Work experience is something most of us did at school. It was unpaid, but it was two weeks long and we did not do the work of paid staff. Invariably we shadowed workers and got a chance to carry out a few of the tasks. This is far from the “work experience” the government have been championing this week. The coalitions work experience does not pay, is forced upon you and helps subsidise the large corporations to the tune of millions.
A Tesco advert offering ‘Job Seekers Allowance plus benefits’ for a nightshift worker brought these issues to attention and provoked outrage amongst the general public. The coalition has defended itself like a scratched CD, repeating the mantra that the work experience scheme is “voluntary”. This is wrong. Being forced to work under the fear of benefit sanctions – and the almost certain destitution that accompanies this – is not voluntary.
Officially the work experience scheme is ‘voluntary’ – job seekers are supposed to be able to decide whether or not to take a placement. However, regularly people are pressed onto work experience by the job centre and are not told about the one week grace period where they can leave it without being punished. This is epitomized by the court case of Cat Reilly who is seeking judicial review over the work experience scheme she was enrolled on (it was in fact the Sector Based Work Academy, but it still involves work experience and is also called “voluntary” by the government without actually being so). She was asked to attend an innocuous open day which would lead to a weeks training and a job interview. It materialised when she attended the open day that it was in fact a six week scheme with two weeks unpaid labour at Poundland. When she challenged the relevance of this placement to finding work she was interested in, the job centre threatened her with loss of benefits. Not only do the official work experience guidelines express the threat of sanction, causing the Citizen’s Advice Bureau to label the work experience scheme as “compulsory”, but also, as shown above, the job seeker is rarely given a choice over this work experience. They are bullied and harassed by the job centre without being told of their rights to leave the scheme within the first week (or to not even start it!). George Osborne has also indicated how little choice he believes there should be by stating that he wants all people refusing the work experience scheme to be forced onto the mandatory work activity scheme, meaning – if you do not choose unpaid work experience, we will for you.
Cat Reilly’s solicitor has remarked, “These Orwellian schemes are about work for its own sake rather than for any greater purpose”. I find this statement slightly misleading as work involves payment, and these placements do not pay. You do up to 30 hours a week for no cost to the employer with only the £52.50 that is Job Seekers Allowance on which to survive. This is an hourly rate of £1.75. Seeing as a living wage in London is £8.50 this falls far short. Which is interesting, as the majority of companies providing these schemes are large high street stores drawing multi-million pound profits such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Tesco and Asda (although HMV are looking a bit ropey). I’m sure they could find some spare change to pay a living wage to everyone working in their stores – instead they pay nothing. It could be deemed acceptable if it was equivalent to the work experience we did at school; however it can last up to eight full time weeks and invariably involves doing the work that paid staff do. Cat Reilly cleaned and stacked shelves alongside paid staff and last week Argos commented on their use of the government’s work experience scheme by saying “We can confirm that Argos does not have a policy to recruit colleagues through the governments Work Experience Programme, but […] Christmas is our busiest time of year and we are pleased to provide the opportunity for work experience during this time.” Essentially no one doing work experience at Argos has a chance of a job at the end but they are happy to take them on when they are busy at Christmas so that they do not have to pay staff overtime or employ temporary workers. This was confirmed by a Commons committee who found evidence that companies were using the work experience to replace paid staff. Hugely wealthy corporations are happily boosting their profits by taking on free labour with no prospect of a job. This is exemplified by Tescos who boasted of the 300 people they have employed through work experience, forgetting to mention this is only 21% of the total work experience placements they took on – a startlingly small employment rate (and evidence suggests it is even smaller than this).
David Cameron last week defended the scheme by declaring that 50% of people who did work experience were off Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) after three months (though not necessarily into a job) and that this was the only way young people were going to get into work. This implies that even if they are not employed by the company they do work experience for then it helps them get employed elsewhere. However figures released soon after showed that 50% of jobseekers were off JSA after 3 months without work experience – essentially the work experience made no difference to jobseeker’s job prospects. Not only is work experience through the job centre exploitative but it also does not help people into work. In fact there are elements that make it more difficult as forced labour does not look great on the CV and working 30 hours a week gives you less time to find work...
The fact that this is being championed by the coalition as a way of combating youth unemployment is ridiculous. Youth unemployment has been soaring since the financial crisis, recently topping a million, and unless in the last five years we all suddenly became lazier en masse then it is fair to say that the paucity of jobs is the real issue, not young people’s ‘lack’ of ‘experience’. Sadly these work experience placements do not create a single job and in fact can reduce the amount of available jobs as companies replace paid work with unpaid work experience (as admitted by Argos above). These work experience placements just make the disaster that is youth unemployment worse.
This story is not new, and in fact was going on with Labour under the guise of the Flexible New Deal, although the Tories are now rolling it out at a terrifying pace. What has made it hit the headlines over the past couple of weeks all started with one simple, now infamous, Tesco advert for the nightshift work offering ‘JSA plus expenses’. This triggered an Internet storm about the abuses going on under the name of work experience. The work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has since labelled critics as “job snobs” for looking down on shelf-stacking as a career. Ignoring the irony of this comment coming from a wealthy Tory MP, it begs the question in this day and age of flexible labour whether now even asking for a wage makes you a snob.
Chris Grayling, minister for employment, has also attempted to label all critics as members of the Socialist Worker Party (SWP), ignoring the large online campaign (which involved more people than the SWP have members) and the grass-roots campaign group Boycott Workfare involving many people who have experienced forced unpaid labour themselves. The strength of the opposition is reaching critical levels with the Boycott Workfare campaign coordinating a national day of action hitting over 20 high streets across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (including Oxford Street) this Saturday (3rd March). This is beginning to have an effect as Waterstones, Sainsburys and TK Maxx have withdrawn their support for workfare schemes, along with a number of charities, and many other companies are suspending their involvement and calling on the government to remove sanctions. Soon we may be left with a government work experience scheme with no work. The government is refusing to listen to this pressure and a collision is sure to occur as the government press on regardless whilst the public anger builds. Hopefully this argument will help us reassess our attitude to the unemployed and realise that however much unpaid work experience you force people to undertake, when there are no jobs, people will stay jobless.