What’s all the fuss about?
There’s been a great deal of fuss lately over the government’s latest work experience programme backed, most notably, by Tesco. In fact, so loud has opposition to the scheme become that a number of organisations currently involved have threatened to back out on the basis that it is harming their business; some, like Sainsbury’s, have already left. What’s the evil plan at work here that has riled so many feathers? It is, according to certain people, ‘slave labour’. That’s right, our government is forcing people into petty labour under threat of death with no reward save some bread, water and a swift kick to the backside in return. Actually hang on, that’s not even slightly what’s happening.
In an attempt to address the record youth unemployment in the country, employment minister Chris Grayling has spearheaded this ‘workfare’ scheme, which sees companies like Tesco and Sainsbury’s offer short term unpaid work experience to young people currently out of work and receiving unemployment benefits. The companies pay expenses like travel, but offer no salary for the duration of the six to eight week placements. So, they expect people to work for them for free just because they have no previous work experience and often few or no qualifications? Outrageous!
Or, alternatively, just like almost every other employment sector there is. Newspapers offer unpaid internships, as do accountants, law firms, banks and various organisations in almost every field there is. These we are OK with; somebody doing an unpaid internship at the Financial Times is perfectly acceptable, but somehow doing the same for Tesco is not it seems. The reason for this is obvious I suppose: working at the Financial Times is a ‘good’ job, and therefore one worth undertaking unpaid work experience to get to, whereas stacking shelves is a ‘how-on-earth-could-anybody-ever-want-to-do-something-so-frightful’ job, and so unpaid work experience is slave labour.
David Cameron has denounced the most vocal opposition to the workfare scheme as ‘Trotskyites’; whilst this may be going a bit too far, I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment of the schemes’ critics as ‘job snobs’. Everyone reading this knows how difficult it is to get a job, stuck in the unbreakable cycle of needing experience to get a position and needing a position to get experience.
There is disagreement over the precise figures, but at least 50 percent and by some estimates up to 70 percent of people enter full-time, paid employment after completing a work experience placement under the scheme. Six weeks unpaid (and, by the way, these people are still receiving benefits so it’s not even really unpaid) for some experience and a job at the end? I’d take that deal.
Also, let’s not forget that these placements are not compulsory. People choose to go on them. If nothing else, that ought to stop the counter-argument dead in the water – if you don’t like the workfare scheme, then do not sign up for it. In all the debate over this issue, nobody seems to have taken into account the people actually using this scheme – do they want to continue it? Of course they do, or they wouldn’t be on the scheme in the first place. Would they rather be paid than work for free? Obviously, but if Tesco had to pay all of its work experience people then it would not be offering the placements.
There was originally an idea to cut the benefits of people who left their work experience placement half-way through. Whether rightly or wrongly, this has now been dropped and with it has gone the only reasonable argument that could possibly be made against workfare. I would give my left ear for an unpaid work experience placement at Clifford Chance LLP, it’s time everyone stops being so damned hypocritical and realises that the same is true for everyone else without experience, no matter what their line of work may be.