Mustard Tree continues to receive attention that criticises and objects to our involvement with the Government’s Workfare Scheme administered by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
As well as objections being voiced on social media, others have picketed and held demonstrations outside our operational bases in Ancoats and Eccles. The focus of the objections seems to be covered in the following points;
- There is a general objection to Mustard Tree collaborating with the state by supporting a system which makes some people work for their benefits.
- That people who work for an organisation should be paid the Living Wage, and that organisations who use workfare are therefore profiting from cheap labour (sometimes referred to as ‘slave-labour), and as a consequence real jobs are being lost.
- That sanctions are used against those individuals who refuse to participate and as a result poverty and homelessness are increased.
- That volunteering should be kept voluntary.
This uncomfortable attention has made us look long and hard at what we do and most importantly why we do what we do.
For 20 years Mustard Tree has sought to give its energy and resources to both meeting immediate needs and to finding long term sustainable solutions for those most marginalised and excluded in our communities. For those that need to access Mustard Tree, we are passionately committed to working with them to overcome the barriers they face to progressing to full inclusion in society and to fruitful lives; we now describe our key driver as not the provision that we offer, but the progression that we offer.
To this end from our large Ancoats base, we offer various lifeskills programmes, educational opportunities, work ready activities, mentoring, counselling, and progression pathways. We receive referrals from hostels, probation, drugs and alcohol agencies, social housing providers, job centres, Social Services and other agencies.
Where employment is the primary goal we run programmes to help those participating to develop the skills, confidence and connections that will enable them to become more independent and to secure employment; over the past 3 years Mustard Tree has worked in partnership with the Booth Centre and with Business in the Community to secure 400 jobs for those most disadvantaged..
We know from several years of experience that a key component to moving into employment is recent work experience and the most practical way to deliver this is to secure a 2-4 week work placement. We have developed links with local businesses who offer this opportunity to our participants, and in a similar way we are able to offer this facility to other agencies working with people with multiple needs. We believe that the 4 week work experience placement is a wholly proportionate and effective tool for accessing sustainable employment and can be a very valuable experience and opportunity for those with no recent work experience. It gives the individual the opportunity to demonstrate that they are work ready, and having received a suitable job reference prospective employers are satisfied that the person will be a valuable asset to their workforce.
It is in this context that we have offered 4 week work experience placements to those who are required by the DWP to be on a workfare scheme; individuals on Job Seekers Allowance’ (JSA), who are facing barriers to employment. During their four weeks with us, they join a community of interest with others who are also facing one or more barriers to progression. They have a choice of supervised work experience in retail, delivery and warehouse environments, business administration, catering, facilities management, and waste management. We provide a hot meal at lunchtime and a variety of additional opportunities (such as educational, fitness and creative arts programmes) which aim at improving life skills and ultimately helping clients back into employment. Whilst some who come for the 4 week placement are not work ready, all are treated with dignity and are valued for what they can contribute. The large majority on completion of the 4 weeks speak of the value of the placement, the renewed motivation to move forward and make further personal progression, and the value of being part of a community that is focused on making a difference in the lives of the most disadvantaged in our society. A good number from each placement request to return immediately to join the Freedom Project; our in-house 20 week lifeskills and work ready programme. We have a growing number who cite the fact that they were ‘made’ to join the work experience placement as the key to getting them through Mustard Tree’s door and then as a consequence the opening of another door to a different future and a different outlook; it genuinely is not unusual to hear the statement that being ‘made’ to attend was the best thing that could have happened to them!
It is clear to us from the growing number of testimonials, for Mustard Tree to withdraw from offering the 4 week placements would hurt most the people who are most vulnerable. Withdrawing might be better for our reputation, but we are convinced that the system will continue and the people in the system will have lost the opportunity to access Mustard Tree. We understand and respect the position of those who are campaigning for change; however, there are many people trapped who need support today. We use every influence that we have, through the long term relationship that we have with the DWP, to affect the local opportunities available for those claiming JSA and ESA; just as those working on the outside hope to bring change, we too are hopeful that by working from the inside we can play a part in bringing change.
The focus of Mustard Tree is absolutely and has to remain on the people we serve. We are not an activism led, campaigning or party political organisation.
We recognise the dilemma that workfare generates and we are saddened by the divisive nature of the debate, but these discussions have clarified for us where we need to be positioned to do what Mustard Tree does best. For the vast majority of people referred to Mustard Tree from whatever source, we are the only door open to them. We then are determined to be the means whereby other life enhancing doors are opened and they genuinely start to experience choice and opportunity. We really hope that we are able to keep this door open to those currently trapped within the system and are subject to compulsory workfare; we would be saddened to have to walk away from them.