Being forced to work in Poundland may not be very nice, but equating it with modern-day slavery is probably exaggerating. On the other hand, it’s quite reprehensible for an apparently reputable and successful business to employ people to do jobs that need doing and not pay them anything at all, even if the government has asked them to. It’s exploitation, even if the Court of Appeal couldn’t say so.
Cait Reilly’s claim that requiring her to work for free at a Poundland discount store was unlawful succeeded on a fairly technical basis and not on a finding that this was slavery under human rights law. The court was quite clear that it had no principled objection to the Back to Work scheme but that it and other work-for-your-benefit schemes were unlawful because of the lack of basic information given to the unemployed.
In fact, Ms Reilly’s assertion that stacking shelves and sweeping floors were akin to slave labour was roundly rejected by a senior judge last year, making suggestions that the judgement was a damning indictment of the government’s work schemes certainly misplaced. Anyway, ministers will just come up with new, lawful, regulations.
What is less obvious is whether these revisions will do anything to ensure schemes are ‘designed to assist the unemployed to obtain employment’. Ms Reilly, a university graduate, had to give up her voluntary work in a local museum to stack shelves and clean floors under a scheme laughably called ‘the sector-based work academy’. Quite what she was learning is unclear.
Her co-claimant, a qualified mechanic, was told he had to work unpaid cleaning furniture for 30 hours a week for six months under a different scheme known as the ‘community action programme’. God only knows how that was supposed to help him find meaningful work or how forcing skilled workers to do menial jobs will help boost the economy.
To be honest, I am struggling to see how any of the government’s policies in relation to people’s rights around benefits or employment are going to help the economy. And they seem to be at odds with recent pronouncements that we must start training our toddlers for work so as to keep up with the top-performing Asian countries – you don’t need a great deal of training to sweep floors or clean furniture (unless it’s antique).
Equally baffling is the government’s continuous trumpeting of the jobs figures that apparently show more people in work than ever before. Not only do their figures include about 200,000 people on government training and back-to-work schemes (so not actually employed at all) but last week we learned that there are now 367,000 more people who are self-employed than there were in 2008.
I’m one of them, and while I am relishing the freelance life it has some significant drawbacks compared with being employed. I have no job security, no sick pay, no holiday pay and no employer pension contribution (actually, at the moment no contribution at all), but it’s almost impossible to get a part-time job and it has a major advantage over a full-time one: it allows me to be a proper mum (no offence meant to mum’s that do work full time).
The general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, must surely be right when she says
‘There may be perfectly good reasons for being self-employed, but it would be naïve to think that all these workers are really budding entrepreneurs.
‘These figures instead suggest that many employee roles are being replaced by self-employed positions. Bogus self-employment is bad news for staff as they miss out on vital rights at work, such as paid holidays and employer pension contributions, without having the advantage of being their own boss’.
Still, that’s probably what the government wants, believing, I imagine, it will enable businesses to grow and create more (second-rate) jobs. Amazingly, not all businesses agree, even the small ones, three quarters of whom gave a ‘withering response’ to George Osborne’s idea of allowing staff to trade their employment rights for shares.
Quite reasonably, a majority of small firms with annual sales of more than £1m felt the proposal would damage people’s trust in business by weakening staff rights or creating the wrong impression of entrepreneurs. And it’s not just because they think administering such a share scheme would be a nightmare, or because what they really need is long-term shareholders focused on creating wealth, but because it would end up rewarding bad employers.
I’m fairly sure this won’t stop the chancellor going ahead with it. O’Grady also believes the government has even set its sights on the employment rights guaranteed by social Europe that it currently can’t touch: such as health and safety protection, equal treatment for part-time workers and women, paid holidays, a voice at work and protection when a business is sold off. A licence for bad employers if ever there was one.
Wanting to have a decent job, one with fair pay for a day’s work, fair treatment and a bit of job satisfaction is not unreasonable, even if it isn’t exactly a human right. Standing up for this does not make someone a scrounger or workshy, it simply means they want something better for themselves. I fail to see why the government disagrees.