Mandatory Workfare and Sanctions: Now for Universal Credit claimants

Many still seem to think mandatory workfare does not exist, whilst this does seem to be the case for Jobseekers Allowance, in so far as no benefit sanctions appear to apply in relation to Work Experience or Work Placements. [1]

However, Benefit Sanctions do apply to Universal Credit (UC) workfare under Section 16(3)(e) of the 6 year old 2012 Welfare Reform Act.

Section 16(3)(e) WRA 2012 is used for the 3 month Youth Obligation ‘Guaranteed Work Experience’ placements, but recently the DWP backtracked applying Benefit Sanctions for refusing to start such placements without ‘good cause’. But it is unknown how many unlawful sanctions got applied before the apparent ‘error‘ was acknowledged.

The UC Advice for Decisions Makers ‘Chapter K5: Low level sanctions’ states:

Although participation in work experience is
voluntary, the Secretary of State can
mandate the claimant to apply for, attend
& start a work experience placement as
part of a work preparation requirement”
[In accord with Section 16(3)(e) WRA 2012]
Advice for decision making: staff guide – Accessed 22/06/18 (download pdf)

There is of course ‘voluntary’ workfare, which involves hundreds of thousands [2] of zero wage work placements, including 27,800+ within Jobcentres and the DWP. There is a myriad of workfare schemes, such as 6 month placements on Traineeships and Sector Based Work Academies.

In past anti-workfare campaigning 3 events are of note, in terms of public awareness and media attention: The Occupation of Tesco’s Westminster, The Cait Reilly and Jamie Wilson v DWP litigation and of particular relevance to this Universal Credit context
was ex DWP Minister Chris Grayling being challenged live on Channel 4 with “proof of mandatory work experience“(Ditto K5062), when he claimed it was “purely voluntary”. When in fact, if a claimant did not attend and start a mandated work experience (WE) placement , without ‘good cause’, they would get a benefit sanction. This situation led to many employers withdrawing from Jobcentre led WE schemes. K5062 above, outlines
benefit sanctions in exactly the same way, but now with negligible media interest, protesting or campaigning against.

The reason why workfare may get less exposure than the past, is direct action street protests no longer happen and media attention is minimal and the term workfare does not have the traction it once did. There has also been very few attempts to name and shame employers exploiting UC workfare conscripts and allied to that is a drop in Freedom of Information requests for the names of workfare exploiters. One example is the lack of any real focus on the DWP’s 14 month old Youth Obligation and it’s integrated workfare, one part of which is called ‘Guaranteed Work Experience’ lasting 3 months.

One key reason why workfare now goes under the radar of campaigners and commentators maybe based on the fact that placements are now mostly organised through Jobcentres, rather than how DWP contractors once did for the Mandatory Work Activity and Community Work Placement schemes who kept accessible records of workfare exploiters.

Another issue is how evidence of workfare exploiting employers are hidden in individual benefit claimants’ Claimant Commitments, so less discoverable via FOI requests. This may be a key explanation why the mandatory Youth Obligation keeps a paucity of data and recording on its claimant activity, outcomes and destinations. Even so the DWP does have liaison staff seeking employers to offer workfare and individual Jobcentres also maintain such liaison, so therefore it could be worthwhile making FOI requests covering such.

“Definition of youth obligation

Young people, aged 18 to 21, who receive Universal Credit will be required, from April 2017, to participate in an intensive regime of support from day one of their benefit claim.

After six months they will be expected to apply for an apprenticeship or traineeship, gain work-based skills, or go on a mandatory work placement to give them the skills they need to move into sustainable employment. ”
Financial Times -“Youth Obligation” – Accessed 22/06/18

Charlotte Hughes has spent years supporting and being in solidarity with claimants and protesting against Universal Credit, alongside fellow members of Tameside Anti Cuts, outside the Ashton under Lyne Jobcentre. This leads to thinking, that one way to discover the employers exploiting workfare would be to ask claimants outside Jobcentres.


90% of claimants are still on ‘legacy’ benefits like JSA, ESA and HB. Now that plans are afoot to migrate them all to Universal Credit, the implications of Section 16(3)(e) WRA 2012 may provoke…………

There are also two private members bills seeking to curtail “unpaid trial shifts” and “Unpaid Work Experience“.

A last thought is how Section 16(3)(e) WRA 2012 workfare can also apply to people already in paid employment, just like sanctions are being used for claimants in the UC in-work pilot.

Join Boycott Workfare‘s campaign against forced-unpaid-labour and sign up to Keep Volunteering Voluntary.


[1] Decision Makers Guidance Chapter 34 Sanctions

[2] 500000