Scores of UK councils have benefited from more than half a million hours of unpaid labour through government back-to-work schemes, a series of freedom of information requests has found.
The FOI requests filed by the group Boycott Workfare, which campaigns against workfare schemes, found 62% of the 271 councils that responded had used unpaid workers on government schemes during the past two years.
Boycott Workfare, which says unpaid schemes such as work experience and mandatory work activity (MWA) exploit tens of thousands of unemployed people, found Newport council had used 112 people, mainly in its street cleaning and rubbish collection department for about four weeks at a time.
Scarborough council has used 120 people through the MWA scheme since 2011. Seventy one people completed the placements, all in the parks department.
Bexley borough council in London has taken more than 100 unpaid placements, including 71 through the mayor of London’s unpaid work scheme, which is funded by the European social fund. One person was offered full-time employment and 15 an apprenticeship.
The council said most of these placements were in library services, where 35 paid jobs were lost after services were merged with neighbouring Bromley in 2012.
Of the reported 1,929 placements, only one in 14 led to jobs according to Boycott Workfare, though this figure did not include apprenticeship placements.
Northumberland county council said it had put 44 people into unpaid work in its council services during the past two years.
“These work placements are intended to be positive experiences, not punitive and must be of community value and not replace anyone’s job,” the council said.
Boycott Workfare said half of council placements were part of the voluntary work experience scheme. But nearly 300 placements were on MWA, where the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) can compel people to work without pay for a month or have their benefit cut for up to three years.
A further 300 people were sent to work for councils through the Work Programme, with placements lasting up to 26 weeks.
Since February 2012 the DWP has resisted a series of rulings from the information commissioner that it should make public the locations of people sent on government employment schemes, saying the data was commercially sensitive and a public outcry could damage the schemes’ operation. A high court hearing on the matter is expected to take place in the spring.
Boycott Workfare said it was “disturbing to find so many councils putting local people at risk of destitution by using schemes that threaten people with up to three years’ benefit stoppages.
“Workfare doesn’t help people find work and councils aren’t offering people jobs at the end of their placement. Instead local authorities are clearly using workfare in an attempt to plug the gaps left by government cuts to public services.”
The group said a six-month employment scheme due to start this year would extend this trend of unpaid work in councils and charities.
“Unless it is stopped, it will mean both more devastating welfare sanctions and fewer paid jobs for everyone,” it said.
A spokesperson for Bexley council denied it was exploiting residents. “The placements were not used to substitute for paid members of staff. There is absolutely no connection between the reduction in posts within the library service,” the council said.
It said the 35 lost jobs were within the “shared back-office service that Bexley operates with Bromley council” and not within “the frontline library service” where the placements took place.
The DWP said: “Most of these placements are undertaken voluntarily and work experience is successful in helping people off benefits and into work.
“Mandatory placements give jobseekers in need of more help the vital workplace skills and experience – especially if they’ve never worked before – to find work,” the department said.
“Claimants are expected to complete placements which are of benefit to the community, including helping charities. It is only right that people claiming jobseeker’s allowance take part in programmes to improve their skills.”