DISCOUNT STORE ADMITS INVOLVEMENT CEASED IN APRIL – BUT DID THEY JUMP OR WERE THEY PUSHED?
* GRADUATE FOG EXCLUSIVE *
Poundland is no longer acting as a ‘host’ employer on the government’s Work Experience programme, Graduate Fog can exclusively reveal.
The news follows months of complaints from young participants about poor quality placements at the store — with one calling it “the most miserable six weeks of my life” — and questions about why unpaid participants were doing what appeared to be regular shop shifts, seemingly replacing paid staff at the stores.
To be totally honest, we discovered this information by accident. For the last six months, Graduate Fog has been gathering evidence from participants of the Work Experience scheme who were placed at Poundland. Their horrifying accounts described a grim conveyor belt of unpaid labour, and included claims they performed duties identical to those of paid staff, and had been bullied, harassed and accused of stealing by their supervisors.
We have also seen troubling Facebook posts from a paid Poundland supervisor which implied that the retailer viewed its access to the unpaid workers as a cash cow, whilst simultaneously accusing participants of stealing stock from his shop.
We were preparing to submit our evidence to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) — which oversees the Work Experience programme — and ask them to cease Poundland’s involvement immediately until an assessment was completed, when Poundland dropped the bombshell news that the discount chain stopped being involved with the Work Experience scheme in April.
Dear @GraduateFog – This a very important campaign. Many young people, especially with special needs are engaging in Work Experience or Workability Programmes that are poorly thought out and have poor safeguarding. Well done and keep speaking up. https://t.co/Eu3s9uNcZr
— Gina Miller (@thatginamiller) May 25, 2018
Officially, Poundland had been acting as a ‘host’ employer for the programme, designed to give 18- to 24-year-olds a taster of the world of work, boost their experience, skills and confidence and help them into paid work soon afterwards.
In exchange for some unpaid work (something Graduate Fog had already told the Guardian we strongly opposed), participants of the Work Experience scheme are supposed to receive from their ‘host’ a level of training and support with their ongoing job hunt, including inspiring sit-down careers sessions with supervisors, and help with their CV and interview technique.
However, the participants we spoke to who had been placed at Poundland said the scheme’s guidelines bore no resemblance to the reality of their “demoralising” experiences. When shown the official guidelines given to employers, all the Poundland workers were shocked to see suggestions the retailer should provide “supportive feedback”, “discuss their career aspirations” and “help them prepare for interviews” with other employers. One participant actually laughed at the document, saying:
“That description is a joke — it looks nothing like my experience at Poundland. My supervisor was supposed to care about my career aspirations? We hardly spoke the whole time I was there. He didn’t even know my name — he just called me ‘mate’. That was before he accused me of stealing because I brought a rucksack to work one day.”
The Work Experience programme participants we spoke to — all aged between 18 and 24 — completed placements at different Poundland stores, in Bolton (Greater Manchester), Bingley (West Yorkshire) and Bromsgrove (Worcestershire), and their accounts were broadly similar.
They all said they were treated exactly like paid Poundland staff — including being named on store rosters. All three participants said they were part of a group of between three and 10 unpaid workers on their store schedule in any one week, completing 30 hours of unpaid shift work per week. One participant says he actually worked 36 hours one week (more than the maximum of 30, prescribed by the DWP).
They were given shop work tasks for the full duration of each shift, including stacking shelves, unpacking boxes and mopping floors. All three participants said that in most cases, outgoing participants were immediately replaced by new ones.
None of the participants received a written reference after completing their placement, something the DWP guidelines state is an essential requirement of host employers. All three participants were referred by their local job centre, yet none has any written documentation to prove they ever worked at the store, which seems very odd for an official scheme.
One participant was required to buy his own all-black work clothes — at a cost of £18 — after Poundland refused to provide a uniform, and he didn’t want to spoil his interview suit (the only other black clothing he had). Again, the document states that host employers should provide uniforms, where participants are expected to wear them.
None of the participants we spoke to had ever received any help or advice from Poundland with their ongoing job hunt. One told us that — far from being a nurturing opportunity for career development — “My six weeks at Poundland were the most miserable six weeks of my life. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.” All the participants we spoke to had at least some work experience already, and said the Poundland placement added little to their CV.
As well as being treated like paid staff — including doing rostered shifts of cleaning and stacking shelves — all said they either experienced or witnessed harassment and bullying by Poundland staff during their time there, and two said they had been unfairly accused of stealing by supervisors.
The participants’ accounts also appear to be supported by Poundland’s own staff. We have found evidence of a Poundland store manager boasting on a members-only Facebook group called ‘The Poundland Appreciation Society’ about how ‘good’ the unpaid staff are at his branch in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, whilst accusing others of being lazy and stealing stock.
The supervisor (whose name we have concealed) was confronted by angry readers, including anti-poverty campaigner Charlotte Hughes, who alerted us to the thread:
Taken together with previous accounts of problems with Poundland’s participation in this scheme last year, we felt our evidence raised vital questions about who is responsible for ensuring these placements — set up by the DWP but run by private employers — are of a high standard, and whether too much trust is placed in ‘host’ employers like Poundland.
Fearful of repercussions — including having their Universal Credit stopped — none of the three participants felt able to lodge an official complaint, so Graduate Fog’s founder Tanya de Grunwald was planning to do so on their behalf.
For legal reasons, we approached Poundland for a comment about the allegations. This was their response:
TO: Graduate Fog
DATE: 9 May 2018
The kind of experience you outline is unrecognisable from the positive feedback we have received from participants and colleagues who have sought help through this programme.
We find it hard to believe, if your information was typical, that we wouldn’t have had that raised directly with us by participants or store colleagues.
In any event, you’re clearly also not aware that we ended our participation in the WEX programme two months ago.
FROM: Graduate Fog
Thank you for your email.
As you say, I was not aware that Poundland had ceased its involvement with the Work Experience Programme. Was this ever announced publicly, and did Poundland provide a statement at that time?
If not, please can you provide one now, clarifying why your involvement in this programme came to an end.
They sent this back:
TO: Graduate Fog
Thanks for your response.
We communicated our decision to the programme provider, JobCentre Plus.
Assuming Poundland had no wish to clarify further, we wrote to the DWP, asking the following:
1) Can the DWP confirm that Poundland is no longer acting as a ‘host’ organisation for the Work Experience Programme?
2) Why is that?
3) Did Poundland’s departure from this scheme have anything to do with complaints from participants, questions from campaigners around whether they were doing real work, and / or negative press stories about how participants were treated during their time at Poundland?
4) Which big employers are still involved as host organisations for the Work Experience Programme? Have any other employers ceased their involvement recently, and – if so – what explanation can you give for this?
Several days later came this reply:
FROM: Department of Work and Pensions
TO: Graduate Fog
Thanks Tanya, and thanks for your patience.
Poundland stopped being a host organisation for the Work Experience Programme in April 2018. At the time Poundland made the decision, it was because they wanted to focus on direct recruitment. We have had no other large employers recently withdraw from the programme.
On your further questions, we do not have a specific list of employers who offer work experience. All DWP staff have access to our National & Local District Provision Tool which has information relating to live work experience offers, and placements are also arranged at a local office level with local employers.
Below is a comment for you to include in your piece:
A DWP spokesperson said: “Our Work Experience programme is a positive experience for the majority of participants, giving them the chance to build their CVs, learn new skills and improve their job prospects.”
So, it seems both the DWP and Poundland are insisting that Poundland’s decision to leave the scheme was not connected to the negative reports about the quality of participants’ experiences within the retailer’s stores.
There is no way to know if this is true, but it would seem surprising. Poundland’s recent financial woes are well-known. Surely this would be an odd moment to give up a source unlimited free labour?
Regardless, even if Poundland wasn’t pushed off the scheme, we think they should have been — long ago. Graduate Fog’s founder, Tanya de Grunwald, said today:
“Personally, I challenge the logic of any scheme that claims unpaid work encourages people into paid work, but even setting that aside there are big problems here.
“From what participants describe, Poundland was running a cheap and nasty version of a programme that is supposed to be about giving young people confidence and skills to help them into paid jobs. Yet all the participants we spoke to said they felt more demoralised at the end of the placement than they did at the start, and learned nothing during their time at Poundland.
“Clearly, the DWP is placing a great deal of trust in private providers to follow the guidelines. If local job centres are going to continue to provide a conveyor belt of vulnerable young workers to profit-hungry businesses, the DWP must commit to proper supervision of the quality of the placements. Standards matter. When the public is told that a certain number of the UK’s young people are ‘in training’ it’s important they have confidence that those placements are teaching participants something, not just grinding them down.
“Poundland is no longer be acting as host employer, but this scheme looks set to continue. Participants and the public have a right to know that it is being properly run and supervised.”
De Grunwald said serious questions remain for the DWP about why there is so little supervision of the scheme, and why there is no appropriate mechanism for participants to feed back on the quality of their placement. She said:
“Clearly, it should not rest on the participants’ shoulders to self-report problems with this scheme. Being reliant on Universal Credit, they are painfully aware of their precarious position and simply won’t risk being identified as a troublemaker. Instead, placements must be better structured and supervised, with on-the-spot visits from independent quality control assessors to ensure standards are maintained.
“The DWP guidelines for host employers state: ‘We won’t be prescriptive about the structure of the placements’, but why not? This is six weeks of a young person’s life. It is reasonable to check that the hosts’ plans for them are in line with the whole point of the programme. They should also make sure every participant receives a proper, written reference from their host employer at the end of their placement. And they should never be viewed as free substitutes for paid workers.”
What now? There is an overwhelming sense that Poundland was not operating the Work Experience programme in the spirit intended by the Government, so we are pleased to hear that they are no longer part of it.
Graduate Fog will continue to oppose any scheme in which participants are not paid for their work — and we will continue to monitor this scheme closely, listening carefully to participants who tell us they have had bad experiences.
In the meantime, we have written to the DWP to outline our serious concerns about the lack of supervision of Work Experience scheme placements, and to state our opinion that too much trust is being given to host employers to act ethically and appropriately.
We will also remind the DWP that most participants are in too precarious a position to risk complaining themselves, which is why stronger safeguards are essential.
We would also like to remind all remaining Work Experience scheme hosts (you know who you are, even if we don’t) that DWP guidelines make clear that you have a responsibility to make sure that participants gain real value from the placements they do with you, and that they should never be used to replace paid workers. Consider yourselves warned.