A government scheme that requires people on jobseekers’ allowance to undertake unpaid work experience placements in big companies such as Tesco and Primark, or risk losing their benefits, has been accused of amounting to ‘forced labour’.
Birmingham University geology graduate Cait Reilly, 22, was told that if she did not attend a two week work experience placement at a Poundland store her £53-a-week jobseekers’ allowance payments would be cut. Reilly, who is seeking a career as a museum curator, lodged a case in the High Court, forcing the government to defend itself against claims that the unpaid work experience schemes are contrary to Human Rights Act legislation on forced labour.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has argued that having benefits docked doesn’t amount to forcing the unemployed to work, claiming “Where a person is required to perform a task and, if he or she does not do so, loses benefit, that is not forcing a person to work.”
Nonetheless, the case has sparked intense debate around whether the scheme, which has been presented by ministers as opening doors into the workplace for claimants of jobseekers’ allowance, is an effective way of cutting long-term employment and providing jobseekers with meaningful experience, or only useful for the big companies that benefit from hours of unpaid labour.
Comments on the Guardian website suggested that much opposition to the scheme stems from resentment towards the idea that companies that already turn over huge profits are benefitting from a free workforce, rather than charities and smaller organisations, on top of providing little by way of useful experience.
Whereas for some young jobseekers work experience in a supermarket may represent a useful step-up onto the careers ladder, for graduates like Reilly, who are already well qualified for their chosen careers, such placements are of little benefit.
However, with data from the Office for National Statistics showing graduate unemployment nearly doubled during the recession, there are many graduates who, like Riley, lack a viable route into the jobs market.
Relying on unpaid internships to kick-start careers is the norm, a stiffly competitive route already closed to those who cannot afford to work for free. It seems assistance with access to these schemes, or assistance that recognises the needs of the graduate and targets careers related to their degree would be the real solution for graduates struggling to find employment.