Concerns have been raised that job-seeking graduates may have been forced to work as unpaid cleaners as part of the government’s controversial ‘workfare’ Work Programme. The revelation comes as the government holds a crisis summit today with companies involved in the scheme, to discuss its future.

Through a freedom of information request, the Guardian has discovered that a major government contractor, Avanta, has been placing job-seekers in unpaid cleaning placements in private homes, offices and council premises. The government had previously claimed that any mandatory unpaid placements were for “community benefit.”

Avanta has said that its schemes are not mandatory, but like all back-to-work companies involved in the work programme, it is able to refer jobseekers back to the job centre for sanctions. A manager of one cleaning company – DC Property Maintenence in Sussex – confirmed it had been sent up to 25 jobseekers from Avanta in the last two years, who worked alongside paid members of staff. The firm had been passed four or five jobseekers in the last six months alone. The placements usually last four weeks but can be extended – and when that happens the jobseeker is still not paid. But she insisted that her other staff were happy and did not believe it was replacing other shifts.

A second company – Town and County Cleaners – also confirmed it also used unpaid cleaners sent by Avanta. When questioned about these allegations, a spokesperson for Avanta said:

“Our approach is to work closely with our customers to understand the type of job that they are looking for and create a personalised package of support that will enable them to get a job with long-term prospects … We provide a broad range of placements with employers from different business sectors.

“We work with many employers who have recruited staff following work experience placements and we believe that work experience is a vital tool in helping long-term unemployed people find work.”

The revelations come amid growing evidence that unpaid placements are replacing paid workers. The Guardian discovered that in the minutes of the social security advisory committee, an official and impartial body set up to advise the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) said:

“Many retail jobs required staff to work for 16 hours each week, with overtime payable for any hours worked beyond that. Work experience allowed for 25 hours work activity, so overtime to permanent staff was being reduced or removed. There was also evidence to suggest that work experience placements were being taken on to cover Christmas vacancies.”

The committee’s chair, Paul Gray, ended the session by asking the DWP to take further action to prevent work experience roles taking over paid jobs. The minutes note:

“He said that the committee had voiced some serious concerns around the potential for exploitation of the work experience scheme and considered it important for the department to look at how it can further strengthen the safeguards that had been put in place.”

The same committee had also, earlier in 2011, warned the government against proceeding with another scheme introducing compulsory work placements for some jobseekers. 

The government proceeded with the mandatory work activity programme regardless, saying it expected no more than around 10,000 jobseekers a year to be compelled to do work placements under the programme. The latest figures record 8,100 people were placed on to the scheme in November 2011 alone.

We have already seen how this government has a shocking inability to tell the difference between ‘work’ and ‘work experience’. If they have ever hoovered an office, perhaps they could tell us why they did it for free?

What do you make of the latest revelations about the kind of work that young jobseekers are being forced to do, unpaid?

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