The return of the roundsman system

There were demonstrations at the weekend to protest the position where young people are forced to take a four-week ‘Work Experience’ in order to remain entitled to Jobseekers Allowance. Tesco’s advertisements said, apparently mistakenly, that the posts would be permanent. Many of the critics consider that such posts should not exist at all. Newly published figures tell us, however, that over 30,000 people, mainly young people, have been sent to such placements.

The idea that people should work for their benefit is most strongly influenced by the idea of “workfare” from the United States. Workfare is based partly in a belief in the value of work, partly in a desire to deter people from claiming benefit. Representing workfare as “work experience” is an attempt to claim a positive value in the experience.

The “work experience” placements differ, however, in an important respect: the economic value of the labour goes not to the government, or the benefits agency, or to the public, but to private employers. Under the Old Poor Law, paupers were hired out to local enterprises as cheap labour. This was called the “roundsman system”. The designers of the “New Poor Law” were convinced that this undermined the position of the independent labourer, and the principles they introduced – including the abolition of poor relief outside the workhouse – were supposed to protect the position of people who worked. The same kinds of fear are prompted by the current arrangements. In the nineteenth century, many employers hired workers by the day. Present-day employers in the UK don’t in general work that way, but they do have “core” and “peripheral” workers, and they can vary their capacity by taking on short term, casual staff. If employers can draw on a pool of temporary, peripheral staff for free, why should they pay for casual employment?

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