Hubbub collaborator Lynne Friedli and writer and cultural theorist Warren Clark¹ explore the implications of workfare, mandatory unpaid labour and training for those claiming social security.
The Zone of Rest Denied was created in partnership with colleagues from Boycott Workfare as part of Hubbub’s contribution to All We Need is Rest for the Being Human festival of the humanities at Wellcome Collection. The rest denied exhibition also formed the backdrop to a debate on psychological coercion, workfare and mental health at 37 pieces of flair in Newcastle.
We designed the zone to replicate the relentless nature of labouring to become a (more) employable self, using (and inviting) personal testimonies² to explore the experience of workfare: programmes of mandatory unpaid labour and/or training for people claiming social security benefits. Put another way, workfare means that benefits you receive for not having paid work will be stopped unless you do unpaid work.
Although welfare conditionality – what you have to do (and be) to receive benefits – is nothing new, contemporary workfare is characterised by an increasing emphasis on psychological interventions to ‘activate’ the unemployed. An expanding range of job search, training and work preparation activities, sub-contracted to providers such as A4e, Learn Direct and Ingeus, include tasks intended to modify attitudes, beliefs and personality, notably through the imposition of positive affect. Failure to comply can and does trigger ‘compliance doubts’ that lead to sanctions (the cessation of benefits).
Working on the self to achieve characteristics said to increase employability is an important element of constructs like ‘job readiness’ and ‘lack of motivation’ (one of the criteria for being sent on Community Work Placements) and an important way of demonstrating desirable attributes. The (mandatory) A4e Engage Module states: ‘students will learn how to develop the right mindset which will appeal to employers’. As Esther McVey, Minister for Employment has said: “Employers want people who are prepared and enthusiastic”.
This labour, these ‘technologies of the self‘ and the discourse surrounding it, are central to the experience of many claimants and contribute to the view that unemployment is a supply side problem of personal failure and psychological deficit, rather than inherent in certain free market economic models.
A zone of rest denied is one thing, a life of rest denied is something else. Yet this is the destiny of growing numbers of people moving between work and workfare in the UK’s low pay, no pay economy. George Osborne’s parable of the unemployed man, sleeping off a life on benefits while his neighbour rises before dawn to work, has become the prevailing symbol of undeserved resting, just as having a spare room represents the unearned excesses of those receiving housing benefits.
In this world, a powerful moral discourse of unearned rest reinforces feelings of guilt, anxiety and humiliation in those claiming benefits and normalises the idea that some groups of people do not deserve to be paid for their labour.
“If there’s a job, give me a job. Don’t give my labour to Poundland for free.”²
“How can you devalue a person more than telling them they are good enough to work but not good enough for wages. Rest denied reigns.”
Rest denied is a reminder that time is a powerful currency, sought after, yearned for and also resented when held by those who don’t deserve it. In one recently announced scheme, claimants will undergo interviews to assess whether they have a ‘psychological resistance’ to work, along with attitude profiling to judge whether they are ‘bewildered, despondent or determined’. Those deemed ‘less mentally fit’ will be subject to more intensive coaching, while those who are ‘optimistic’ – such as graduates or those who have recently been made redundant – can be placed on less rigorous regimes. This classification system will form the basis for recruitment to a new scheme obliging those who are long term unemployed to spend 35 hours a week at a job centre – further reinforcing unemployment as a space of profound busyness.
Testimonies of people on workfare bear witness to the exhausting and isolating nature of these experiences, which range from daily ‘positive’ emails to mandatory cheerfulness and psychometric testing:
“You begin to feel like you are outside of society.”
“Turn on the TV or read the paper and you cannot escape the mantra of benefit scroungers. Imagine applying for jobs every day only to be told you are not being positive enough and then sanctioned by your ‘career coach’.”
As one visitor to the zone of rest denied wrote, ‘rest would be the cessation of anxiety: something workfare is designed to make impossible’.
Although workfare intensifies the experience of rest denied, many features of the labour market now contribute both to the extension of work and to lengthening periods of work that are unpaid (waiting for a wage). These include well known practices like zero hour contracts, extreme labour matching and traineeships, but also the emotional labour that is now routinely required in the service economy. As Starbucks notes, ‘our work goes far beyond the promise of a perfectly made beverage – it’s really about human connection’ (cited in Tom Walker, Bob. Not Bob. Staff Training Video, in 37 pieces of flair).
The coercive and punitive nature of many psycho-workfare interventions and their myth making power have profound implications for the disadvantaged and excluded populations who are their primary targets. Their relentless nature also means that these days people on benefits have no money, no time, and no place. A recurring theme in the discussions at 37 pieces of flair was being made to feel of no account through the multiple exclusions and experiences of disrespect associated with having mental health problems, not being in paid work and claiming benefits.
Even so, people on the receiving end are fighting back. While earlier challenges to the discourse of the ‘benefit scrounger’ emphasised the enduring work ethic of claimants, new strategies for resistance (becoming useless) question the fetishisation of paid work. We are currently seeing a growing refusal of spoiled identities, suspending belief in the authority of a version of psychology that appears to serve the interests of wealth and privilege. In pulling together evidence and testimonies for the exhibition, ‘rest denied’ seemed easier to define than its opposites. Maybe rest is having the freedom to do as you choose, the freedom to live a valued life.
¹ The authors are members of Boycott Workfare, a campaign that works to end mandatory unpaid work for people who receive welfare.
² Quotations in italics describe experiences of or feelings about workfare from comments made in response to the Zone of Rest Denied and from conversations at Boycott Workfare actions. They form part of our ongoing research to record the views of people experiencing workfare.
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