Step away from forced work experience scheme, charities

20 Feb 2012 Voices

Accepting involuntary labour is the last thing that charities should be doing, says Celina Ribeiro. The government’s work experience scheme is a threat to public trust and confidence.

Accepting involuntary labour is the last thing that charities should be doing, says Celina Ribeiro. The government’s work experience scheme is a threat to public trust and confidence.

On the weekend, campaigners shut down the Tesco Express across from the seat of government in protest after the supermarket giant advertised for a shelf-stacker at the wage of Job Seekers’ Allowance – plus expenses. So, in essence, work for the cost of the train ticket you used to get in to work.

Payment – or lack thereof - in this way is possible under the government’s controversial work experience scheme, which requires jobseekers to complete 30 hours of work a week for up to eight weeks at an employer, such as a company, charity or public sector organisation.

Really, the Westminster Tesco Express is a bit crap anyway. More of a corridor than a supermarket. But store layout aside, this issue is toxic. Forcing people to work in jobs that may otherwise be filled by paid employees or volunteers has got unions, politicians and even the companies themselves – yes, Sainsbury’s and Waterstone’s have expressed their discomfort about accepting work for no pay – riled. And yet some charities remain on the wrong side of history here.

. Marie Curie has backed away - but not before Sainsbury’s did – and Shelter stopped using the programme last year. Calling around the top charity retailers in the country this morning, I was pleased to find that Oxfam, British Red Cross and Age UK have not taken part in the scheme. I’m still waiting to hear back from many others.

There should have been more of these charity abstainers.

Charities, unlike companies, can legitimately draw on and recruit volunteers. Why then would they want to muddy their hands with getting involved in a scheme which threatens to penalise those volunteers with removing their benefits? This type of ‘volunteering’ potentially pushes those people working for free into a situation of no or greatly reduced income, and therefore capacity, to support themselves.

No. This is one clunky ‘Big Society’ madcap plan that charities should have smelled a mile off. Government has been able to sweeten the distastefulness of this scheme, not just by Chris Grayling labelling those against it as “job snobs”, but by including charities among the employers which these volunteers may lock themselves into working for. What right minded Middle-Englishman would oppose the requirement that the long term unemployed lend a hand to their local, beloved charity shop?

But charities should not be with Tesco and its zero-pounds-an-hour shelf stackers on this one. It’s time that the other charities involved in this scheme either identify the true value their work experience programme is providing their government-supplied volunteers, or retreat. If it’s good enough for 99p Stores, it’s good enough for the organisations that purport to uphold beliefs of social justice and human dignity. 

More on

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. Read our policy here.