Chris Grayling, the employment minister who came under fire earlier this year for the Workfare scheme which saw thousands of young jobseekers forced to work in supermarkets for no wage, has again defended the programme. He claimed that those who criticised it “just don’t get it”, should “take a long hard look at themselves” and understand that “in today’s world, things don’t come on a plate.”

In a speech made on Thursday at the Policy Exchange in London, Grayling slammed what he called the “Polly Toynbee left,” who – like the Guardian columnist Toynbee – have opposed his controversial work experience programme. He also accused his critics of being out of touch with the current economic climate and in danger of putting a huge number of young people at risk. Grayling — thought to be a likely contender for a cabinet post in the next re-shuffle – said:

“I’m afraid that too many people still just don’t get it. Like the ‘Polly Toynbee Left’ who rail with outrage against the idea of a young unemployed person being offered the chance to do a month’s work experience with Airbus, British Telecom, UK Mail or Tesco.

“Slave labour they call it. Well that’s just insulting to some great companies who are helping young people get a job, not to mention the young people benefiting from placements by picking up the valuable skills and experience they need to get a leg up into the world of work.

“They just don’t understand that in today’s world, things don’t come on a plate. That government can’t just create opportunity for all. That people have to go the extra mile if they want to succeed.

“It’s time for those who have criticised work experience to take a long hard look at themselves. Work experience isn’t about exploiting young people — it’s about showing them what life is like in a workplace.”

Grayling also claimed that young unemployed people who participated in government work experience schemes were 20% more likely to find work and 16% more likely to be off benefits 21 weeks later than unemployed young people not on the programme. But Toynbee – writing in yesterday’s Guardian – suggested that the figures were “not quite a lie, but profoundly deceptive” and that the true figure was closer to 6%. She also made the point that many of those counted as ‘off benefits’ had vanished, which did not necessarily mean they had found jobs. She also said:

“Grayling defended his work experience programme which was criticised by me and many others when it emerged that companies like Tesco were using large numbers of the young unemployed to stack shelves for free, without training or a job offer, and that anyone dropping out could lose benefits.

“Grayling labelled critics of this programme ‘job snobs’, as if we were deriding the work itself. But the protest was against large companies using a battalion of free labour as a substitute for employing people fairly on the minimum wage.”

At Graduate Fog, we think it is not Grayling’s critics who ‘don’t get it’ – but the employment minister himself. Unpaid work may seem harmless enough – helpful, even – in the short-term. But far from being a solution to youth unemployment, we have seen (from the spread of privately-arranged unpaid internships) that in the long-term unpaid work only serves to cheapen young people’s labour, move the goalposts further away from them and pull down wages for everybody. It is crystal clear to us that in time the same thing will happen with government-backed unpaid work schemes. Unpaid work is not a miracle cure for youth unemployment – it is already a big part of the problem.

The fact that unpaid work forms such a large part or the government’s plan to solve youth unemployment betrays these politicians’ terrifying lack of understanding of the problems facing out of work young people today – and what is really going on out there.

Here’s an idea – why doesn’t the government instead start putting pressure on companies to pay their young employees a fair wage? One that they can actually live on, without having to rely on the state – or their parents – for hand-outs? It is Mr Grayling – not his critics – who needs to take a long, hard look at himself.

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