For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Workfare: the Subjection of Labour"

by Attas, Daniel; De-Shalit, Avner (2004)


When viewed as a question of distributive justice the evaluation of workfare typically reflects exclusively on the distribution of income: do the physically capable have a justified claim for state support, or is it fair to demand from those who do work to subsidise this support? Rarely is workfare appraised in terms of how it affects other parties such as employers or other workers, and on the structural effects the pattern of incentives it generates brings about, or as an issue of distributive justice related to a more extensive range of objects of distribution such as access to pleasing jobs. We propose to evaluate workfare by looking at its effects more broadly: (1) we discuss and dismiss on empirical grounds the two most common arguments in favour of workfare, namely that workfare develops self-reliance among participants and it is more economical in the use of altruism among taxpayers. (2) We suggest that workfare focuses on work as a burden and as a means to income, ignoring other beneficial aspects that are conducive to the worker?s self expression. These other benefits are distributed unevenly between two main groups: the privileged well off and the disadvantaged. (3) we argue that workfare functions as a mechanism to preserve these privileges to one class of workers at the expense of another. Or, to put it the other way, the payment of unconditional welfare to the long term unemployed might be justified as one method of mitigating unjustified privileges.

Key Passage

In so far as empowerment may be understood as the opposite of a status hierarchy, of the authority structure, it involves the self regulation of employees. We can describe the process as a vertical integration of work. (p.316)


Workfare, Welfare, Social Support, Reliance, Distributive Justice, Autonomy, Political Economy



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