Each day this week has brought news of more companies withdrawing from a government scheme to give jobless people work experience. It started with protests against Tesco last weekend. The scheme is simple enough. People who have been unemployed for a certain period of time are eligible to take part in an entirely voluntary programme where they receive work experience for one or two months in a company. They are not paid, but still receive the same benefits they would have done had they stayed at home.
Those opposed to the scheme have two main objections to it. One is the threat of losing benefits for anyone who volunteers for the scheme but pulls out after a week or more. In this case, they could lose their Jobseeker’s Allowance for up to two weeks. This provision does seem a little odd. After all, the scheme is voluntary: people who decide to sit and do nothing receive no penalty, but those who do volunteer can be penalised if they change their minds. I’m not sure what the reason for this penalty is: perhaps it reflects the cost to companies of training someone only to see them leave. However, it’s hard to see much value in retaining this sanction, particularly as it gives those opposed to the scheme extra ammunition. I would be happy to see a compulsory scheme where everyone claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance had to attend work experience or else lose the benefit; but given that they have volunteered in the first place, the present scheme would be better without this detail.
The other objection is that large companies are gaining free labour. Some have described it as “working as nothing” or even “slave labour”. Companies such as Tesco have few fans at the best of times, so unsurprisingly people are unimpressed if they appear to be profiting at the expense of the taxpayer or the unemployed. However, it’s wrong to assume that people on the work scheme are filling a job that would otherwise be filled by a paid employee. I suspect many of the positions are additional ones. The only people who are likely to gain are the other employees – no doubt on rather low wages themselves – who might find themselves with slightly less heavy workloads. The companies would have to provide training for each new person coming through the scheme, and supervise them for much of their time, as they would any other new employee. As there is a short time limit on the placement, they would need to do this on a regular basis, and so there is undoubtedly a cost to the company of participating in the scheme.
Some people who receive placements go on to receive a job offer from the company. Understandably, this will be a minority of people as there are simply not enough vacancies for all of them. That doesn’t mean their participation is worthless. Experience of a daily routine, getting up in time for work, working in a team, etc. will be invaluable and give them more self-esteem. And when they subsequently apply for other jobs, surely any employer would pick someone who has recent work experience on their CV over others who may be total unknowns when it comes to their work ethic?
It should also be noted that employers offer to pay expenses, for example towards the cost of transport and childcare. Added to the fact the participants continue to receive their Jobseeker’s Allowance, plus any other benefits such as Housing or Council Tax benefit, it’s hard to see how it can be said they are working for nothing. Many paid employees spend most of their wages on housing, council tax, childcare and transport, and I’m sure would be delighted if someone would pay these for them. Perhaps instead of complaining about a scheme where people receive benefits for working, we should be asking why people are paid to stay at home and do nothing?