The geology graduate who is suing the government over an unpaid internship she was “forced” to do at Poundland as part of a government scheme has been savaged by the British press and public.

In December, we reported that Cait Reilly — a 22-year-old graduate of Birmingham University — was taking legal action over a two-week internship she was told was “mandatory” if she wanted to keep claiming her Jobseekers’ Allowance payments of £52 per week, in which she was required to sweep the floors and stack shelves. This week – as Cait’s lawyer issued a press release containing an update on her case — the mainstream press jumped on the story and seized the chance to give her and other job-seeking graduates a kicking.

In Graduate Fog’s opinion, some of the editorial written about Cait was vicious — and showed a disturbing attitude towards young people today. The response suggests that a troubling new trend for ‘graduate bashing’ whereby graduates are labelled “entitled” or “arrogant” for daring to complain about the way they are being routinely exploited through unpaid internships, which have become the norm, despite being illegal.

In a piece entitled “A human right not to stack shelves? She’s off her trolley” on Friday, Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir wrote:

“Predictably, Reilly has been photographed in front of her local Poundland wearing the traditional, poor wee me, sad-clown victim face. Cait, I really want to say this to you. Two weeks stacking shelves in Poundland – a breach of your human rights? Grow up.

…It is hardly ten years’ imprisonment without charge in Guantanamo Bay. It is hardly like being incarcerated in a Nazi prisoner of war camp for five long years, never knowing each day if you would live or die, sewing cross-stitch samplers to stop yourself from going insane.”

Nobody said it was, Jan. But unpaid work is illegal in this country, and Cait has every right to complain about it. Then she said:

“I would argue that doing a little unpaid work in return for benefits is not a breach of your human rights, it is actually a bonus. See it as a life lesson – and you might get more out of it than you think.”

Which is it – a “bonus” or a “life lesson”? Come on Jan, at least be consistent. Is this two-week placement a prize — or a punishment? She goes on:

“You might think that a student with barely an NI payment to her name would be happy to put something back into the pot.”

Er, what “pot” is that exactly, Jan? The Poundland pot?

“I would also argue that her stance is deeply insulting to those whose jobs actually do entail sweeping floors and stacking shelves.”

No it’s not. They get paid to do their jobs, Jan. Cait didn’t earn a penny for her work.

“One might hope that any kid walking into a lawyer’s office with this sorry tale would be laughed out of the door.”

“Kid”? Cait is 22. That’s more than old enough to vote. She has the same rights as anybody else in this country. And didn’t you just say she should “grow up”? Yet you’re the one keeping her infantilised by implying she has fewer rights and should shut up, simply because she’s young…

Not content with slating Cait, Jan next turns to her lawyer, the highly-respected Jim Duffy, ofPublic Interest Lawyers:

“What I am really thinking is that Reilly’s lawyer Jim Duffy has much to answer for. A high-profile landmark case such as this might do much to enhance his reputation.”

Er, perhaps Cait’s lawyer has recognised that she has a strong case — and this is an important, interesting and topical area of employment law? He would hardly take the case — which we assume is not being paid for — if he didn’t think Cait had a good chance of winning.

Jan then finishes by pointing out that Cait’s bravery on this issue is likely to put some employers off hiring her — something we suspect Cait has already considered, as it is the same reason why hundreds of thousands of young people do not report illegal unpaid internships every year:

“However, win or lose, it won’t do much for Cait Reilly’s employment chances – as a shelf stacker or a geology-specialising museum boss. Believe me, such a pinched sense of entitlement at this nascent stage of her career will not endear her to many putative employers.”

Well done on underlining the point that Cait — and her fellow unpaid interns — are extremely vulnerable here, Jan. That is all the more reason why Cait’s actions are exceptional and admirable.

Still, perhaps we should not be surprised that Jan Moir lacks the intelligence or sensitivity to get to grips with the details of this case. Let’s not forget that this is the same Daily Mail columnist whose writing promoted 20,000 complaints for the piece “Why there is nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death,” in which she suggested that the singer’s sexual orientation was somehow linked to his death (recorded by corners as by natural causes). The piece earned her the title of Bigot of the Year 2009, as voted by gay rights campaign group Stonewall.

But no, other journalists followed suit. Writing in the Guardian on Saturday, in a piece called “Is all work experience good experience?” Toby Young said:

“More generally, I approve of these sorts of schemes because they denude young people of their sense of entitlement… They can’t just expect a fulfilling career to fall into their laps — and the sooner they realise that, the better off they’ll be.”

He insisted that his own experience of doing unpaid, government-backed work experience as a teen in the 1980s was the making of him. But this was more than 20 years ago, when the world was a very different place, before unpaid labour became an endemic problem that exploits and excludes hundreds of thousands of young people every year. And before unpaid internships became illegal when the minimum wage law was introduced in 1998. Of graduates like Cait, Young wrote:

“The world doesn’t owe them a living.”

True – but Poundland does owe Cait Reilly a wage. And the government owes her an apology for setting up this horrific programme, which effectively legitimises unpaid internships, which are illegal. Not a grey area — illegal. Young even went on to offer Cait some (unsolicited) some careers advice, suggesting that she will need more than her existing qualifications in order to pursue a future as a museum curator:

“Perhaps the two weeks she spent stacking shelves in Poundland will have the same galvanising effect on her as cleaning lavatories did on me and she’ll go back to university and get some additional qualifications.”

Oh, is that what these compulsory, unpaid work placements are for? Pushing graduates back into university to study for yet more expensive qualifications that also won’t lead them to a paid job?

And let’s not forget that this all happened in the same week that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg assured us he was going to put pressure on employers to make sure they pay their interns at least the minimum wage. Yet at the same time his colleague Iain Duncan Smith is telling job centres to arrange unpaid internships? What is going on with these people?

The way we see it, Cait Reilly’s case is extremely important, because it asks some crucial questions that young people deserve answers to:

Why is JSA even being used to help graduates to fund unpaid internships? Cait wants to use her JSA to continue an internship she set up herself at a museum. But why should she need to do this? Why isn’t the museum paying her a wage?

Why is the government instructing job centres to help big companies to break the NMW law but providing them with a steady supply of free labour?

What is the aim of these forced unpaid internships — and is there any evidence that they actually help youth unemployment?

Why are big companies being allowed to gain unlimited unpaid labour, through a scheme backed by the government? How is Cait working for Poundland “putting something back in the pot,” as Jan Moir puts it?

Why are young people being treated as second class citizens?

Graduate Fog is disturbed by the viciousness of the attacks on Cait, who is sticking up for her right to be paid a wage for fair day’s work. Where did this venom come from? Hundreds of thousands of graduates have found that they spent three years doing expensive degree courses on the advice of those they trusted — and have now been by the law, the government and their universities. They have every right to be angry. As Cait’s lawyer Jim Duffy said:

“The Government has created — without Parliamentary authority — a complex array of schemes that allow Job Centres to force people into futile, unpaid labour for weeks or months at a time. By doing so, it is worsening rather than alleviating the cycle of unemployment that is such a significant barrier to addressing the economic crisis.”

We agree 100%. Why are people kicking graduates when they’re down? And why are they so keen to give the government powers to force people to work for nothing, when we already have a minimum wage law that says that is illegal? Graduate Fog wishes Cait Reilly and her lawyer Jim Duffy the very best of luck. We’re right behind you.

*Is the Poundland intern a hero — or a whinger?
Are you impressed that Cait Reilly is standing up for herself — or is she giving graduates a bad name? Was the press reaction to her case fair – or are you worried that ‘graduate bashing’ is becoming the norm in the press?

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