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Published on February 24th, 2012 | by Glenn Coleman-Cooke
Image © Imagine, if you will, the sheer scale of righteous indignation from those of a Guardian-reading disposition if someone were to publicly suggest, say, that slavery wasn’t that bad, that it was pretty much the same as doing work experience in a supermarket. Even if they acknowledged that there are some differences, such as the trip from Africa being even more stressful than the commute to an out of town retail park, and accepted that there was a considerable difference in working conditions, the many levels of ignorance implicit in such a statement would surely raise the ire of those who enjoy being offended by such things. Why then has there been no outcry about the flood of silly hyperbole coming from the opponents of work experience for jobseekers?  Notwithstanding  the crossover between these two groups, the answer seems to be that if one is sanctimonious enough, and never wavers  from one's ideological fervour for even a moment, then one can bulldoze through inconvenient facts by sheer force of will. Take for instance the cornerstone of the objections: the fact that people are being forced en masse to work  for private companies against their will (leaving aside points like freedom to quit as so blindingly obvious that they can be taken as read). While this is certainly an emotive argument in any society that values individual freedom, it does have the considerable disadvantage of being totally untrue on two levels. The main reason this myth seems to be widespread is the case of Cait Reilly, the melodramatic geology graduate who has made headlines by suing the government for “forced labour”. Newspapers being as they are, this is the phrase at the top of every article, as it sounds suitably dramatic, and the finer points are often glossed over. If one takes a closer look, things appear rather different. The program on which Miss Reilly was enrolled, the work experience scheme, was in fact voluntary, with no compulsion to take part, only an agreement that if you do agree to go on the programme, and continue with it past the one week cooling off period, then you must see your obligation through, or risk losing money. This kind of arrangement sounds reasonable to me, and while Miss Reilly claims that she was not informed whether the placement was compulsory or not, even if this is true that makes the issue one of specific incompetence, not government policy. While there is such a thing as “mandatory work activity”, this is generally reserved for the most useless and obstinate claimants, or as the DWP puts it, those who “fail to demonstrate the focus and discipline that is a key requirement of finding and retaining employment”. The second flaw in the forced labour argument is the blindingly obvious fact that asking someone to do something in exchange for money is not forcing them. If you do not wish to undertake these programmes, even “mandatory” work activity, you do not have to, you will simply not be given any more taxpayers money.  You are simply being asked to perform certain tasks in exchange for certain monies, and if you believe that such an arrangement is not the most advantageous available to you then you are welcome to try your luck elsewhere. If however it is, then get on with it and hope something better comes along. The fact of the matter is that this scheme demonstrably works, with over 50% of participants coming off benefits as a result of it, and to suggest that it should be abandoned because you find it demeaning is not only patently absurd, but symptomatic of the trend for gross self-pity that blights modern society. Now contrary to the impression I may have given thus far, I do sympathise with Cait Reilly (nonwithstanding my contempt for 99% of people litigating on the basis of "human rights") and many like her in a similar position, as I may be in the same position myself at some point. I too am a graduate on job seekers allowance, and If I got told I had I to work at Poundland I would not like it. I would probably grumble to my parents about it being a waste of time. What I would never do however is be so pompous as to suggest that the job centre were not entitled to compel me to do so, and nor would I imagine I was entitled to other people’s money with no strings attached. If you want the money you must accept the conditions, whatever you may think of them.

13

Don’t be such a drama queen, it’s just a couple of weeks at Tesco.

Imagine, if you will, the sheer scale of righteous indignation from those of a Guardian-reading disposition if someone were to publicly suggest, say, that slavery wasn’t that bad, that it was pretty much the same as doing work experience in a supermarket. Even if they acknowledged that there are some differences, such as the trip from Africa being even more stressful than the commute to an out of town retail park, and accepted that there was a considerable difference in working conditions, the many levels of ignorance implicit in such a statement would surely raise the ire of those who enjoy being offended by such things.

Why then has there been no outcry about the flood of silly hyperbole coming from the opponents of work experience for jobseekers?  Notwithstanding  the crossover between these two groups, the answer seems to be that if one is sanctimonious enough, and never wavers  from one’s ideological fervour for even a moment, then one can bulldoze through inconvenient facts by sheer force of will.

Take for instance the cornerstone of the objections: the fact that people are being forced en masse to work  for private companies against their will (leaving aside points like freedom to quit as so blindingly obvious that they can be taken as read). While this is certainly an emotive argument in any society that values individual freedom, it does have the considerable disadvantage of being totally untrue on two levels.

The main reason this myth seems to be widespread is the case of Cait Reilly, the melodramatic geology graduate who has made headlines by suing the government for “forced labour”. Newspapers being as they are, this is the phrase at the top of every article, as it sounds suitably dramatic, and the finer points are often glossed over. If one takes a closer look, things appear rather different. The program on which Miss Reilly was enrolled, the work experience scheme, was in fact voluntary, with no compulsion to take part, only an agreement that if you do agree to go on the programme, and continue with it past the one week cooling off period, then you must see your obligation through, or risk losing money. This kind of arrangement sounds reasonable to me, and while Miss Reilly claims that she was not informed whether the placement was compulsory or not, even if this is true that makes the issue one of specific incompetence, not government policy. While there is such a thing as “mandatory work activity”, this is generally reserved for the most useless and obstinate claimants, or as the DWP puts it, those who “fail to demonstrate the focus and discipline that is a key requirement of finding and retaining employment”.

The second flaw in the forced labour argument is the blindingly obvious fact that asking someone to do something in exchange for money is not forcing them. If you do not wish to undertake these programmes, even “mandatory” work activity, you do not have to, you will simply not be given any more taxpayers money.  You are simply being asked to perform certain tasks in exchange for certain monies, and if you believe that such an arrangement is not the most advantageous available to you then you are welcome to try your luck elsewhere. If however it is, then get on with it and hope something better comes along.

The fact of the matter is that this scheme demonstrably works, with over 50% of participants coming off benefits as a result of it, and to suggest that it should be abandoned because you find it demeaning is not only patently absurd, but symptomatic of the trend for gross self-pity that blights modern society.

Now contrary to the impression I may have given thus far, I do sympathise with Cait Reilly (nonwithstanding my contempt for 99% of people litigating on the basis of “human rights”) and many like her in a similar position, as I may be in the same position myself at some point. I too am a graduate on job seekers allowance, and If I got told I had I to work at Poundland I would not like it. I would probably grumble to my parents about it being a waste of time. What I would never do however is be so pompous as to suggest that the job centre were not entitled to compel me to do so, and nor would I imagine I was entitled to other people’s money with no strings attached. If you want the money you must accept the conditions, whatever you may think of them.

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Robert Bickers says:

Many aspects of the scheme are fundamentally flawed. We need to realise that these are not new jobs. Effectively firms on the scheme are cutting down on costs by substituting paid staff with unpaid ones. Simply put the work that the unpaid staff is doing would need to be done anyway and therefore if it was not for the scheme the companies would be forced to pay someone to do the same job. This avoiding of paying someone to do the job is both morally wrong and bad for the economy as the employee has less spending power due to not being paid.
Whilst I believe that it is good to provide opportunities to gain work experience and new skills, the scheme in its current form must be changed. The scheme should be limited to jobs within the charity sector or with tangible social benefits (such as care work and additional teaching). In this case no company would profit from free labour, social projects can get a helping hand and people can still gain something useful for their CV.

Glenn Coleman-Cooke says:

Secondly, it is all very well for you and I to sit at our computers and extol the virtues of community service, but we both know that, particularly in this day and age, the sad fact is such schemes would require the creation of an extensive bureaucratic infrastructure which we can ill afford at the moment.

Also, you suggest that this scheme will result in less real jobs, but do you have any evidence to suggest that Tesco are reducing the number of proper employees and using workfare instead, rather than taking participants on in addition to their normal staff?

Finally, I do not disagree with the basic concept of international agreements on rights, but rather disagree with the increasingly broad interpretation of them. Real human rights, like protection from genocide for instance, bear no relation to law suits like this or the farce of the ECHR. Frivolous claims undermine the concept of human rights, and only encourage people to see them as a villain’s charter, rather than something that may offer protection to the innocent. It takes little common sense to determine the difference between working at poundland and being tortured by the secret police.

Glenn Coleman-Cooke says:

Hello Patrick Armshaw
I have not been able to find been able to find a more specific breakdown of the 50% figure, but you seem to miss the point. Surely its positive if this scheme results in people who could not find work going into further education or training to develop there skills. It may not be as good as a getting a job of course, but is likely to be better for them in the long run, ultimately leading to a better career.

As to the question of work for a company vs community service, you have a good point, but overlook two things. Firstly, while it would be better value for the taxpayer in the short term to have people cleaning graffiti or picking up litter, these activities are unlikely to result in work. This scheme is not punitive, or even about immediate return on the investment of jobseekers allowance, but rather about getting people into jobs so they are no longer claiming. Of course this won’t work for everyone, but as the figures show (despite your reservations) it does seem to work for many people.

Glenn Coleman-Cooke says:

Apologies if the aim of the piece isn’t clear (my original rant was double the length). I was trying to point out that even if you disagree with the scheme, be it for pragmatic personal reasons or high minded political ones, doing a couple of weeks at poundland isn’t that bad.
To argue, as Miss Reilly is arguing, that one should be entitle led to state had outs without the state being entitled to ask anything in return is mad.

P.s How do you think that i was hypocritical? I did think about this before
posting, but came to the conclusion that as i accept that responsibility works both ways, and that as I take money off the state it is entitled to ask for something in return.
My criticism of Miss Reilly is not that she is claiming jobseekers allowance, but the she seem to believe that it should be a one sided deal.
It’s not like their taking a kidney!

Glenn Coleman-Cooke says:

Thanks for your comments
Anniedemer-
Hi, I did indeed read cat Reilly’s original piece (by the time id finished laughing I was just about ready to cry!)

"She is positing quite genuine concerns about a scheme that advertises, but does not deliver, constructive, industry specific training"

But she is not simply "posting concerns" is she. She is wasting the times of the courts in an attempt to show that this is a breach of her human rights. My assertion that she is being pompous and melodramatic is drawn not from the fact that she objects to the scheme, but rather from the fact that she deems it a breach of "human rights" and basically, a big deal.
Also, I do not believe that the scheme does promise ” industry specific training” but rather general skills that make anyone more employable, such as communication, dealing with customers, teamwork etc.

anniedemer says:

Hiya Glenn,

'Positing', not 'posting'.
'Cait', not 'Cat'.

She does, for example, explain quite clearly that she was volunteering for a museum at the time. She's interested in becoming a curator, or something like that. The hours that she's dedicated to pursuing a viable job opportunity in that field, supported by her voluntary work, doesn't count towards her 'unpaid work experience'. She say that this is ludicrous – I have to agree with her.

Even if you found her tone pompous, that doesn't detract from the content of her argument. I'm not going to fully address your closing comments, because it just seems as though you haven't actually researched the story (not trying to be mean, but the background information's all readily available).

Next time, it would be really nice to see a few more links to your sources – if you have the evidence that she's making a mountain out of a molehill, then great! Otherwise, it's a bit tedious. But cheers for all the responses though – if nothing else, it shows that the issue is close to your heart.

Dill says:

Other people's money with strings attached is called a wage.

Patrick Armshaw says:

"The fact of the matter is that this scheme demonstrably works, with over 50% of participants coming off benefits as a result of it."

You might want to take a step back on that particular claim. If you want to know whether or not the scheme works, you'd have to examine that 50% figure in some detail. The point of the policy is to move people from JSA to a job – so what portion of that 50% are getting a job? People might be leaving for other reasons – removing themselves from the labour market to train or go back to school or simply as a result of despairing of finding a job at this time. Without breaking down that figure, it's impossible to derive any conclusions. More importantly, though, you'd want to compare that 50% figure (or rather, the proportion of the total who leave JSA because they found a job) to the portion of those NOT in the scheme who have done so. If a similar percentage have, then the scheme would not be working – but on the basis of that 50% claim in isolation we have no idea. Lastly, the focus of the outrage isn't that people are asked to work for benefits – it's that they're working for for-profit companies on the taxpayer's dime. That means they are competing with actual workers for jobs – and are we really better off paying people to work for Tesco rather than having Tesco pay people to work for Tesco? you really should think through some of these issues before announcing that the protesters are simply drama queens.

One final point – I think the fact that the Holocaust happened is sufficient reason to think that rights-conferred-by-states is not a sufficient legal precept to protect people. That's why "human rights" was developed as a concept in the first place – we have rights regardless of the state in which we live – and these rights (however we define them) by definition trump state law. We might disagree about which rights are human, but are you really going to argue that our rights are solely state-creations?

anniedemer says:

You might find it useful to read Cait Reiley's own article in (shock horror!) the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/

I was pretty shocked by your final point – if you're a recipient of JSA, then you above many others should do a bit of research. Her indignation was not a sign of 'pomposity', as you put it. She is positing quite genuine concerns about a scheme that advertises, but does not deliver, constructive, industry specific training. Lots of people (perhaps even yourself, as you seem to finally assert?) do not have the luxury of refusing government support.

Other than having a bit of a rant, which is always fine to an extent, your aim confuses me – particularly your final disclaimer. It's hypocrisy masquerading as critique. Articles like this are part of the disease, not the cure.

Chris McQuiggin says:

Not so. How can you justify companies having their work-force subsidised by the taxpayer? In its current incarnation, there is nothing to stop companies merely rotating unpaid jobseekers in and out of positions, whilst cutting part-time staffs hours as a result. This is exactly what has been happening in lots of major stores on the high streets.

If this is such a great scheme, why are all Britains top brands all falling over themselves to distance themselves from it…

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