Tesco and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have come under fire in the last few days over a government work experience scheme which effectively forces the unemployed into unpaid work or face losing their benefits.
Yesterday, a protest by Right To Work campaigners closed Tesco at Westminster and Tesco themselves have stated that the advert which sparked all the controversy was ‘an IT mistake’ while simultaneously applying some gentle and face-saving public persuasion to the DWP to make the work experience scheme voluntary.
For anyone who hasn’t been following the story, people receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) are asked to undertake eight weeks of unpaid ‘work experience’ and they can decide during the first week to continue so if we’re going to get all semantic about it, it IS voluntary in that sense, but if they don’t continue they risk having their benefits withdrawn. Until 2011, these work experience placements were limited to two weeks and only took place in charities and public bodies. The government changed the rules last year to include private businesses and that’s the bone of contention. Basically, a large profit-driven corporation can get free labour for an eight-week period with no incentive to keep the employee (I use the term loosely because ’employee’ suggests a contractual relationship where pay is involved) on at the end of it. They are guaranteed an interview but that’s all. Unfortunately for Tesco, their ‘IT mistake’ has brought the whole thing to the notice of the general public and yesterday’s protest along with a storm of Twittering and Facebook outrage is their reaction. Another protest is planned for tomorrow at Tesco in Leytonstone by Waltham Forest Anti-Cuts Union and Youth Fight For Jobs
In their bid to rid the benefits system of frauds and wastrels, the government has overstepped the mark somewhat. Providing work experience opportunities at charities and public bodies on a voluntary basis for job seekers is a great idea. Providing a slave army to private businesses is quite another thing. It’s hard to understand how anyone in government could have thought this was a good idea. No matter what their public social conscience credentials may say, private companies have one aim only — to make a profit. Not that that’s wrong – I’m not in the anti-capitalist camp. But in supplying free labour you are not only using unpaid labour to allow companies to increase their profits, but you are also ripping the arse out of the job market.
Needless to say, the government has pooh-poohed concerns and criticism of the scheme; writing in the Telegraph, employment minister Chris Grayling accused the Guardian in particular of hypocrisy over that newspaper’s adverts offering unpaid work experience and called critics ‘job snobs’. It’s hard to see why thinking it’s morally wrong to threaten withdrawal of benefits unless a claimant does unpaid work for a company which can well afford to pay them, not to mention the damage to the job market makes one a snob, but there you go.
The DWP are also hot on the heels of the disabled; plans being drawn up could see long-term sick or disabled claimants also being forced to undertake unpaid work or have their benefits cut. Just a couple of weeks ago, journalist Sarah Ditum wrote a fascinating article on her blog about the scapegoating of disabled people to justify cuts and the smear campaign on the part of the government and the media to portray the disabled as faking scroungers. Allowing DWP staff to make arbitrary judgements about a disabled person’s fitness to work is fraught with danger — according to the Guardian’s report linked to above:
The policy could mean that those on employment and support allowance who have been placed in the work-related activity group (Wrag) could be compelled to undertake work experience for charities, public bodies and high-street retailers. The Wrag group includes those who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer but have more than six months to live; accident and stroke victims; and some of those with mental health issues.
Again, private businesses are being offered free labour from the sick, dying, mentally ill and physically disabled as well as the unemployed. It all points to an increasing tendency to treat benefits claimants as second-class citizens and automatically assume they are at the very least fraudulent, most probably criminal. Last year’s disability assessments were widely criticised, even by the government’s own advisors who said that cost-cutting was considered more important than the claimants’ welfare.
Meanwhile, other retailers involved in the DWP’s work experience scheme such as Matalan, Waterstone’s and supermarket rival Sainsburys have backed out. A DWP spokesperson told the BBC:
“The scheme is voluntary and no one is forced to take part and the threat of losing the benefit only starts once a week has passed on the placement – this was designed to provide certainty to employers and the individuals taking part.”