A graduate is suing the government over an unpaid two-week work placement at Poundland which she was told to complete by her local job centre – or face losing her Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA).

Cait Reilly, 22 — a geology graduate from Birmingham University — had been seeking experience in the museum sector, but was told she must complete a “mandatory” fortnight at the discount high street store instead, or forfeit her £53 a week JSA.

The job centre — in King’s Heath, Birmingham — was acting under the government’s highly controversial Work Programme, in which young jobseekers are denied their right to the National Minimum Wage for up to eight weeks and forced to work in supermarkets and other high-street brands in order to keep their benefits.

Cait told the BBC:

“My adviser told me that there was an open day to find out about retail jobs. When I actually found out that it was a work experience placement that could take up to six weeks of unpaid work, I approached her and told her i wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go ahead with it. At which point she said “Well it is mandatory and if you don’t complete it you will lose your JSA benefits.”

She said that being forced to take unpaid work in a field unrelated to her career plans was “frustrating” — and raised questions about who was really benefitting from these mandatory placements:

“We had been promised training in various retail roles, but in actual fact all we did was what seemed like the labour that other people weren’t doing. I want to get into the museum world. Working at Poundland gave me no relevant experience towards that career at all. I was taken away from work placements at museums, given no valuable experience or training and potentially missed a lot of opportunities in the field I was interested in.”

Yesterday on Graduate Fog, we wrote about our growing concerns that some brands — particularly high street retailers — appear to be taking advantage of government-backed employment schemes in order to cut staff costs and boost profits. We are worried that they are using schemes to replace proper, paid shop jobs with unpaid or low-paid apprentices and Work Programme jobseekers. But Poundland hit back against this suggestion, saying:

“We work in partnership with JobCentre Plus and other government funded organisations to implement a comprehensive work placement programme designed to provide on-the-job training for those looking to retail as a career opportunity.

“Our partnership with JobCentre Plus is a positive step to get people back into work. It doesn’t replace our recruitment activity, but adds to the number of colleagues we have working with us.”

Public Interest lawyers, acting on Cat’s behalf, have sent a letter-before-action, the first stage in a potential judicial review, challenging the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise) Regulations 2011. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is due to respond to Ms Reilly’s case on 14 December. Outlining her reasons for pursuing legal actions, Cait said:

“We’re hoping we can approach the government and ask them to maybe think about how they’re putting these plans into action.

In what Graduate Fog sees as the start of a backlash against a government policy which ignores young people’s right to fair pay for their work, Cait has become the first young jobseeker to publicly take a stand against this appalling treatment. We support her 100%, wish her the very best of luck and will keep you updated with her progress.

(This blog post was originally published on 7 December 2011. The sudden flurry of publicity around it is because the right-wing press has only just noticed the story and twigged how important it is!)

*Would you accept a “mandatory” internship at Poundland?
Who benefits the most from these unpaid placements – jobseekers or retailers? Are you pleased Cait is taking a stand? Have you been told to complete a compulsory internship as part of the Work Programme?

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