Unpaid wages to unpaid benefits

When does a job count as ‘work’? This question is pressing across the EU (which at time of writing includes the UK and will do so whatever the result on Thursday 23rd for some time to come)[1]. While free movement across EU member states is the right of most EU citizens, the right of residence for longer than three months is for self-sufficient (i.e. wealthy) people and for workers and their family members. The EU citizen is paradigmatically a worker citizen. According to the EU a person must be in ‘genuine and effective’ work, but the question of what constitutes genuine and effective work is largely settled at a national level. In the UK from 1 March 2014 one of the tests for work being genuine and effective was that earnings exceed the national insurance threshold for 3 months, or £153 a week. Notably this was, at the time, considerably more than the wages of apprentices, raising the question of whether their work is considered ‘genuine and effective’. Given European Economic Area  (EEA) nationals’ concentration in low-waged jobs in sectors such as hotel and catering, cleaning, agriculture and social and childcare, where zero-hours contracts, agency and temporary working are rife, this kind of threshold is likely to prove challenging. It also means that unpaid wages become unpaid benefits. EEA migrants who lose their jobs can claim Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) as a worker only if they have been in ‘genuine and effective’ work for the three months before making their claim. If they have not been paid enough money to count as workers then they will not be eligible.

The welfare consequences of this definition are perverse even following the government’s logic.  An EEA national who passes the test to count as a worker for the purposes of claiming JSA can claim for a maximum of 6 months before being required to pass a Genuine Prospect of Work Test. To pass this, they must provide ‘compelling evidence’ that that they will receive an offer ‘imminently’ for work of a type that is considered ‘genuine and effective’. To be eligible for benefit an EEA national must have a genuine chance of finding genuine and effective work in the labour market sector that is relevant to their previous experiences. In contrast, as the guidance for JSA decision makers on sanctions makes clear, resident UK nationals must be prepared to do any work, irrespective of whether it is genuine and effective, or whether it is in a sector that is of interest to them. Indeed citizens are finding welfare rights they took for granted increasingly circumscribed. There has been an increase in the use of sanctions for failure to comply with work-related conditions. In written evidence submitted to the House of Commons Work and Pensions committee inquiry into benefit sanctions policy, David Webster found that the total number of sanctions issued to people claiming JSA and Employment Support Allowance (ESA) before reconsiderations/appeals in the year to June 2014 was an estimated 1,030,000. That is not a typo. In the summary of his evidence, Webster described the system as ‘a huge secret penal system, rivalling in its severity the mainstream judicial system but without the latter’s safeguards’. For someone who works on immigration this is eerily familiar territory.

Prime Minister Cameron has often referred to immigration and welfare benefits as ‘two sides of the same coin. It is difficult to see both sides of a coin at the same time, but as the EU referendum has demonstrated, we badly need to connect exclusions from formal citizenship (migration) with exclusions within formal citizenship (unemployment, exploitation, and other forms of marginalisation).  The urgency of this political project is palpable.





[1] This article was written on the 21/06/2016 this was before the EU referendum vote took place.

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