80 years of war against workfare



Imogen Tyler has published a short article about workfare in The Precariat.

Read the full edition here.




A shorter version of this blog post was published in The Precariat a newspaper produced as part of the NewBridgeCentre Hidden Civil War project in Newcastle.

The struggles of the under and the unemployed in 1930s Britain is a particularly interesting lens through which to examine the state of welfare in contemporary Britain. This history of struggle returns us to the questions at the heart of what welfare designates –a relationship between citizens, state and the interests of global corporate capitalism.  As unemployed activists in the 1930s recognized- workfare is a key battleground on which the ‘the welfare settlement’, between people and government is fought.

Unemployed women protestors, 1933.

Ardwick, Manchester. One thousand men and women are marching nosily through the streets in protest against the government’s unemployment policies. A Manchester Guardianjournalist notes how lively the protest is, and the ‘numerous banners …bearing legends such as “Down with the means test”, “Not a man for the slave camps”, and “Not a penny off benefit”’ (Anon, 1935, p.13).  In Hyde Park, London, protestors carry a coffin aloft, draped in a banner that reads “Abolish the Slave Camps” (1935). In the lobby of the House of Commons one hundred unemployed men lay down on the floor and shout in chorus “We Want Work”, ‘We Want Work”, “We Want Work”, their voices carrying into the chamber (1939).

women marching 1933

Accounts of the collective resistance of unemployed workers in the 1930s and their demonstrations against the means test conditionality, and workfare policies in the 1930s offer vivid insights into creative acts of resistance against punitive welfare legislation and unemployment reforms. As one protestor remembers, ‘constant agitation preserved above all the sense of dignity of the unemployed men and women. They really felt that here was a struggle they could take part in, that they weren’t just on the scrap heap’ (in Frow, 1994).

The focus of these protests was unemployment relief, and the treatment of the unemployed, what was demanded was jobs, work, proper well-paid work, and particularly skilled work for adult men, who had lost their jobs in the industrial recession, and adult women, who had also lost well-paid and skilled work in mills in the North West of England in particular. What they were fighting against was employment practices which made work increasingly precarious, the of cutting hours, the casualization of labour and the mass introduction of what we would term ‘zero hours contracts’, so you didn’t know from one day to the next whether you had work, the routine sacking of men on full pay, and giving work to teenagers and apprentices to keep labor costs to a minimum. The bigger demand here though, was a demand for the state to take responsibility for the impact of a global economic recession upon industry and jobs, a demand to the state to intervene in the economy.

While the unemployed demanded jobs, newspapers and politicians framed the problem of unemployed as ‘a wastage of young manhood in idleness due to lack of work’ and a fear grew about the ‘an absence of the will to work’, as in particular, as The Manchester Guardianput it, the problem of “The UNEMPLOYED WHO SETTLE DOWN ON “DOLE”:

The 1930s was a period of incredible hardship for many in Britain, a global economic recession having left 25% without work. In areas of heavy industry, coal, steel and shipbuilding, unemployment was 50% or more. Alongside unemployment there was a rising trend of shorter-hours and casualization, a trend that today we term ‘in-work poverty’. This was a period before a universal welfare state, and before tax-credits. At the beginning of the 1930s only those with insurance could claim unemployment benefit, and only for a limited time. The only other option for the unemployed was seeking assistance through the deeply stigmatised remnants of the Poor Law system, which was administered from 1929 by local authorities. AsSelina Todd notes. for millions, the 1930s meant unemployment and unemployment meant not only destitution but humiliation’ (Todd, 2014, 92).

Faced with mass starvation and revolutionary violence, the Government was forced to introduce some meagre unemployment benefit for working men and women, conditional on claimants being able to prove they were actively seeking work. However, a rising welfare bill, led to austerity politics: unemployment benefits were cut by a third in 1931, and the introduction of a household means test saw many thousands lose unemployment benefits altogether.

Politicians where increasingly concerned about the socially disruptive effects of poverty, and the implications of the working class revolt- in terms of both the rise of communism and later the rise of fascism in mainland Europe, there was also the growing influence of liberal social reformers to contend with, conservatives deeply opposed to state welfare on moral grounds, for fear of the cultures of dependency it created amongst the poor, and the rising electoral power of the new middle classes, incensed that their taxes would be used to feed the uninsured unemployed  (see, for example, Piven and Cloward 1971) As Selina Todd notes, ‘stereotypes of fecklessness and idleness dogged press and political representation of those on the dole.’ –and despite hunger marches of the unemployed, and social investigations into the causes of unemployment, the idea that ‘poverty was caused but social inequity, not personal behaviour’ had ‘little political influence’ (76, 94)

A work-for-welfare ideology was formalised in the 1934 Unemployment Act that stated that anybody in receipt of relief could be required to attend day training centres and/or residential labour camps. In cities like Manchester, ‘Centres for the Workshy’, as Government officials sometimes called them, offered training for 33 hours a week as ‘a condition of obtaining relief’. Unemployed women were coerced to train as servants for affluent middle and upper-class households. In the 1930s, many working-class women, particularly those from areas of previously well-paid and skilled female employment, such as Lancashire mills, considered servitude demeaning. While some regarded compulsory training as an educational opportunity, others viewed these centres as ‘penal colonies’. Most shockingly, 200,000 men were sent to remote labour camps on Forestry Commission land and the estates of landed gentry. Initially called ‘Hardening centres’, later renamed ‘Instructional Centres’, these camps, sought to ‘recondition’ the bodies of young men through hard physical labour (Colledge and Field, 1983). Those who refused to go to labour camps, or who left without staying the course, lost their unemployment benefits. As a former camp occupant reflected, ‘the men openly resented the fact that they were being made slaves’ (Joe Ayre, Burnett Archive).

Workfare programmes were supported by political parties of all stripes. Lord Marley, a maverick Labour peer, and committed anti-fascist, was unusual amongst the political elites in speaking out against labour camps:

You have taken them (the unemployed) to a camp to…recondition them for work which does not exist. The whole thing is fantastic. It is not their fault they are unemployed, and the Government are using their immense power to force and bully the people into regimentation in concentration camps. I do not wonder there is widespread resistance to these camps. The Bill has been called a “slave Bill” and the camps have been called “slave camps.” And I believe it is not an inapt description. (Lord Marley, 5thof June 1934, House of Lords)

The most vocal opposition to workfare came from the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (1921-1946), who infiltrated training camps and organised pickets, strikes and mass ‘hunger marches’ of the unemployed.


real crime is workfare

Activists demonstrating against workfare, October 19, 2011,SjurPapa- open source

‘Boycott Workfare’, ‘Stop Slave Labour’, ‘This Shop is a Scrounger’, ‘If you Exploit us We Will shut you Down’, ‘Work Fare: Don’t Buy It’, ‘Workfare is an Attack on All of Us’. These are some of the slogans on the banners held by anti-workfare protestors outside shops and charities profiteering from forced labour of unemployed people in Britain today. Some 80 years after the Second World War brought an end to the 1930s workfare experiments; the unemployed are again forced to undertake menial labour in profitable arrangements between the state and the private sector.

The British Coalition Government (2010-2015) responded to the 2008 North Atlantic Financial Crisis by implementing ‘the deepest and most precipitate cuts ever made in social provision’ (Taylor-Goodby, 2013: viii). The most severe cuts targeted the benefits of working-age families, notably women, children and disabled people.In 2011 the Government implemented the ‘Work Programme’, the largest workfare programme in British History. Between 2011-2015, 1.5 million people were referred to workfare schemes, forced to work 30 hours a week in order to receive unemployment benefits of approximately £57 a week (aged under 25) or £73 a week (aged 25 or over). Refusing to undertake mandatory workfare meant your benefits could be stopped for between six weeks and three years. Combined with a broader punitive system of sanctions, these reforms led to rising levels of indebtedness, homelessness and emergency food aid.

Mandatory work schemes were challenged in court, by Cait Reilly, a 24 year old graduate who was made to work for free at Poundland for two weeks (a chain of stores then running a £1 billion profit margin), and Jamieson Wilson, a 41-year-old unemployed HGV driver, who told he had to clean furniture for a recycling company for 30 hours a week for six months or lose all benefits. While the court stopped short of ruling that workfare constituted forced or compulsory labour – under human rights legislation, the judgement stated the 2011 work programme breached the law, as the Parliamentary legislation under which mandatory workfare was enacted did not contain a sufficiently detailed “prescribed description” of the schemes.”

While the Work Programme ended in 2015 workfare schemes are proliferating. The unemployed are coerced to ‘volunteer’ for ‘Work Experience’ (2-8 weeks) and ‘Traineeship’ (six months) schemes, which involve, again, undertaking menial work for no pay. If you refuse to ‘volunteer’, then you can be placed in Mandatory Work Activity scheme, a 4-week, 30-hour compulsory work placement for those deemed ‘lacking, or failing to demonstrate, the focus and discipline that is necessary to effectively seek out and pursue job opportunities’(MWA Guidance, point 17).

This coercion works through stigmatization. As Tracey Jensen argues “There is an appetite for intensifying the stigmas attached to worklessness and receipt of welfare. Work and worklessness is the moralized site of neoliberalism, where new (anti-welfare) commonsense is most rapidly solidifying” (2014).This shift to conditionality forms part of a longer transition from the idea of welfare based on ‘need’ or ‘rights’ rights and responsibilities, with a greater emphasis on individual responsibilities, to welfare being restricted to those able and willing to demonstrate ‘work-like behaviours’, including participation in voluntary and/or mandatory workfare programmes. In other words to have moral worth, to have value, (with which to resist the stigma), means acting as though you are continuously seeking, striving, for work.

Unemployment is imagined as ‘a problem of personal failure and psychological deficit, rather than inherent in certain free market economic models.’ (Lynne Friedli)

On 30th July 2016, after a Freedom of Information request first submitted to the DWP by Boycott Workfare activist Frank Zola in 2012, the British court of appeal ordered the Government to reveal the names of over 500 companies, charities and councils that had participated in its welfare for work programmes. What was striking about this list is that was barely an aspect of national life, from shopping to leisure, from hospitals, and local councils to charities, has been untouched by workfare schemes. Age UK, Barnardo’s, Cancer Research UK, the National Trust, and Oxfam, Tesco, Nandos and Asda, local libraries, councils, hospitals. In a few years, an entire shadow economy has grown up, powered by the free labour of the unemployed.

All the evidence shows that workfare schemes have no effect on people’s chances of finding work. So what purpose does workfare serve? In short, workfare is a deterrent policy, and a penal policy, increasing the stigma and fear of unemployment in order to dissuade working-age populations from making claims on the state, but also, and crucially, acting as a means to persuade the working classes to accept low paid precarious work. As Jamie Peck puts it, stripped down to is labor-regulatory essence, workfare is not about creating jobs for people who don’t have them; it is about creating workers for jobs that nobody wants (Jamie Peck).

These are clearly also paternalistic politics, which are grounded in a particular politics of conduct, in which the citizen-subject is coercive to work on themselves, to accept they are the problem and to accept also labour market demands for flexible, unregulated and exploitative labour. As Lynne Friedli (and Robert Stearn) have documented in their inspiring work “contemporary workfare is characterised by an increasing emphasis on psychological interventions to ‘activate’ the unemployed.”. This important activist scholarship draws on the work undertaken by groups such as Boycott Workfare, Recovery in the Bin, Mental Health Resistance Networkand Disabled People Against Cuts.

Workfare in also is an experiment in marketisation – through the delivery of public sector work- the work of job centre- to private hands- the service providers, who in turn sub-contract work experience and training to charities and companies.

As in the 1930s there is also considerable capital to be made here. In the UK there has, to date, been no mainstream political opposition to workfare, and all political parties have sought to garner votes by being seen as tough on ‘welfare scroungers’.

The implementation of workfare policies have been interpreted by social theorists as a distinctly neoliberal phenomenon, meaning less attention has been paid to the longer history of workfare in Britain- and the longer histories of political struggles against the exploitation of the labour of the unemployed. What history teaches us is that these struggles are not new but are part of a long ongoing class struggle, against exploitation, and for justice and dignity. In today’s fight against punitive polices such as workfare, we need to remember, learn from, and build on, this history of resistance. As Bill Markall, a 1930s labour camp resident reflected:

they say, there’s going to be a war, that’s when the camps will prove their usefulness. Sometime or other, is it? Ask some of the unemployed how long that war’s been going on. It’s the great economic war… Most of us know something of that…(in Colledge, 1989)


As well as undertaking my own historical research, I want to express particular gratitude to historians John Field and Dave College, and filmmaker Christopher Reeves at Platform Films, for their accounts of labour camps.

Anon (1935), ‘A Procession in Manchester’, The Manchester Guardian, Feb 25.

Anon (1935) ‘SLOGANS IN HYDE PARK: Our London Staff’ The Manchester GuardianFeb 25, pg. 13

Anon (1939), LYING DOWN IN THE LOBBY: Commons Scene MR. BROWN HAS 100 “VISITORS” The Manchester GuardianMar 3, 1939; pg. 11.

Dave Colledge (1989) Labour camps: the British experience. Sheffield Popular Publishing.

Dave Colledge and John Field (1983) ‘To Recondition Human Material . . .’: an Account of a British Labour Camp in the 1930s: An Interview with William Heard’History Workshop: 152-174.

John Field, (2013) Working men’s bodies: Work camps in Britain, 1880–1940, Manchester University Press.


Edmund and Ruth Frow (1994) ‘The battle of Bexley Square: Salford unemployed workers’ demonstration – 1st October, 1931’, Working Class Movement Library, Salford.


Tracey Jensen (2014)‘Welfare ‘Commonsense, Poverty Porn and Doxosophy’Sociological Research Online, 19 (3), 3


Selina Todd, (2014) The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010, John Murray.


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