The government are relying on technicalities to claim that unpaid work experience is voluntary. In fact they claim that they are entirely voluntary which is blatantly not true. There are multiple schemes which involve unpaid work. Some of them are:
- The Work Experience Scheme
- The Work Programme
- Mandatory Work Activity
- Community Action Programme
- Sector-Based Work Academies
Government ministers have been trying to direct attention to the first of these, the work experience scheme, which is almost voluntary. Technically a job seeker has the option to attend work experience or not. The acknowledged element of compulsion is that once someone has been in a work experience placement for a week they can be sanctioned if they leave it. In practice, job seekers may be sanctioned if they refuse to start a placement too. The wording of the standard letter on being sent to do work experience is very strong and does not give the impression that the placement is optional, and people on the scheme have frequently reported that their advisers led them to believe that they had no choice.
The second scheme on the list, the work programme, leads do compulsory unpaid work in two steps. First, referral to the work programme – where a contracted provider administers training, skills development and work experience for the job seeker – is mandatory after a defined time period. Job seekers aged 18 – 24 will be referred after 9 months, aged 25+ after 12 months, and ESA claimants in the work related activity group within 3 – 6 months. Secondly, once on the work programme it is mandatory to take up a work experience placement when ordered to by the company running the programme.
The third scheme, mandatory work activity, speaks for itself. It is up to the Job Centre adviser to choose whether or when to send someone for mandatory work. It is supposed to be used when job seekers have behaved badly or refused to comply with direction from the Job Centre, and to provide discipline for those who have never worked. In practice it can be used vindictively by the adviser with no recourse for the job seeker. Unpaid work under this scheme is supposed to only be work that directly benefits the community but again in practice things are different and the work can be something that does not benefit the community directly, but instead brings profit to an employer who does some community work as well.
Government ministers and the DWP have tried to portray these schemes as being for young people aged 18 to 24 however that is not the case. People of all ages have been sent to do unpaid and unskilled work including those with decades of experience or multiple qualifications in their subject.
Here is an image showing the standard letter sent to job seekers on being sent to do work experience:
The letter states:
Please note that if, without a good reason, you fail to start, fail to go when expected or stop going to the provision mentioned above (as in Section 19(5)(b) of the Jobseekers Act 1995), any future payments of Jobseeker’s Allowance could cease to be payable or could be payable at a lower rate. You could also lose entitlement to credit of National Insurance contributions. (Emphasis mine)
DWP memo DMG 08/11 JSA and work experience includes proof that people can be sanctioned for refusing to undertake unpaid work. Here’s a screenshot in case that document disapears:
WORK EXPERIENCE AND SANCTIONS
6 From 5.4.11 JSA may not be payable or it may be payable at a reduced rate to
claimants who are entitled to JSA
3. after being notified by an Emp O of a place on a Work Experience, without good cause (see DMG 34751 – 34752)
3.1 refused or failed to apply for it or
3.2 refused to accept it when offered
4. neglected to avail themselves of a reasonable opportunity of a place on a Work Experience (see DMG 34757 – 34758)
This DWP Work Programme Statistical Release proves that referral to the work programme is mandatory. This image from page 7 shows the detail:
Another DWP document, Work Programme Provider Guidance chapter 3, proves that work experience is mandatory when sent as part of the work programme. Please note that the document has been modified to remove all trace of mandatory work experience, however you may see the original here. Work Programme Provider Guidance Chapter 3 (Original)
Paragraph 14 states:
Work Experience for JSA Claimants
14. Where you are providing support for JSA participants, which is work experience you must mandate participants to this activity. This is to avoid the National Minimum Wage Regulations, which will apply if JSA participants are not mandated.
I also have letters sent to Aldston about the Community Action Programme which use similar terms to those used for the work experience scheme. See more at Aldston’s blog.
Apart from all that proof that unpaid work is mandatory, we also have strong indications that work experience placements are not helpful.
The DWP themselves comissioned a review of Workfare schemes in other countries, and you can read that for yourself – A comparative review of workfare programmes in the United States, Canada and Australia
Their report concluded that Workfare schemes may actually make someone less likely to find work:
There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers.
Subsidised (‘transitional’) job schemes that pay a wage can be more effective in raising employment levels than ‘work for benefit’ programmes. Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.
Full Fact have discovered that rates for leaving Job Seekers Allowance are the same whether work experience is taken or not.
There is evidence that job seekers are being used purely as free unskilled labour rather than given beneficial experience:
Jobseekers forced to clean private homes and offices for nothing [Guardian]
In a clear conflict of interest work programme provider A4e has set people to work in their own offices:
A4e compelled jobseekers to work unpaid in its own offices [Guardian]
Finally, it is obvious that there are problems with sending people receiving ESA on the work programme:
My current experience for WRAG [ABC of ESA]