The government has insisted that its controversial work programme that sees young jobseekers being told to do unpaid internships or risk losing their benefits is NOT promoting forced labour, the Guardian has reported.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) was responding to allegations by geology graduate Cait Reilly, who has challenged the government over a two-week unpaid internship she says she was forced to take at the discount store Poundland. She says her job centre told her that failure to complete her “compulsory” placement – which involved sweeping floors and stacking shelves – would result in her losing her Jobseekers’ Allowance payment of £52 a week.

In court papers filed on Wednesday, the DWP admitted that it made a mistake by not telling Reilly she had a chance to opt out of the placement. But it says her scheme and others like it are not contrary to the Human Rights Act, and the department is “strongly resisting” the case.

In an 11-page document setting out a provisional defence for a case that could affect the position of hundreds of thousands of jobseekers in a similar position, the DWP has argued that having benefits docked does not equate to forcing the unemployed to work, claiming:

“Where a person is required to perform a task and, if he or she does not do so, loses benefit, that is not forcing a person to work.”

The Guardian also reports that Cait’s case may not be the only one of its type – the DWP is facing challenges relating to several of its new programmes, on similar grounds. This includes the recently announced Community Action Programme in which those out of work for a number of years must work for six months unpaid, including at profit-making businesses, in order to keep their benefits.

And the newspaper has collected a list of companies participating in the back-to-work schemes. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Argos, Asda, Maplin, TK Maxx, Matalan, Primark, Holland & Barrett, Boots, McDonald’s, Burger King and the Arcadia group of clothes stores, owned by the billionaire Sir Philip Green have all taken on staff under government programmes.

But one brand – the bookseller Waterstones – has pulled out of the scheme. A spokesperson told the Guardian that after the newspaper highlighted the practice at one of its stores, it initiated a review and no longer allowed branch managers to take on work experience people as it did not want to encourage working without pay.

And concern is growing that those who work unpaid may not be the only ones who lose out from these schemes. Existing paid members of staff at the participating companies are reporting that their hours are being cut as unpaid workers are doing it for free.

A paid staff member at health food store Holland and Barrett – which has 1,000 such placements across 250 stores said:

“We have had a number of placements in our store and have noticed that the hours for part-time staff have been reduced. Staff are upset because we are all struggling to make ends meet. The real benefactors of this scheme are the companies who receive millions of pounds worth of labour absolutely free of charge and the losers are the jobseekers who see potential jobs being filled by workfare placements for months at a time and the loyal part-timers who find their regular overtime hours savagely cut.”

But Holland and Barrett said it had taken on about 50 work experience jobseekers as paid employees, insisting:

“We have committed to working with JobCentre Plus to make available 1,000 work placements available for young people aged between 16 and 24 years. We have 250 stores taking part in the scheme as well as our head office and distribution and packaging site. We ensure they are given skills and confidence to move forward with their job search and of course a valuable reference.”

Tech retailer Maplin said:

“We are more than happy to get behind the different work experience schemes nationwide. We fully support, where possible, placements initiated by the local employment offices to get individuals into the working environment. This is by no means a way of replacing our current paid employees as all the individuals involved are shadowing a full-time member of staff.”

Graduate Fog is gripped by this story – and remains firmly opposed to the exploitation of unpaid workers, whether the placements are privately arranged or done through a government scheme. We hope that these appalling programmes will be banned swiftly and effectively. Unpaid work is not the solution to our nation’s unemployment problem – it is already a big part of the problem.

Should back-to-work schemes involving unpaid labour be banned? Have you done a government-backed scheme – and did it lead you to a job? Or have you seen evidence that these schemes are actually displacing paid workers?

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