Emily’s Story – Building a Future from Workfare

At Mustard Tree, one of the most impactful parts of our work is the Freedom Project.

A 20-week course, it is aimed at people who have had barriers to employment, whether that be homelessness or mental health issues, and offers participants the chance for on-the-job experience within our organisation, along with access to crucial support like counselling and mentoring.

In the last three years we have been part of Manchester partnership scheme, which also included Business in the Community and the Booth Centre, that helped get 400 homeless and marginalised people into work, as well as giving 700 more training and support. The Freedom project was integral to this achievement.

Many of these clients are referred to us by the local authority but more recently some long-term employed have come on placements from the Job Centre as part of the government’s WorkFare scheme (now called Help to Work). We were included in a debate on Twitter about WorkFare and it got us thinking about the positive aspects of an admittedly flawed scheme that has engendered a lot of opposition.

Emily was a participant of the Freedom Project and came to Mustard Tree only because she was referred here by the Job Centre. It would certainly not have been her first choice given her past experience of placements but try it she did; and she had the following to say about her experience.

“When I was told by my Job Centre Advisor that they were going to send me on another placement, I was not looking forward to it. In the past I had hated work placements as they were all pretty boring. Back in September I spent a month with Learn Direct and they sent me to Mustard Tree on placement. I enjoyed it, and when I finished with Learn Direct I took the opportunity of joining Mustard Tree’s 20-week Freedom Project. I found it was really good for my work experience, especially as my main goal was to get a job.

“It was a real boost to my confidence when I asked to join the project, as everyone thought I had done a great job in my first month. I was volunteering as part of a small team in the office on the help desk. This involved manning the busy phones, sorting out enquires and keeping the collections and deliveries on track, which is no small task once the lines start getting busy. But ensuring the Mustard Tree vans all go to the right place with the right items at the right time is crucial to the work of the charity.

“My time at the Mustard Tree was short, as I now have a full time job in which I am able to use the skills I picked up there. My new role, which I just started (November 2014) also involves answering phones and helping customers with their enquiries. I not only enjoyed my experience at Mustard Tree, but I have also met some really nice people, gained new skills and gained a job out of it! What more could I have asked for?”

While WorkFare is far from an ideal solution to the problems of long-term unemployment, we have seen firsthand the benefits of these unpaid placements. On one hand the jobless should not be forced to undertake work or to work for their benefits; on the other we believe there are those who gain the skills, confidence and support that allows them to overcome that last hurdle and find a job, as a direct consequence of the scheme.

“Increasingly the good people that Mustard Tree has traditionally supported are trapped in WorkFare. Whilst we oppose some of the core elements of Workfare we cannot turn our backs on those most in need of what we do.” Adrian Nottingham, CEO of Mustard Tree.

And if we believe we can make as big a difference in someone’s life as we did in Emily’s then that is something we need to consider.

Written by Jamie Faulkner, FireCask