Should Anyone Work for Free?


This week, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) lost a 15 month court battle to keep the location of ­thousands of Workfare placements secret. Workfare is an excellent deal for companies, who gain free labour courtesy of the taxpayer, but the Government was worried that they might also be on the end of “negative publicity” and that charities may lose donations if the public knew they were involved.

Now, the court has ruled that the DWP must publish the names of these businesses and charities. This follows February’s high profile ruling that it was unlawful – albeit on narrow technical basis, to make unemployed people work unpaid in order to keep their benefits.

These issues raise important questions for students deciding whether to take unpaid work experience as a stepping stone to employment. At the end of the day only you can decide whether the placement offers alternative value by providing an insight into the industry; improving your skill set; enabling you to establish the route you want your career to go or offering up useful contacts and training opportunities – there is a difference between an unpaid insight programme and doing a proper job for no pay. Either way you should read Alex Andreou’s blog “Unexpected Intern in the Bagging Area – Arguments in Favour of Workfare, Explored”. Alex writes for the New Statesman, the Guardian and Rory Bremner.

 Unexpected Intern in the Bagging Area – Arguments in Favour of

Workfare, Explored 


As you are probably aware a storm has been raging over “workfare” programmes. I have had numerous conversations on the subject recently and have found that the same, apparently reasonable, superficially appealing arguments are being put forward, in their defence.

Iain Duncan Smith wrote an article for the Daily Mail yesterday [no link provided – I would rather direct you to donkey porn], in which he suggested that “the battle lines have been drawn” on this issue. He suggests that on one side of this “war” are “those prepared to do everything they can to give a chance to young people”, which includes the government and august charitable institutions like TESCO. On the other side “armed with an unjustified sense of superiority and sporting an intellectual sneer, we find a commentating elite which seems determined to belittle and downgrade any opportunity for young people”.

I thought you might find it useful to have a summary of the arguments in favour of such schemes, together with a short explanation of why they are – how do I put this delicately? – codswallop.

We must end the “something for nothing” culture

Many folks do not seem to understand these schemes. They appear to believe that, for instance TESCO, will pay a participants Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) for a number of weeks while they work for them. This line was sadly repeated by Andrew Neil on today’s Daily Politics.  This is incorrect. As can be easily gleaned by the literature on this, it is the state which continues to pay:

Participants will remain on benefit throughout the period of the sector-based work academy and Jobcentre Plus will pay any travel and childcare costs whilst they are on the work experience placement. There is no direct cost to an employer for sector-based work academies as the costs are covered by government funding.

It is a mystery that traditional right-wing commentators like the Tax-Payers Alliance and the Mail object to funding an individual’s benefits, but appear quite happy to cross-subsidise a huge conglomerate with global revenues of $100bn in 2010. To my mind, it is simply the latest symptom of the same malaise which means ordinary people and small businesses are fined or dragged to court for filing their tax return a couple of days late, while giants like Vodafone can simply refuse to pay their tax bill and negotiate £6bn discounts.

Such programmes do not end the “something for nothing” culture. They elevate it to the corporate level. They allow TESCO to get something for nothing on a grand scale.

Work experience improves employability

As IDS pointed out, this is a great way to get training, add a line to your CV and get people in the habit of getting out of bed in the morning. This sounds very sensible in abstract, but what happens if one were to assess it against real cases? This is the actual job being offered by TESCO:

tesco job

I am in the happy enough position to have only had to rely on benefits once in my life, for a short period. During that period, looking for work in my chosen field was a full-time, nine to five job. Six weeks of night-shifts in TESCO would be about as useful as a hole in the head.

Every professional knows that crafting a career and structuring a CV can benefit from the right experience, but can also be damaged by the wrong experience. It is interesting to examine the case of Cait Reilly who is trying to get a job working for a museum, but was told to give up a work placement she had already organised at a museum in order to stack shelves in Poundland. Can anyone who can tell me how this improves her employability?

TESCO have explained that of the 1,400 people who have been made to serve them (because to use the verb “employ” would require some consideration on the part of TESCO), 300 got a job with the company. Now, this means one of three things: Either

(1) TESCO were genuinely trying to fill 1,400 positions, but  they were only capable of training roughly one in five people to stack shelves in SIX WEEKS. Or

(2) There were only 300 positions in the first place (probably due to natural turnover, which I imagine is quite high), but TESCO decided they might as well conduct six-week interviews on our buck. Or

(3) There were 1,400 genuine vacancies in the relevant stores, but why the hell would they fill them with paid employees, when they can have a rolling six-weekly army of 1,400 free ones?

I am reminded of the words of Gerrit Smith:

We must continue to judge slavery by what it is, and not by what you tell us it will, or may be.

It is a good way to tackle benefit fraud

We all have a mental image of what “dole-scum” looks like. We see it daily on the Jeremy Kyle show. We are force-fed it by the Mail and the Sun, like aspirin, every hour on the hour. It is easy to invoke that image and think “Yeah! Let the bastards stack shelves.” It is comfortable to invoke that image and sleep soundly.

But here is an alternative: Tens of thousands of servicemen and women are being laid off by the Ministry of Defence; 33,000 from the RAF alone. Some were told by email while still on tour. The first lot of those sackings was last June. Some will be coming up to the six-month mark now – the “compulsory” bracket of these work schemes.

Is it equally comfortable to invoke the image of an RAF pilot, who six months ago risked life and limb, forced to stack shelves for no pay? Will you sleep just as soundly?

And it is precisely the majority of such people that will be forced into these schemes. You know why? Because they are honest. The tiny minority which we see on Jeremy Kyle, are supremely adept at cheating or circumventing the system. They have been doing it for years and most of them will find a way to do it now.

If the genuine desire is to tackle benefit fraud, then tackle benefit fraud. Nobody is arguing we should revoke every driving license to stop the few that drive drunk. On the other hand, if the purpose is to benefit big corporations, depress wages and “magic” thousands of people off the unemployment total, this is the scheme with which to do it.

Blame the Government not TESCO

There may be some limited traction to the argument that, if the government puts in place a scheme, companies are at liberty to take advantage. There would be more traction, if we hadn’t spent the last month listening to speech after stomach-churning speech about Moral Capitalism from the cabinet.

TESCO, and organisations like it, did not get in trouble for acting illegally on this issue. They got in trouble for displaying scruples that would raise eyebrows in the court of Caligula. And rightly so. The cold, hard fact is that there are two signatories to this Faustian pact. I blame both. In exactly the same way that I blame those who use perfectly legal means to avoid fairly due tax.

But the IDS argument that truly incenses me, that really puts the “noxious” back in “obnoxious”, is the idea that objecting to this scheme is somehow elitism; intellectual snobbery. That it devalues the work of men and women who do stack shelves for a living. It is barely worth pointing out – through gritted teeth – that nobody has said anything against people who do such jobs for a living. But it must be FOR A LIVING.

I realise, of course, I am probably being unfair to Iain Duncan Smith. After all, he probably didn’t write the article. He probably paid his wife Betsy a couple of thou of public money to do it. [insert intellectual sneer] Now that is “something for nothing”.

1 Comment
  1. Jamie Sewell 5 years ago

    Good article, this has cropped up in the news again today, where Sony have settled out of court to an unpaid intern who worked full time for four months. On the whole the property industry seems better than most about paying a fair wage for a fair days work, no one expects to get paid for shadowing but if you are putting value in then it only seems fair to expect a wage in return.

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