Are unpaid work placements ripping jobseekers off?

The Queen’s Jubilee took up a lot of space in the papers, and not just because everyone was celebrating their four-day weekend in style (complete with colourful bunting). Within days of the celebration ending, two stewards came forward, alleging they’d worked for 14 hours, slept under London Bridge, had no access to toilets and were forced to change into their uniform in view of the public.

While the company in charge of the volunteers, Close Protection UK, strongly reject the allegations, there’s no denying that some companies ARE taking advantage of the high levels of unemployment. Knowing that many jobseekers will take on any work experience they can get in a bid to make their CV stand out, some businesses are choosing to hire unpaid interns rather than spending money on another yearly salary. Is this exploitation of unemployment making the plight of the jobseeker worse than ever before?

Poor treatment

Every recruiter knows many employers would now rather see jobseekers with previous work experience than a list of qualifications that took years to complete. With this in mind, many companies now offer voluntary placements to help jobseekers learn new skills and improve on existing ones.

You’d think if you weren’t paying an employee, you’d at least offer them a cup of tea and a biscuit, after all, they don’t cost the company anything, and often get given the same workload as paid staff.

Sadly, a number of jobseekers have complained about their working conditions, claiming they’ve been treated poorly or have worked long hours with no breaks. Paid employees wouldn’t be expected to put up with bad working conditions, so why are some jobseekers subjected to them?

Research shows the levels of jobseekers attending voluntary placements aren’t as high as the Government would like, but after reading some of these horror stories who could blame them for turning down unpaid work if they aren’t going to be treated like a proper employee?

Irrelevant placements

If you were trying to recruit a new chef, you wouldn’t be searching for candidates that studied media studies and couldn’t cook, would you?

Similarly, jobseekers want placements suited to their interests and qualifications, but it seems that even unpaid schemes aren’t always offering the right working environment to suit their needs and skills.

You’ve probably heard about the case of Cait Reilly, the graduate who was volunteering in a museum to help further her career, and was told to do mandatory unpaid work in her local Poundland or face losing her jobseekers allowance, despite the fact she had no interest in retail. Unsurprisingly, she kicked up a fuss, and took her case to a judicial review.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions defended their decision and said: “Working in retail is perfectly good experience for a career in a museum. There are very similar transferable skills involved…Our priority is to help people off benefits and into work. We are looking to help people get practical experience that will give them a better chance of getting into work.”

For jobseekers that are just staying at home and sitting on the sofa, undoubtedly any placement is better than nothing. But if they’re already doing voluntary work that’s relevant to their future career plans, is it fair to force them to stop?

Could do better…

But it would be unfair to lay all the blame at the Government’s door and accuse businesses of failing the unemployed, as some jobseekers aren’t exactly helping their own argument.

In a bid to crack down on long-term unemployment, the government announced a series of work and training schemes, aimed at teaching jobseekers transferable skills, getting them some much needed experience on their CV, and maybe even a job at the end of it.

The schemes range from voluntary placements lasting a few weeks, to sector-based work experience that guarantee a job at the end.

Up to half of jobseekers were found to be signing off benefits so they didn’t get sent on a work placement, before signing back on again shortly after, or even worse, not even turning up at work at all.

Unsurprisingly, the Government recently announced a tightening of the rules, to stop jobseekers from “gaming the system”. Chris Grayling, the employment minister, said:  “People need to be aware that, for those who are fit enough to work, it is simply not an option to sit on benefits and do nothing….That’s why for the extended roll out of mandatory work activity, we will toughen up the sanctions regime and make sure that anyone reclaiming jobseeker’s allowance will have to complete a full placement or face a further sanction.”

It’s no surprise to learn mandatory work placements are proving to be a popular scheme to send jobseekers on, with more than 49,000 people getting referred in its first 10 months, and 1,600 people losing their benefits because they left their placements early.

With figures like this, the plight of the jobseeker doesn’t look completely unfair, especially as the mandatory scheme has had substantially more participants than the optional work placements.

Government schemes

The Government’s mandatory work scheme has caused controversy ever since it was implemented a year ago. Any jobseekers that have been unemployed for over three months are sent on a four week placement where they work up to 30 hours a week, completely unpaid.

While it clearly gives jobseekers relevant work experience and new skills to put on their CV, many critics called it ‘unpaid labour’ and openly voiced their concerns. Many people had an issue with not only the unpaid aspect of this scheme but also the removal of benefits if the jobseeker leaves the placement.

Think it was just a bunch of unhappy (and lazy) jobseekers kicking up a fuss? You’d be wrong. Turns out many employers were against the unpaid aspect too, withdrawing their company from the scheme until changes were made.  And these weren’t small businesses either; Argos, Tesco, Superdrug, Waterstones and TK Maxx all suspended the scheme, with Tesco wanting it to be a voluntary placement. Changes have since been made, and voluntary programmes no longer take benefits away if jobseekers leave a placement.

Mark Dunk, from the Right to Work campaign, said: “There should not be any young person anywhere forced to work for no pay. Everyone on any training scheme should receive minimum wage or above. We demand real jobs now for all.”

What do you think? Do you think people are making a fuss over nothing and jobseekers are being treated fairly or do you think they’re being given a hard time and deserve some slack?

Leave your thoughts and comments below.

6 Comments

  1. peter robinson February 26, 2013 at 11:35 am

    Hello I have just read your comments regarding placements which i found interesting. I am currently out of work and have been for five years. I am waiting for the chance to attend a placement course to improve my cv. I attend remploy on work programme in oldham lancs. yours peter robinson

  2. p marshall March 18, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    my sons girlfrienmd is on a placement,she works 8am to 3pm and does not get a break or a drink during this time ,is that right

    • bernadette July 12, 2014 at 10:20 pm

      Hello- my daughter is about to start a jsa work placement . The job centre provider URBAN consultants in wood green has advised her that she must work 30 hours a week = 9 to 5.00 pm with 30 mins break . The post is 1 hr. 20 mins away .Please would you kindly clarify and advise if this correct .
      Many thanks

  3. dean w June 14, 2014 at 7:51 am

    I volunteered to go on a work placement for 30 hours a week for 4 weeks i didnt get food or drink and often missed my lunch break as i was to busy working hard but my efforts paid off because at the end of my work placement i impressed management with my work effort and good attitude that i was offered full time employment. I didnt want to work for free and felt used but i made it work for me

  4. Sharon September 15, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    Hello Bernadette – No this is not right it is completely unjust and unfair. If I was your daughter I would not do it. I have just been told I have to start a JSA work placement 30 hours a week for 6 months and this does not include breaks of travel distance to get there, I am not doing it I have decided to sign off, as I would rather have no money at all than be forced to work for money I am legally entitled to by law. The job centre staff would not work for no pay, so why should we do it NO CHANCE!

  5. jody December 12, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    I have just started a work placment, but I’ve been there about a week now and I’ve had employees laugh and joke behind my back and they’ve had me doing everything whilst they’ve been going on breaks and doing nothing most of the day. I was put on this work placment by the job centre and it’s 30 hours a week with only 25 minutes, is this Right? I feel I’m being treated very badly

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