Jonathan Burnett – Work, capital and the ‘administration of punishment’

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Workfare is a British government policy whereby individuals must undertake work, often unpaid, in return for their benefit payments or risk losing them. It is not only part of Britain’s austerity regime, but has been the source of lucrative contracts for the private sector, both vital to destroying the UK’s welfare system.

Jon Burnett is a Lecturer in Criminology at Swansea University. He has written widely on forced labor, state racism and neoliberalism, and immigration and asylum policy. He can be reached at @JonBurnett.


For a long time in the UK, the criminal justice and welfare systems have worked both to try and impose labour-market ‘discipline’, as well as to produce a distinct labour force. Penal labour has a long history in the UK, as elsewhere across the world. The requirement to work unpaid has been part of the repertoire of community sentences since the 1970s. And over the last few decades, welfare recipients have increasingly been compelled to engage in certain activities – including undertaking unpaid labour – in order to receive financial support. Whilst this shift to ‘workfare’ represents one fundamental part of an assault on the welfare state, it echoes in some ways pre-welfare state formations.

But whilst these things have deep roots, in the last few decades they have increasingly been brought together 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 recent 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 die casters. 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’ in the immediate period 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.

In other words, the labour force produced through this ‘administration of punishment’ may be marginal when compared to the size of the labour force as a whole, but it is nonetheless significant. 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 currently 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.’

But if this gives some indication of both the sums available for companies aiming to facilitate this administration of labour, as well as the size of the labour forces that are produced, 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, from 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 (as well as certain community sentences indicating signs of a general decrease), 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.


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