The case of the graduate intern who says she was ‘forced’ to work at discount store Poundland for three weeks or face losing her benefits will be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice in May.

Lawyers for Cait Reilly, the 22-year-old geology graduate from Birmingham University, will accuse the government of exploiting the unemployed as forced labour, after a high court judge granted a hearing that could see benefit regulations overturned.

Mr Justice Ouseley granted solicitors from the law firm Public Interest Lawyers a judicial review in Cait’s case. She says she was made to stack and clean shelves for three weeks in Poundland without pay or face losing all benefits under the government’s sector-based work academy (SBWA) scheme. Her lawyers argue that being compelled to work represents a form of forced labour under the Human Rights Act.

Cait’s case will be heard alongside a second case brought by an unnamed claimant who refused to work for six months unpaid under the government’s community action programme. The middle-aged man’s lawyers will argue that it represented a form of forced labour and an “attack on his dignity”. The Community Action programme is the newest of five separate back-to-work schemes and is currently being piloted in a number of regions across the country before its expected roll out date some time later this year.

The man had been unemployed for more than two years when he was put on to the six-month unpaid placement as a matter of course after the private company attempting to find him a job failed to do so. His lawyers say he made it very clear to the jobcentre that he was willing to volunteer for his placement, which involved working for an organisation that reclaims furniture, but he did not want to be “coerced” into it “as a matter of principle”. The man now faces having his benefits stripped for up to six months.

The Department of Work and Pensions has said that in Cait’s case, the scheme was voluntary and the sanctions applied only if she pulled out after the first week. In court papers, departmental lawyers insist that the possibility of docking benefits did not equate to forcing jobseekers to work.

Since Reilly’s lawyers lodged her case at the start of the year, ministers have been forced into a U-turn and made work experience totally voluntary after up to a dozen high street chains – including Poundland, Matalan, Boots, Waterstones, TK Maxx, the Co-operative and Sainsbury’s – pulled out of the schemes. Employment minister Chris Grayling later agreed to remove all sanctions from the work experience scheme but the status of other programmes defined as voluntary is not yet known.

Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, said the government’s U-turn would not affect the cases until the government formally revealed details of the changes, telling the Guardian:

“This government scheme is going to be given a full going over in front of a high court judge some time after mid-May.”

Graduate Fog will be following the case with interest and will keep readers up-to-date as it progresses. We anticipate another wave of vicious press – particularly from right-wing newspaper columnists – but we see this as a landmark case, for graduates in particular. We wish Cait and her legal team at Public Interest the very best of luck.

Do you think labour programmes involving compulsory work placements violate jobseekers’ human rights? Do you expect the media to be hostile towards Cait? Do you back her?

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • More Networks
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap