| Two men sentenced to perform unpaid community work wearing tabards emblazoned with Community Payback to make their punishment visible | MR Online Two men sentenced to perform unpaid community work wearing tabards emblazoned with ‘Community Payback’ to make their punishment visible. Photo credit: libcom.org, “At your service: tales from community service.”

Work, capital and the ‘administration of punishment’

Earlier this summer, the British Prime Minister Theresa May launched the report of the ‘Taylor Review of Modern Employment Practices’: the outcome of a ten-month fact-finding exercise taking in evidence from a range of bodies and organisations across the UK, as well as a series of regional public meetings and ‘innumerable’ roundtables and discussions. Billed by the government as an ‘independent review’ considering ‘the implications of new forms of work on worker rights and responsibilities, as well as on employer freedoms and obligations,’ the report culminated in a ‘national strategy for work’ claiming to ‘enable a significant shift in the quality of work in the UK economy.’

At the heart of the Taylor Review was the notion of a ‘good work economy’: one building ‘on the distinctive strengths of our existing labour market and framework of regulation; the British way.’ And from the outset it bombastically championed a labour market which it described as ‘rightly seen internationally as largely successful,’ as well as lauding the ‘flexibility’ that ‘is a key contributor to [its] positive performance.’ Despite stating that its measures would ‘tackle exploitation in the labour market’ then, it actually appeared more interested in strengthening this labour market model’s dominant trajectory. And this was as unremarkable as it was unsurprising. The review was led by a former policy advisor to Tony Blair; and as one among many of its critics pointed out, given that the four-strong panel also included a solicitor whose firm advises employers on industrial relations and a Deliveroo investor who ‘didn’t sell his stake in the company until four months after the review began,’ many had low expectations from the start. Indeed, as one expert in industrial relations succinctly put it, one of the main outcomes of the entire process was to encourage the government ‘to merely carry on doing what it is already doing – coaxing, encouraging, cajoling and exhorting employers to be nicer and better to their employees for their own sake as well as those of the employees – but all without the force of law.’

Against this backdrop then, it is also hardly surprising that a review that explicitly claimed to consider ‘innovative forms of working’ in a ‘labour market [that] is changing,’ failed even to acknowledge a set of labour practices that, whilst certainly not unique to Britain, are nonetheless emblematic of the ‘British way’: those that are mandated or administered through criminal justice and welfare policies. One of the central rationales of the Taylor Review was an attempt to capture ‘key trends in the way we work,’ as well as the implications of this; and it documented several ‘key trends in atypical work’ including part-time working, self-employment, agency work, temporary work, zero-hours contracts, multi-jobs and gig-economy work. But among these trends there was no recognition that the above forms of work even exist. And that despite the fact that they could potentially involve over 100,000 ‘workers’ a year.

To give just some rough indicator of their prevalence: in 2016, over 64,000 people were mandated to carry out unpaid work as part of a community sentence or a suspended sentence order, and in 2012-13 it was estimated that around 7 million hours of unpaid work were carried out in this context, worth about £45 million had workers been paid the minimum wage. In the year 2016/17, around 11,200 prisoners worked for around 16 million hours whilst commanding, in some cases, ‘full-time’ wages as little as £4 per week in a context where refusing work can potentially have repercussions.1 And although the number of people mandated to carry out workfare placements – unpaid work in exchange for social security payments – is not known, there were 91,000 people on ‘government training and employment programmes’ in March 2017, of which workfare will make up some part. Indeed, what all of this this points to is the routine facilitation of unpaid, or sub-waged labour under the rubric of punishment and ‘reformation.’ Or in other words, the criminal justice and welfare systems produce and reproduce a distinct labour force that while marginal, is still significant.

None of this is actually new, of course. Penal labour has a long history in the UK, as elsewhere across the world. ‘Workfare’ policies stretch back several decades in their current guise, whilst also having their origins in pre-welfare state formations. And unpaid work as part of community sentencing was introduced in the 1970s. But whilst these things have deep roots, they have been brought together in the last few decades though a ruthless drive to open them up to capital, as well as a desire to transform their role. Through a cocktail of profit and punishment, through particular interpretations of rehabilitation and reformation, these labour forms have come to exist as an opportunity for those wanting to extract value from them, or facilitate their use.

One of the things underpinning this, in concrete policy terms at least, has been the Conservative-led coalition government’s promise of a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ in 2010, made against the backdrop of the fiscal ‘crisis.’ Shortly after coming to power, the coalition government published a green paper ‘Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders’ stating that the ‘administration of punishment’ was going to be transformed in order to become ‘more robust and credible,’ that prisons were going to become ‘places of hard work and industry, instead of enforced idleness,’ and there was going to be a ‘greater use of strenuous, unpaid work as part of a community sentence alongside tagging and curfews, delivered swiftly after sentencing.’ This ‘administration of punishment’ should not be seen in isolation, the paper went on to make clear, for it was to work alongside reforms in welfare ‘to encourage employment and dramatically reduce the number of workless households.’

What followed was a swirling mixture of reforms, initiatives and developments that continue to this day. A few years later, for example, the Prison Industries Unit was rebranded as One3One Solutions: a body charged with harnessing the potential of a captive workforce and opening it up further than it already was to those companies willing to use it. In the financial year 2015-16, One3One Solutions’ financial data showed more than 350 contracts for prison labour, with ‘customers’ including sports clubs, book distributors, hospitals, laundry services, recycling companies, textile companies, government departments, call centres and diecasters. The labour that prisoners provided ranged from recycling work, to general assembly and packing, to laundry work, agricultural work, call centre operations, textiles, printing and woodwork. Around the same time an ongoing shift to marketisation in probation was intensified, with over 70% of probation contracted to the private and voluntary sectors through contracts worth over £450 million. 35 Probation Trusts were amalgamated into a National Probation Service, as well as 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) tasked with managing ‘low-to medium risk’ offenders. Certain aspects of these contracts were delivered on a ‘payment-by-results’ basis, and in this the government drew lessons from its mass expansion of workfare. As the activist group Boycott Workfare has documented, workfare ‘exploded’ after the coalition government came to power, with 22,000 people being referred onto workfare schemes per month by February 2013, and nine distinct schemes in existence a year later. From the £2.2 billion paid to contractors for the flagship ‘Work Programme,’ to the contracts for work capability assessments worth some £595 million, the welfare delivery market remains a consistent source of capital for those companies securing contracts.

But if this gives some indication of the sums available for companies aiming to facilitate this administration of labour, the roles that these labour forces play shifts in conjunction with prevailing political and economic winds. Penal labour, as One3One Solutions’ customers unambiguously point out, provides access to a workforce that can be utilised to keep costs down and, in some cases, compete with lower labour costs internationally. One firm that has utilised penal labour since the 1990s, for example, has stated ‘It’s allowed us to keep manufacturing in the UK, which I don’t think otherwise would’ve been possible. Most of our competitors moved to Eastern Europe about 10 years ago.’ Unpaid work as part of a community or suspended sentence – which is prohibited from making profit for anyone (aside, of course, form those companies which have secured the contracts to facilitate it) – has been depicted as ‘free labour for local communities,’ with community groups encouraged to nominate work projects seen to have tangible outcomes (such as clearing rubbish, removing waste or restoring dilapidated buildings). Workfare, meanwhile, has been utilised by employers to fill short-term staffing shortfalls (without, of course having to pay any labour costs) and in some cases to maintain a floating, unpaid workforce of workfare conscripts.

These labour functions, in other words, are neither uniform, nor static. But this does not mean they do not fall within the same analytical frame. For they are all mechanisms through which the state (and indeed its subcontractors) uses welfare and criminal justice policies to transform the criminalised and the marginalised into an ad-hoc reserve army of labour, performing varying functions as and when required. Mopping up, in many cases, recalcitrant populations that have been criminalised or thrust into un-or-under employment, these processes serve at the same time as an attempt both to enforce labour market discipline among those experiencing them, whilst disciplining others through laying bare their potential fate. Witness, for example, the visceral spectacle of unpaid community work, with offenders made to wear tabards with ‘community payback’ blazoned on the back so their punishment is visible to all. Witness, too, the extra onus placed upon unemployed offenders on such programmes who are expected to work three-to-four days a week ‘hard labour’ while spending the rest of the time job-hunting. ‘Decent, law-abiding people can work a full five day week,’ said the Minister for Prisons and Probation when introducing these rules, ‘and so should offenders.’ And this is exactly the same mindset behind workfare, which punishes people whose ‘offence’ is to be out of work, or not working enough.

Despite distinct differences in these labour forms then, they create a particular labour force upon which certain commonalities are imposed. Prison workers, as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Incarcerated Workers Organising Committee reminds us, ‘have no rights to organise, no contracts, no pensions, no right to choose what they do – they have no use of the gains that workers have fought and died for over centuries.’ These are features that are shared with all of these labour forms which, no matter how temporarily, create a workforce that can be utilised when needed and disposed of when not. Indeed, as one recent study of workfare revealed, even when rights such as health and safety protections are available, the nature of such work means that these protections are routinely denied to workers. And as forms of labour, these work modes show few signs of abating. As the Empty Cages Collective has pointed out, for example, the current wave of prison expansion in the UK seeks explicitly to harness penal labour, with new prisons being built complete with warehouses and factory-like conditions to facilitate this. This looks likely to continue a trajectory which has seen the number of hours worked by prisoners increase by around 26 per cent (from 12.7 million to 16 million) between the years 2012/13 and 2016/17. The rolling tide of workfare has been checked in some ways – not least as a result of resistance from those who have experienced it – but is being reworked and intensified in others. And the slow privatisation of probation may be falling apart at the seams, but the architects of its transformation shown no sign that they seek to reverse the transformation of community payback into a punitive scheme operating as a source of profit for those companies facilitating it.

All of these things indicate profound directions for the future and the present meaning of work: one where it is depicted simultaneously as punishment and as payback, as rehabilitation and also as retribution. These are labour forms in which welfare policy violently coerces the poor, the disabled and the marginalised into unpaid work through the threat of destitution, and where criminal justice policy transforms those convicted of offences into business opportunities. And while it is entirely predictable that a government-appointed review committed to reinforcing neoliberal dogma does not spell out the implications of this, it is surely essential that those on the left do so.


  1. It should be noted that this includes public and private prisons, as well as immigration removal centres, and does not include prison work such as ‘cooking, serving meals, maintenance and cleaning.’ For more on the political economy of labour in immigration removal centres, see here.