Critics of the government’s controversial ‘workfare’ work experience programme were yesterday celebrating as the Department of Work and Pensions was forced to change the terms of the secheme so that placements – lasting up to eight weeks – are no longer mandatory.

This is certainly good news. But for those of us who have been campaigning against unpaid internships – the privately-arranged, not government-organised type – for the last few years, serious concerns remain. We have already seen how – unless closely monitored – the widespread use of unpaid workers can actually make things worse for young people, pushing paid work even further out of reach. Employment minister Chris Grayling said yesterday:

“The real argument of the Trotskyist is that unpaid work experience is wrong, and is denying people the right to work; they are wrong.”

No, Mr Grayling — you are wrong. Unpaid work — or ‘work experience’, as you people call it — is the solution to nothing. It may look like a quick fix — unpaid work leads to paid jobs, right? — but it is not. In rolling this out as a national scheme you are in danger of cheapening young people’s labour — which will in turn make it more difficult for them to find paid work. Grayling, who described the scheme as “brilliant,” also said:

“People volunteer to do it and we have a queue of kids desperate to do it.”

Yes, Mr Grayling — and there is a queue of “kids” desperate to work for free for Topshop, French Connection, Boris Johnson, Vivienne Westwood and Tony Blair, too. But that is a sign of how desperate they are, not proof that they love working for free – or that it leads to paid jobs. Also, they are unlikely to understand how a scheme that may help them and a few of their friends in the short-term is likely to be damaging to many, many more in the future.

You may not understand this, Mr Grayling, but I do – because I’ve already watched it happen with internships. All those placements (of three, six, nine or even 12 months) are ‘voluntary’ too. Let’s look at ‘intern creep.’ A couple of years ago, it was enough to have three months of unpaid experience before you’d be considered for a paid role. Then, when everyone had three months’ experience, employers decided that it takes six months to prove real commitment. Then it was nine months, to really ‘stand out from the crowd.’ All that happens is the goalposts move further away.

This phenomenon is the reason why the latest figures from Interns Anonymous show that 26% of interns have done more than three internships, and 39% of internships last longer than three months. Can you afford not to get paid for the best part of a year, Mr Grayling? Because I know I can’t. The assumption that unpaid work leads to paid jobs is not only out-of-date — and just plain wrong. Please, PLEASE take my word for it. We already know that divorcing pay from labour leads nowhere good – and what you are doing is going to be a disaster for young people.

Of course, my concerns are in addition to the many other other good questions that have been raised by this scheme’s critics – most of which still remain, even though involvement is now not mandatory. Do these work experience placements really lead to paid jobs — or is the government massaging the numbers (one set of stats showed that the scheme is actually 10% less successful than doing nothing)? Are paid employees finding that their hours are being cut, as their work is being done by free, unpaid workers on this scheme? And might the scheme actually reduce the number of paid jobs available to young people? Why would an employer pay them, when they can get them to do it for nothing?

I am also concerned that these placements — whether mandatory or voluntary — are in fact proper jobs, which should, on principle, be paid. If they are real work — with set hours and responsibilities — it is still unclear to me why people should be doing this for free, when others are profiting from their labour.

Our national minimum wage law says that anybody meeting the criteria of being a ‘worker’ must be paid at least £6.08 an hour (if they are over 21). The employer must pay this — and the worker cannot waive their right to pay, even in if they insist they are happy to work for free. There are good reasons for this. Over time, desperate workers undercutting each other drags everyone’s wages down to zero.

If this is proper work, why don’t the principles of the NMW law apply to these young people? Do the long-term unemployed have fewer rights than everyone else?

And lastly, I still fail to see why the taxpayer is effectively paying this person’s (albeit meagre) wages, through Jobseekers’ Allowance. If these ‘volunteers’ are doing real work, they should be paid by their employer, not the taxpayer.

So, while I am pleased that the mandatory element of this scheme has been removed, I predict that our delightful government has just created a whole new nightmare for thousands of young people struggling to get their careers started.

The fact that they don’t get this – or choose to ignore it – is revealing. Resting one of their flagship employment policies on such a, frankly, dodgy assumption (that unpaid work leads to paid jobs) shows two things. One, that this government doesn’t have a clue what’s happening and how the labour market has changed for young people in the last five years. And two, that they really don’t have a plan for tackling the youth unemployment. Why else would their big idea be one that is so flawed? Thanks for nothing, Mr Grayling.

Does unpaid work lead to paid jobs – or will this scheme backfire? Are you happy with the programme, now that is it no longer ‘mandatory’? Are unpaid workers true ‘volunteers’ – and if not, is it fair they they are not paid for their work?

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap