Are Work Experience Schemes ‘Slave Labour’?

The sector-based work academy scheme is a government-inspired initiative to encourage young, unemployed people back into work. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg believes the scheme is capable of saving the jobless from depression and loneliness. Prime Minister David Cameron fully supports the idea of providing more jobs for people aged 16 to 24. The problem with the scheme, however, is that it requires participants to work for little more than their Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA), which is a benefit paid to all unemployed people who are looking for work.

Critics of the scheme have questioned the logic of requiring those in receipt of JSA to take on jobs that effectively pay nothing. JSA is available to people aged over 18 (but below the State Pension age) who are looking for work. Finding work for the young and unemployed ought to ensure that they no longer need benefits, but this programme does precisely the opposite. In fact, if participants fail to honour the terms of their ‘voluntary’ work placements, they risk losing their entitlement to JSA. This raises two questions: is the scheme truly voluntary and does it amount to slave labour?

The division of labour is neither just nor equal in Britain, but employment conditions have improved significantly over the past couple of centuries. Workers can expect to earn at least the minimum wage and receive regular breaks, while work accident compensation is available to those who are injured or made ill by negligent employers. The issue of involuntary labour is arguably more contentious now than it has been since the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 came into force.

Slave Labour or Public Service?
The government believes it is only right that young unemployed people are encouraged back to work. Few people would argue with this point – indeed, many are concerned that the UK is losing an entire generation to unemployment, so measures to limit the extent of the problem ought not to be dismissed lightly. The main problem with the sector-based work academy scheme is that the sort of roles provided for the jobless are not based on any kind of civic duty. There is no fundamental public interest in requiring those on JSA to supply unpaid labour to the private sector. This is where concerns about slave labour come about.

Voluntary or Involuntary?
As noted above, everyone is entitled to JSA if they meet certain criteria. While looking for work they might be invited to participate in this scheme. It is not entirely clear whether job seekers are provided with an opportunity to decline this invitation. Those who elect to participate in the scheme will be found unpaid work.

Major firms such as Argos, Tesco and Sainsbury’s have participated in the scheme, so some job seekers have found themselves working alongside paid members of staff. Many people have asked why such large employers have not recruited more heavily at a time of high unemployment when work is obviously available. The real problem, however, is that participants risk losing their entitlement to JSA by signing up to the scheme (for example, by failing to arrive for work). This condition implies that the scheme is involuntary.

Slavery or Internship?
The scheme has been likened to many traditional internships or apprenticeships. Government ministers stress the importance of providing the unemployed with new skills, more experience and renewed hope. The counter-argument is that unpaid menial work is quite unlike any skills-based apprenticeship. Some might say that if politicians want to cut unemployment, they should be encouraging employers to do what they obviously can: employ more people.

This post was written on behalf of Hughes Carlisle, specialist accident at work solicitors.

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