We propose an alternative policy response to the policy of Workfare which would include improving job training, improving education, and removing the perceived force to work that Workfare participants experience. Improving job training is an important objective which relates to our overall goal of transitioning those on social assistance out of poverty because, as discussed in some previous posts, the job training that jobs offered to Workfare participants is inadequate for providing workers with worthwhile knowledge that they can apply to their current job and potential future jobs. Inadequate job training leaves Workfare participants trapped in their current jobs because they are not well enough prepared to attain employment elsewhere. Understandably, workfare participants may start at the bottom of the ladder, and a job in and of itself is an improvement from nothing at all, but in order to prepare social assistance recipients for life they need to be prepared for other types of jobs. Inadequate job training takes away workers’ rights to seeking challenging and rewarding employment. Low levels of education are also detrimental to workers’ well-being and personal growth. If a worker only has a grade 6-level education, this worker will be hard pressed to find an employment opportunity that will pay well, will include even minimal benefits, will be intellectually stimulating, or will provide opportunity for promotions. Workfare participants experience being forced to work. The entire idea of Workfare is that participants work in order to receive social assistance. Although some say that people who cannot or will not work need to be pushed into working, this view fails to recognize the individual differences that exist between people. The force that participants experience can be stressful and discouraging and can lead to even greater hardships in these individuals’ lives.
It is our recommendation that in this alternative response to Workfare, employers provide better job training to employees. This means that employers themselves need to be prepared to properly train their employees. How would this be carried out? Firstly, employers participating in this alternative program would attend a sort of class in which they would learn the best practices that train employees. Classes would be offered by a team of individuals which could include a representative from human resources development (i.e. government official), a representative from a community organization or community centre, and a member of the community. This team which includes an “expert”, a community collaborator, and a peer to the community, would provide a well-rounded approach to training techniques, as well as providing multiple perspectives so that a variety of voices would be heard. We cannot rely only on “experts” to determine the best approaches to job training. By listening to members of the community we have a better opportunity for learning what the demands are in terms of job training. Secondly, after becoming educated in this way, employers would present their learnings and their own style of application of this education to employees. A round-table discussion would enable employers and employees to be on the same page and come to an agreement on what is expected and what can be provided from and for both parties. Third, the actual implementation of the agreed-upon job training techniques is obviously key for this alternative job training to occur. Overall, our perspective on Workfare’s inadequate job training is an alternative response that entails a collaborative and participatory approach in which employers and employees work together to be in agreement upon what kind of job training employees will receive. Therefore, although exact details cannot be stated as to what precisely would be involved in this improved job training, it can be said that employees’ voices would have a main role in what would be involved.
We also recommend that education levels of each and every worker participating in the program are assessed. This includes evaluating their proficiency in English as well as other languages, evaluating their basic math skills, literacy, and their educational history. Too many Workfare participants have been placed with employers without having had their education assessed. This again is another trap for workers because their strengths that they bring to the job are ignored, and the aspects of their education that need to be developed are also overlooked. Being bilingual is an asset in many workplaces, but if this is not recognized then bilingual Workfare participants suffer from not being able to apply this asset in a workplace and potentially attain a better job. On the other hand, an individual with a low education level needs to develop their education so that he or she will not be trapped in menial labour for life. Rather than forcing them to work, a plan could be implemented to assist the under-educated individuals acquire at least a high school education, or higher, so that their future employment opportunities would be more plentiful and of better quality. Education assessment is necessary to ensure participants the best possible placements and also to identify which workers need to develop their education before working.
The feeling of being forced into work is something that can leave a worker bitter, resentful, and unmotivated to work. One view that exists is that mandatory Workfare participation will motivate welfare recipients and help them realize that they need to work; they will adopt the attitude that they can, want to, and need to work in order to receive social assistance. This has been shown to be inaccurate in many instances, as social assistance recipients’ individual situations are ignored and the assumption is made that they have nothing else to do. In fact, single parents, for example, have their hands more than full and to work is truly not feasible while simultaneously caring for young children. To put it another way, let’s try to imagine that a middle-class, white, heterosexual, single (with no children) female works an average of 40 hours per week at the job she has worked at and loved for six years. All of a sudden, she is told that in order to receive her normal pay cheques she will need to start working another job in the evening and on the weekends; otherwise, she will not receive her pay. Not only will her pay remain the same (so she won’t be paid extra for the second job that she takes on), her hard work for these six years seems to be completely irrelevant. Is this fair? Some of us would argue that this sounds ridiculous. Now let’s ask ourselves, is this different from a single woman in the same basic situation, except she has three children under the age of 2 years? She works all day every day, including evenings and weekends, supporting these children of hers. To top it off, she doesn’t get paid for this work that she does around the clock. How would she be able to be forced into working for welfare? She’d need to put her children in day care. Ok, but some reports claim that decent child care costs $1600 CAD a month. Many middle-class families with two parents working relatively well-paying jobs find this sum a difficult amount to come up with each month, let alone someone on welfare. This story provides an analogy of how that force that Workfare places upon participants is discouraging and unmotivating because it causes such a high level of stress that individuals are left feeling hopeless, helpless, and worthless. An alternative policy response would remove the force to work (ways of how to tackle this idea will be explored in a later blog posting) and instil a sense of worth in participants.
The ideas suggested above are ways that our alternative policy response to Workfare would aim to address the oppressive factors that exist in Workfare. We take a humanistic, collaborative, anti-oppressive stance that aims to involve participants in the process and focus on what’s important in each and every one of our lives. By concentrating on individual differences and development, our approach would create better incentives to work and would value each worker’s situation in relation to their abilities to work.