Government amends controversial work experience programme

In February 2012, the UK government announced changes to a work experience programme for young unemployed people, after some employers withdrew from or criticised the scheme amid high-profile allegations that it amounted to unpaid ‘forced labour’. After a meeting with employers, the government agreed to change the scheme, so that if young workers withdrew early from their work experience, they would no longer be under threat of losing their unemployment benefits.

Background

In January 2011, as part of a broader ‘welfare to work’ initiative known as Get Britain Working, the UK government launched a work experience programme aimed at unemployed people aged 16 to 24 who had been receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) (unemployment benefit) for at least 13 weeks.

Under the scheme, administered by the Jobcentre Plus public employment service, young people can voluntarily take up a work experience placement, lasting from two to eight weeks and involving 25–30 hours of work per week. During the placement, participants are not paid by the employer but continue to receive JSA, and receive help from Jobcentre Plus with travel and childcare costs. Employers can act as work experience ‘hosts’ through an agreement with Jobcentre Plus.

Under the programme’s original rules, people who undertook a voluntary work placement for more than a week, but then pulled out of the placement, could have their JSA stopped for two weeks.

Up to the end of November 2011, according to the Department for Work and Pensions, 34,200 people started placements under the work experience programme.

Criticism of ‘compulsion’

The work experience programme was criticised because participants who left placements after a week could have their JSA stopped. Critics saw this sanction as a form of compulsion, forcing young people to work under the threat of loss of benefits, while employers benefited from unpaid ‘forced labour’.

Opposition to the scheme, and cases of alleged exploitation of participants, were widely publicised. Opponents, notably the Right to Work campaign, organised demonstrations at the premises of participating employers and online through social media protests. Right to Work’s affiliates include a number of national trade unions and union branches.

The protests were viewed by some as out of proportion to the relatively small scale of the work experience programme. However, the programme became a focus for more general opposition to government welfare-to-work schemes that link social welfare benefits to an element of compulsion, such as ‘mandatory work activity’ that makes it possible to assign unemployed people to unpaid community work placements with the threat that they will lose benefits if they refuse. In the public debate, the various schemes were often conflated.

Employers express unease

The government dismissed criticism of the work experience scheme, stressing that participation was voluntary, and accused opponents of damaging young people’s employment prospects. Ministers claimed that opposition was being led by far-left groups.

However, in early 2012, a number of major employers, notably in the retail and charity sectors, pulled out of the programme or expressed concern about it. Many of them feared damage was being done to their reputation by the allegations that they were exploiting unpaid labour. For example, the Tesco retail group, the UK’s largest private sector employer, called in February for the government to withdraw the threat of JSA removal from the rules for such placements. It also announced its own alternative paid four-week placement scheme, offering the possibility of a job at the end of satisfactory placements.

The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) stated that it was in discussions with major retail employers with which it has collective agreements about their continued involvement in the programme. John Hannett, USDAW’s General Secretary, said: ‘USDAW is not opposed to schemes that genuinely aim to give young people appropriate work experience … but schemes should be voluntary, participants should receive the rate for the job, and there needs to be transparent checks and balances in place.’

Scheme amended

On 29 February, the government met employers to hear their concerns about the scheme. After the meeting, it announced that the threat of removing benefits from people who leave placements would be dropped. The government stated that benefit sanctions would apply only in cases of gross misconduct. It also said that only 220 people had been sanctioned since the scheme started, and that many employers were still joining the programme.

Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said: ‘We welcome the government's climbdown on the use of sanctions in work experience. Of course proper work experience can be useful and helpful for many young people, but it needs to be designed to help the young person, not provide free labour for employers or displace paid staff. Making absolutely clear that it is voluntary at all times will help safeguard against abuse.’

John Longworth, the Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), commented: ‘The biggest sanction anyone could face is losing the opportunity to gain experience in the world of work, and this announcement will ensure businesses continue to have the confidence to offer these opportunities.’

Mark Carley, IRRU/SPIRE Associates

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