Unpaid work schemes: slave labour or step on the ladder?

Against the back drop of a market flooded with unemployed graduates, in an attempt to get the recipients of benefits back to work, the government proposed that graduates and the long-term unemployed do unpaid work schemes. The aim is to allow these individuals to get the necessary experience whilst circumventing the financial challenges to employers in the recession. But are they a help or a hindrance?

Many individuals are struggling to meet living costs while carrying out these unpaid schemes. In fact some of these schemes have been called ‘slave labour’ by the press.

Indeed this topic was the subject of a recent case Caitlin Reilly and Jamieson Wilson v The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.  Here, the Claimants alleged the scheme violated Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights because it required the performance of “forced and or compulsory labour” as they required Jamieson Wilson to work unpaid for 30 hours a week over a period of 6 months and Caitlin Reilly to participate in a 6 week Sector Based Work Academy Scheme.  Failure for the Claimants to participate in the schemes resulted in them losing their benefit entitlement – they alleged this was therefore forced labour.   The decision had the potential to affect thousands seeking a reimbursement, who had been stripped of their benefits for the same reason.

The court upheld the decision to withhold benefits stating that the schemes could not be construed as ‘forced or compulsory labour’ within the meaning intended by the European Convention on Human Rights.   In coming to this conclusion Mr Justice Foskett said “Characterising such a scheme as involving or being analogous to ‘slavery’ or ‘forced labour’ seems to me to be a long way from contemporary thinking.

While undoubtedly mistakes were made along the way in the Claimants’ cases, the government are encouraging employers to use these schemes which provide worthwhile employment opportunities to young people.  Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, accused those not in favour of the schemes as “opposed to hard work” and supported the opportunities that these schemes offer saying that young people across the country  were “gaining the vital skills and experience needed to help them enter the world of work… making a real difference to people’s lives”

The Government are delighted with the decision and hope that some of the big companies who stopped participating in the project due to the harsh criticism of the scheme on social media, such as TK Maxx, Sainsburys and Waterstones will come back.

The UK’s biggest retailer, Tesco supports the scheme and has offered over 300 young people a paid job at Tesco following their work experience in recent months.

The biggest concern seems to be that the individuals feel they are being taken advantage of if they are carrying out the same work as paid employees with no additional training and support in recognition of their salary sacrifice. Tesco had been particularly criticised for taking advantage of young workers, offering payment of a jobseekers allowance for a nightshift worker.

In spite of the controversy, employers should not be discouraged from using the scheme, which presents employment opportunities for thousands. Although to avoid criticism and encourage application and retention of talented work experience candidates, employers may wish to offer a beneficial package of training and end goals of job opportunities within the business.

Following the ruling it will be interesting to see how many public and private sector employers engage in the schemes going forwards.

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