At Graduate Fog, we’ve seen a lot in the 10 years we’ve been blogging about the UK’s youth jobs market. But this latest twist – ‘furlunteering’ – has really boggled our minds. Apparently, the Covid-19 outbreak has presented an ‘opportunity’ for start-ups to gain unlimited free labour, funded by the taxpayer.

In case you didn’t know, a lot of people are currently ‘furloughed’ by their employer. This means they still have a job, but they have effectively been set aside by their employer, who doesn’t need them during the coronavirus outbreak. Thanks to the Government / Treasury / taxpayer (depending on your viewpoint) these employees keep their jobs and continue to receive 80% of their salary for up to the next three months.

For many furloughed people, being paid four-fifths of their salary to do nothing is a pretty sweet deal. But others aren’t loving twiddling their thumbs, and say it’s boring, weirdly stressful, or both. Plus, there’s a national (international, actually) crisis on, and they want to do something to help.

Enter ‘furlunteering’ – a new concept where furloughed workers can donate their time to a struggling organisation that needs their time and skills.

When this donation is going to a charity – especially a Covid-19 related one – this seems ethically neat. The furloughed worker does something useful and those who depend on the charity benefit. Lovely.

But now it seems that non-charities are getting in on the act – and this is where we think things are getting messy, both ethically and (possibly) legally. A job board called Work in Start Ups has been one of the quickest off the mark, and is busy promoting opportunities to work for free at some of the UK’s most, er, ambitious start-ups. In fact, they are pretty clear that for these organisations, the coronavirus crisis presents an ‘opportunity’. Yes, they actually use that word:

Their job board is stuffed full of roles marked clearly as being only open to applicants who are currently furloughed (i.e. currently being paid by another employer). Needless to say, the roles they are offering are unpaid.

Many of the roles are quite weird and it’s hard to see why anyone would want to do them for free. ‘Video editing for a great cause’ anyone? (No, it’s not a charity). Want to design a logo for a health drink company, for no pay?

To be honest, the whole concept of furlunteering for a non-charity is making our heads spin. Here is our initial round of questions:

  1. Does anyone know what the law says about an employer’s legal duty to pay the National Minimum Wage to people who are currently furloughed by another employer? Is there some kind of exemption for furloughed workers? From our campaign work on fair internships, we know that in normal times the only employers who are allowed to use unpaid workers are registered charities. Start-ups have to pay their staff, like everyone else.
  2. Is there a risk that furloughed-worker roles could end up replacing what would otherwise have been paid internships, perfect for young people start their career? This is troubling, as this summer looks likely to be tough enough for those graduating from university.
  3. Why are taxpayers effectively subsidizing random start-ups, by paying the wages of those working for them, while the start-ups who benefit from their labour pay nothing for it?
  4. Are these ‘furlunteer’ roles just unpaid internships, re-badged? Surely the only reason someone would do them is for experience, which suggest they are likely to appeal disproportionately to young people. Conveniently for start-ups, many of these young people happen to already be doing the sort of roles that have been furloughed (working in bars, restaurants and non-essential shops), which leaves these employers apparently free to help themselves to young people’s labour, without an obligation to pay for it. And, if this is the case, is there any problem with that, ethically?

NOTE: Top barrister Jolyon Maugham QC – who retweeted this story after publication – appears to share our puzzlement about what’s going on here, tweeting: 

As we said, this one is dong our head in! If you can provide any clarity or have any ideas, information or views, please share them below…

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