As part of the government's work experience scheme it has emerged that many high street chains have been taking on unpaid job seekers.
The government claims that the schemes are not contrary to the Human Rights Act (HRA), however as a result of their negative publicity some of the chains, such as high street book shop, Waterstones that had been involved have since pulled out.
The Department of Working Pensions (DWP) has admitted to have made the mistake of not informing job seekers of their right to opt-out of the unpaid work. A 22 year old graduate felt that she was forced to work at her local Poundland without pay and has since brought a case against the DWP. Whilst having admitted to making the mistake of not fully informing job seekers, the DWP strongly disagree with the idea that the scheme is contrary to the HRA.
In their defence the DWP have argued that having your jobseekers allowance reduced is not the same as not being paid for work. "Where a person is required to perform a task and, if he or she does not do so, loses benefit, that is not forcing a person to work." It is believed, however, that the DWP is currently facing multiple claims. They are trying to ensure that job seekers get beneficial experiences to enable them to secure a paid job and not need benefit support. The Guardian newspaper has been investigating the scheme and have found that Tesco, Sainsbury's, Argos, Asda, Maplin, TK Maxx, Matalan, Primark, Holland & Barrett, Boots, McDonald's, Burger King and the Arcadia group of clothes stores, which includes brands such as Topshop and Burton have all taken staff via these "work-for-your-benefits" programmes.
One of the jobseekers commented that he had found the experience exploitive. Given the difficulties the economy has provided for young graduates in attaining their first full time employment, it does appear that a lot of those who have taken part have been young graduates. This comes at a time when many are questioning the use of unpaid interns. Only this week, Boris Johnson was questioned over his use of unpaid interns. In fact the situation has reached such a fever point that there are even societies and pressure groups forming such as InternsAnomymous which allows interns to share their horror stories. It seems these disgruntled workers are also using social media platforms to voice their unrest with Twitter updates informing others of their possible right to back pay for unpaid work.
A lot of the complaints surround the fact that those involved were given the worst jobs, sometimes highly physically demanding. Others complained that they were doing the same work as employees, minus the pay. Coming home tired after a day at work meant that they were not in the best mood to then look for paid employment so it had a further negative effect.
The problem with internships has been that more and more they are not leading to a paid job. Jobseekers in the past have been attracted to them for the valuable experience and introduction into a job marker they wish to enter. Unfortunately, they now appear to be more of a free labour scheme. What the DWP has tried to do, however, is effectively substitute someone who is not currently working but seeking employment who has a right to benefit payments, with a situation where that right depends on them carrying out some work.
The fact is that if someone is eligible for minimum wage, that is 16 or over and working, then they should be paid it. It is not possible for them to waive their right to it in the same way they might to maximum working hours per week. As the Deputy Prime Minister has previously explained, these kinds of practice do not create a level playing field. Not everyone can afford to work for free in the hope of it landing them their desired position. However, when the companies offering the experience or internship are so well known, respected, or just huge, the bargaining power really does not rest with the job seeker.
Tanya de Grunwald of the Guardian has launched a campaign named “Pay Your Intern” which names and shames the companies currently using and possibly exploiting unpaid interns. You might be surprised by those who feature in the list. It will definitely be interesting to see how the cases against the DWP unfold. Particularly as the government announced an extension to the work experience placements it is funding to up to eight weeks, rather than the previous two under the Labour government, this is definitely a hot topic.