the Synergy Centre’s claim to be a ‘progressive’ organisation, but ideologically consistent with their explicitly conservative statements online, such as this one:
‘In particular, Synergy will seek to develop ways of tackling the unemployment trap and poverty trap that constrain people living in deprived communities, particularly how to develop the necessary motivation and work ethics required to remain an active and productive member of society, even when access to paid employment may be limited by the recent economic downturn. In many modern welfare states, there are social payments, unemployment benefits or forms of social assistance which are close to alternatively achievable wages. This arrangement triggers a typical pattern of individual behaviour, because it represents an incentive structure where entering the labour market sometimes does not pay and as a result people stick with unemployment. Though this behaviour is rational in the short run, in the long run these people rob themselves of further possibilities for social mobility.’ (our emphasis)
A statement worthy of a Tory election address! It is not progressive to attribute unemployment to an individual’s failings, rather than the failure of capitalist society. It is not progressive to declare that in a welfare state, people choose a life on benefits over working, or that claimants develop particular patterns of behaviour (which is a frighteningly short step away from this pseudo-scientific nonsense). It is not progressive to distinguish between ‘idle’ unemployed and ‘productive’ workers. These are all right wing ideas which we have worked hard to oppose over the last six years!
Rather than replying to the letter, Synergy then passed the buck to the subcontractor who has been organising ‘volunteering’ as part of a project called Brightoning Lives, which is hosted at the Synergy Centre. We received an email from Peter J.B. confirming that the ‘volunteers’ are claimants who would in any case be forced to do workfare, but maintaining that what they are doing is preferable to – for example – working in a charity shop. While at times this may be true and some may find the work a positive experience, the fact remains that the people taken on by this project are not real volunteers but people in need who have been coerced into taking part. In addition some have been very unhappy at the kind of work they have been expected to perform.
According to its flyer, Brightoning Lives is offering ‘volunteers’ to work in people’s homes: DIY, dog walking, shopping. Anyone – even rich people – can phone and get free servants to tidy up their gardens or move their furniture. At a price… their leaflet states ‘pay as you can’. Their publicity fails to mention that these ‘volunteers’ are actually benefit claimants forced to work for nothing or be sanctioned, or that the person organising Brightoning Lives is a sub-contractor of the Community Work Placement scheme.
Pending requests from individual clients, Brightoning Lives has offered unpaid labour to various voluntary organisations, for example the Permaculture Trust (where some ‘volunteers’ have complained they were expected to pull brambles without gloves). We also have evidence that Brightoning Lives has used claimants on workfare to decorate the interior of the Synergy Centre. We are still waiting for a response regarding what other unpaid work claimants might be performing there.
Workfare is an attack on paid work and on real volunteering, and we are now seeing it creeping into the alternative, creative and environmental sector. We hope that many other groups will join us in putting pressure on the Synergy Centre – which has rapidly become a popular venue with radical and left organisations – to end its involvement with workfare.
There will be a demonstration and rally outside the Synergy Centre at 11am on Sunday 17th April, to coincide with the 99% Festival.
Although Brighton Benefits Campaign has decided not to take part in the festival, this is a demonstration against workfare, not against the festival which was organised by the Brighton People’s Assembly in good faith before the issue arose.