The WorkFREE UBI+ Pilot
WorkFREE emerged out of frustration with mainstream efforts to ‘save’ workers at the margins of global capitalism. As has been widely documented on platforms like Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, these efforts often make people’s lives worse because they fail to ask people what help they need and do not address the underlying structural conditions pushing them into difficult circumstances in the first place. We wanted a trial that was rooted in principles of solidarity rather than charity.
To this end, the WorkFREE project does two simple things: 1) it provides all participants with unconditional cash, on the understanding that cash matters massively under capitalism; 2) it works with participants to identify and collectively address their problems. In this respect, our pilot attempts to model a way of doing social policy that foregrounds agency and solidarity in addressing the issues that people face. If successful, it could provide a blueprint for doing things differently.
UBI and UBI+
The Basic Income Earth Network defines UBI as a periodic cash payment delivered to individuals unconditionally, i.e. without any sort of means-test or work requirement. This is not a pie in the sky idea. Scholars from around the world have interrogated its potential (and feasibility) as a radically transformative social policy, and their combined work makes a compelling case for why UBI should move from theory to reality.
Research suggests that a UBI could:
be more efficient and effective than traditional social protection policies
restore the dignity of individuals that is denied by targeted or conditional benefit systems
promote real freedom of choice in the labour market
deepen democracy by creating the breathing space necessary for action
advance racial justice by redressing some of the legacies of racialised inequality
promote gender equality by giving financial and social recognition to care and domestic work
support the necessary transition towards a post-carbon future, in part by offering all people a safety net during a period of intense change
Empirical evidence in support of UBI has also grown in recent years. Numerous pilots have taken place in both the Global North and South, including in Madhya Pradesh (India), Stockwell, California (USA), Namibia, and Finland, and more are underway. These have shown that UBI can be a game-changer, increasing one’s financial security and sense of self-worth, reducing stress and supporting better mental health, motivating career and life changes, and supporting new business start-ups.
However, most UBI pilots have important limitations and WorkFREE exists in large part to address them. First is the fact that few are asking the most radical questions. For example:
Does UBI really promote freedom in the labour market?
Does it substantially reduce or even end exploitation?
Does it increase civic action?
What role could it play in the green transition?
Second is the fact that most UBI pilots take the form of randomised control trials, meaning that they include randomly selected, entirely disconnected individuals as opposed to entire communities. This choice prevents these pilots from showing us how UBI works, and what changes it could trigger, at a collective level.
The WorkFREE pilot is different. It models community as well as individual-level impacts while providing the conditions necessary for unanticipated collective change to emerge. It also adds a human-centred, relational ‘plus’ to the delivery of cash: the provision of needs-focused, community organisers who work with recipients to further grow their capabilities to meet their needs. This addition builds on new research showing that relational ‘plusses’ routinely enhance the positive impacts deriving from cash and lay the groundwork for emergent forms of collective change. We conceive of the cash as ‘making time’, i.e. giving recipients some time in their lives for activities other than relentless work. Additionally, we conceive of the ‘plus’ of community work as ‘making space’, i.e. bringing communities together to collectively understand, reimagine, and transform their lives. Thus, UBI+ makes time and space for people to explore possibilities for meeting more of their needs.
Finally, the WorkFree pilot uses a mixed-methods design that is more effective than a randomised control trial at documenting what, how, and why changes at both individual and collective level. We call this approach ‘UBI+’
The WorkFREE pilot takes place in four informal settlements (or bastis) in Hyderabad, India. All residents of these bastis (approximately 1250 people/350 households) will receive an unconditional basic income for a period of 18 months. In addition, our community organisers will work with them for 24 months. Residents are primarily first or second generation migrants from the surrounding regions. The majority are from Scheduled Castes, and almost all make their living from waste picking or domestic service. They are poor and their tenancy rights are consistently under threat.
We have chosen to work with these communities for a number of reasons. First, because they all have existing relationships with WorkFREE’s community organising lead, The Montfort Social Institute, and we believe that these relationships offer a safeguard against potential harm. Second, because they make their livelihoods through work that is characteristic of what international organisations like the ILO term ‘indecent’ or ‘exploitative’. Piloting with them thus offers us a chance to explore the extent to which UBI and UBI+ could advance ‘decent’ work. Third, their poverty, insecurity and marginality are emblematic of the structural inequality and exclusion experienced by hundreds of millions of people around the world. Therefore, piloting with these communities should tell us important things about how and to what extent UBI+ could contribute to large-scale, pro-poor social protection reform.