Putrid Modern Hell: Special Edition

by HST UK on February 19, 2012

Unpaid Slaves

Ladies and Gentleman I have a confession to make. I voted Tory in the last election. My vote contributed towards the establishing of a coalition that currently governs the United Kingdom. The reason for my vote was simply because the local Tory candidate promised to keep the factory where my Father works open, and pledged to redevelop my home suburb. In fairness, my Dad still has a job at the factory, and there are signs that my suburb is improving, especially in light of this politician helping to re-open the suburb’s biggest Pub.

However, at the top of the pile Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg continue to make high profile gaffes and blunders in a time when decision making requires sound judgement. I feel gravely concerned about the coalition government’s handling of Britain’s unemployed, particularly with regard to the introduction of the controversial Workfare scheme. Workfare is designed to make sure that those claiming benefits (in this case Job Seekers Allowance) meet certain requirements that keep them entitled to those benefits. These requirements supposedly improve the claimant’s job prospects, and provide ‘valuable’ work experience. In theory, this scheme should benefit society, as these people then would gain employment, and shortly after, it would reduce welfare costs as a whole as they become contributing members of society once again by paying income tax, and pump their hard earned money back into the economy.

A number of significant news stories ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/feb/16/tesco-unpaid-work-experience-scheme?INTCMP=SRCH) have broken recently stating that jobseekers are being sent to work for various high street stores and supermarkets as part of the Workfare scheme, yet there is proving to be next to no certainty of a job at the end of their unpaid placement. The Department for Work and Pensions stated that those who accepted offers of unpaid placements must work without pay, after a one week cooling off period for up to thirty hours a week, for potentially eight weeks.

There have been numerous cases of jobseekers not being told about the one week cooling off period, and these people were unaware of the risk of losing their Job Seekers Allowance, a meagre £53 a week (£67 a week for over 25’s) if they decided to back out of the job offer. Potential landmark legal cases, involving University Graduates who went from the pride of achieving their degrees to stacking shelves in Poundland have made an argument that the work represents a form of slavery under the Human Rights Act.

“Slavery” is a strong word. Are these people slaves in the sense that the working conditions are desperately poor, and they are being physically and emotionally abused by their masters? No, they’re probably granted access to the staff canteen for breaks, and might get a free coffee. But, Christ are we really reaching a point when convicted criminals who serve community service sentences, are not too dissimilar to the disadvantaged job seekers hoping to get back into the wonderful world of work? The jobseekers working unpaid are doing so with a metaphorical gun pointed to their temples as soon as they verbally agree to a placement; if they don’t then they stand to lose what little they do get.

The fact that for a significant percentage of these jobseekers there is no guarantee of a job at the end of their unpaid placement, means that many are likely to go back to long periods of disillusionment and disappointment, any hope and confidence they get from the placement is quickly lost in the realisation that another door has been closed in their face. One of the great motivators for surviving long hours of menial work is the promise of a paycheque at the end of the week, or month. What could motivate those who are working unpaid placements, aside from maybe getting out of the house, meeting people and occupying their time during the day?

When big multinational companies such as Tesco are offering these placements, and then not offering jobs to those unpaid jobseekers who work just as hard, if not harder than their current roster of staff then you begin to believe that the term “slave” is just. People are being unfairly exploited, as Workfare benefits big business with no return for the individual job seeker. In response to the public outcry against the scheme the likes of Tesco played dumb, with spokespeople for the companies saying they believed that the work was voluntary, that the jobseekers genuinely wanted to work for nothing.

Most teenage jobseekers had already done work experience placements for up to a fortnight when they were at school. They’ve already had a taste of work, but maybe a majority of these youngsters believed that their education would enable them to do a bit better than repetitive retail work. That’s not to knock the retail sector; it’s just that a whole generation of qualified young individuals are not able to utilize their skills and abilities. Instead young jobseekers find themselves helping companies, most established in the high street, some even multinational, albeit struggling somewhat in these harsh economic times, to make crude profits.

Another concern is what might happen if an accident or injury occurs during one of these placements. Are the unpaid workers adequately trained and taught correct safety procedures? Are they given protective equipment and suitable uniform? In these times of stringent litigation relating to health and safety, a pressured job seeker might desperately work hours at an unpaid placement despite health issues, and could well end up doing themselves further damage.

I write this as a man who is grateful for his employment, though the long hours are tough, the work demanding and the wages not the best; I am able to have a pretty good standard of living through my job. During the period when I was unemployed for several months I became reclusive, bitter, lost my confidence and dwelled in prolonged bouts of self-pity. I can only imagine how those currently on the dole are feeling, with opportunities scarcer, and exploitation rampant.

All the jobseekers want is a fair opportunity.



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