Opinion: The empowering world of unpaid work

Last week, an article was published here attacking Tesco for exploiting the unemployed. Two major factual errors, albeit fairly understandable ones, were at the heart of the piece.

The first was that Tesco’s unpaid work experience scheme was being forced upon the unemployed by the Job Centre. In actuality, participation was voluntary and the scheme was not part of the government’s Mandatory Work Experience (aka ‘workfare’). In neither scheme is work unpaid, as benefits are paid in exchange for labour.

The second error was to suggest Tesco was ‘expecting the jobless to line-up’ for exploitation. The truth of the matter is the supermarket was responding to demand in the labour market: before the hate campaign against it, the scheme had been oversubscribed by people clambering for the opportunity, however bizarre it may strike us middle-class snobs, to ‘stack shelves’.

Unpaid work experience has always existed. I attended a grammar school where all students were expected to attain white collar jobs, yet all year 11s spent a week doing quite menial work for local businesses to give us experience of the working world. For me, this meant digging paths for a local park. There was never any suggestion of child labour and no parents complained.

Today’s labour market’s tough for those with question marks by their character or employment record. Beyond the ongoing economic quagmire, record levels of immigration mean thousands of well-educated and hard-working foreigners are competing to work in unskilled, low-paid conditions. Furthermore, UK businesses have been complaining for years about the poor skills and attitude of our own school-leavers. Firms taking a chance on those unable to prove their employability should be applauded, not condemned.

What voluntary work experience is not is exploitation. Those volunteering for the scheme clearly believe it’s in their own interest and Tesco have pointed out 300 volunteers have been retained following the short placement. Yes, unpaid work is unpleasant but so is surgery and divorce, two other necessary evils we voluntarily undertake.

I know first-hand that unpaid work can be empowering, because I do it. Just over a year ago, I returned from a well-paid, well-respected job in China and undertook an unpaid internship. I’m now on my fourth, two of which were for the party. The work isn’t always beneficial and, unlike those in the Tesco scheme, I don’t even get welfare support, yet I’ve definitely benefited from each post and remain grateful for the opportunities. Many of my fellow interns have now found real jobs in politics and I’m confident about finding paid employment before the year is out.

The socialists and reactionary left baying for the blood of Tesco and other firms do not have the respect of the public who largely support even mandatory ‘workfare’. The majority of our supporters do too. Like me, they know people content to live on benefits and others whose jobs prospects could be improved by a couple of months stacking shelves. If we join in hounding businesses out of providing such opportunities, more job seekers will remain condemned to the dole queue.

* David M Gibson is an intern for Twickenham and Richmond Lib Dems and an executive member for the Gravesham & Dartford party. He blogs at Dave the Dystopian

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  • As I voted libdem at the last election I can hardly be accused of being. SWP? I have problems reconciling the need for genuine work experience and training with filling the coffers of multinationals at the expense of the taxpayer, why not. Community work, clearing pensioners gardens or working at the dwindling numbers of day centres for the disabled?

  • Agree with the post. While we should be careful that schemes such as this don’t become exploitative and de facto subsidies to big business, used correctly, unpaid work solutions for long term unemployed could be catalysts for thousands of people who need the chance.

  • Richard Dean 27th Feb '12 - 11:36am

    While I have no criticism of Tesco at all, I do think this article misses some important points. While these schemes may lead to employment for a few, they do very little to get large numbers of young people into work. Some of their supporters have a model of young people as selfish, lazy, and uninterested in being part of society, whereas the exact opposite is the case for the majority of them.

    The long-term unpaid work that you describe is very definitely explotation, and the small crumbs of benefit you got from it are blinding you to the opportunities you missed and to the growth that you need to achieve. As I said in a previous comment, unemployment is basically miserable, and there is some upliftting of the spirit to be part of a trained group, for a short time. A state has a duty towards its citizens, and this state is failing in its duty to young ones. The State therefore has a duty to compensate them for its failure, and those citizens do not have a duty to work for that compensation.

    My last comment is that Tesco is a very, very well supported company – supported by its millions of customers who choose to go there instead of other supermarkets and instead of the incredibly exploitative small retailers, and respected for its policy of employing local people. All of those customers and employees are potential LibDem voters, and if they all voted for us we would have a landslide victory. So any criticisms of Tesco need to be founded in reality, not in class-dominated imaginations or prejudice. See George Orwell’s Road to WIgan Pier, or Melvin Bragg, for more details on that!

  • These companies are exploiting. They have a never ending supply of free labour and do not have to fill these positions with paid staff. Please note that people even in their 60’s are forced onto these schemes. People made redundant. who have years of work experience and know how to get out of bed and are desperate for work. You can not compare an unpaid internship with these schemes. You probably have financial backing to do this. If you read the comments on online newspapers from readers even on the Daily Mail you will find that actually the public have seen this scheme for what it is. These companies have not backed off because of a militant few but because they were being boycotted by a large number of the ‘ordinary’ public. This ‘reds under the bed’ diatribe is just annoying more people. Shall we then talk about the participants on this scheme being used to clean private houses? Training for a life of waiting on the rich? Then we can talk about A4E.

  • The trouble is that according to the figures in the article you linked to, over the previous four months Tesco had had the equivalent of probably more than 500 full-time employees working unpaid in the scheme. Now it could be that these were all extra staff, and the net effect was simply a better service to its customers. But in general isn’t it likely that in situations like this the result will be a reduction in paid staff – in other words, people being unemployed who would otherwise have been working?

  • Richard Dean 27th Feb '12 - 12:28pm

    “if young people are being let down by the state, it means simply that they’re not doing enough to organise themselves to change the system”

    I didn’t realise that self-congratulation and absence of acre for others ran so deep in the LibDems! For many young people, particularly those who end up without a job, the State has failed to ensure that they have enough education and skills needed to organize themselves. Their situation is evidence of the State’s failure. Because of that failure, they either don’t organize themselves, or they organizae themselves in rather primitive ways that we have learned are inappropriate in a civilization that we have failed to tell them about. So we get riots every Saturday night, major riots every now and again, and criminal gangs. Is that what you approve of?

  • @Anne surely if what people need is work experience then offering them placements in actual employers like Tesco is probably more useful than making them do community work. However useful that is for us as a wider society is that acutely giving the unemployed person what they need?

  • “What we really need is some objective research to find out if the net impact benefits the unemployed or not.”

    On the other thread Alex Marsh linked to a review of “workfare” in general, carried out by the DWP, here:

  • Problem is the chance of someone on these work experience schemes getting a job is actually worse than people who simply remained on JSA. Not surprising. Spending your time looking for a job is a more productive activity for the unemployed than stacking shelves. The author is clearly a fairly privileged young man with little idea of what the labour market is like for the majority of people. The idea that the work experience is “voluntary” is simply naive. People come under huge pressure to sign up to these schemes. They are under contant threat of having their benefits sanctioned and being pushed into destitution. Comparing his voluntary, interesting, career-enhancing internship to being forced to stack shelves rather gives the impression that the Lib Dems are a party of the privileged middle class with little knowledge or understanding of society as a a whole.

  • Well over 60% of young jobseekers leave JSA within 3 months. 50% of those on Work Experience leave JSA within 3 months. It is possible that those on Work experience would, for whatever reason , have found it more difficult to find work than the average jobseeker anyway but nothing the DWP has published actually supports your case. Until such time as the DWP provides some evidence that supports your “may have” and “probably” I think you’ll have to accept that the efficacy of these schemes is at best unproven. I rather doubt they have much value because I expect they are quite poorly targeted and in any case I find it difficult to imagine 4 weeks shelf stacking is going to give anyone an edge in a competitive job market.

  • “… they are probably not the people without working experience, or who have recently finished a prison sentence or the myriad of other reasons people find themselves having to do work experience. I would not need to do the Tesco scheme because I have worked in the past …”

    What are these “myriad” of reasons why people would “have to do” work experience? Surely you only need work experience if you have no experience of work (as you imply in the second bit of what I quoted). And why do you single out people who have recently left prison?

  • @Simon The problem is that the only placements on offer are low skill. If real retail training was being given, that would be a different matter but it is not. No office work not even till work. This scheme is just to massage the unemployment figures. All A4E does is to move benefit claimants around different voluntary work which is why they have an abysmal record of actually finding real full time work for them.
    @DavidMGibson You already have the skills to be a politician of today. These days that is a career and the actual party you end up in does not matter. You have jumped on the bandwagon that if anyone disagrees they must be left wing or SWP. Have we McCarthyism now or maybe fascism as we are not able to put a contrary view without being labelled as some sort of deviant?

  • This scheme means that those people in low paid jobs already who are struggling for hours to earn extra money (common in companies like Tesco, Asda etc – ask people who actually work there ) will actually struggle to get 24 plus hours per week to remain in receipt of Working Family Tax Credits. The net effect here will create more unemployment and more expense for us the tax payers. The private sector will do OK if they employ the person or not.
    Rubbish scheme, too much like the YOP /YTS schemes in the 80s. Bloody Tories…clueless

  • Daniel Henry 27th Feb '12 - 4:51pm

    IF the schemes were genuinely voluntary then I wouldn’t have a problem.

    The “world experience” scheme is technically voluntary, but because Jobcenters fail to fully inform Jobseekers of what is involved and their rights of withdrawal, they’re often misled into participating to the point of no return. If it is ensured that Jobseekers are given full information then I’ll have no further problem with it.

    There’s other schemes that are mandatory, both the MWA scheme and also schemes handled by private companies have the power to force unpaid work. Saying “they earn their benefits” would be acceptable if it was at least min wage equivalent, but it’s not. If we’re going to make people world we should at least pay them a min wage for it. Not a good wage or even a living wage, just the legal minimum. It’s not really a lot to ask.

  • Matt Vincent 27th Feb '12 - 4:56pm

    Dave, this a really good article and a welcome contribution to this so far very one-sided debate among progressive thinkers. It is also a real shame that you have had to resort to defending against accusations about your own personal circumstances in the course of the discussion.

    Unfortunately my comment is based on anecdote rather than statistical evidence, but hopefully reflects a real-life understanding of the benefits of voluntary work placements. I find it very difficult to understand how voluntary work placements are not beneficial to those struggling to find work. In many work areas it is useful, sometimes crucial, to ultimately getting work.

    A number of my peers who wished to work in special educational needs education or care for example, had to work for extended periods of time voluntarily in order to prove that they have the necessary skills and experience to be offered paid work. In that particular example this works both ways in that employers need assurance that they have what it takes, but also helps build the prospective employee’s confidence in their role, as well as their otherwise empty CV. This is also true of the legal profession, for example, where graduates are expected to jump through several hoops, including unpaid work, in order to finally get some remuneration.

    The point I am making is that it is not new for people to work for no pay in order to help them get into paid employment – except in this scheme the government is supporting individuals to make use of it with benefits and travel expenses. With an added payment-by-results element this may actually work very well.

  • Richard Dean 27th Feb '12 - 5:01pm


    Thanks. I apologize if I was a bit over the top. My basic point has been repeated by others – a good experience of one person does not imply the scheme is all good, and conversely, a bad experience by someone else doesn’t mean it’s all bad. We need facts, and unfortunately they are awfully slippery things – as someone else mentioned the employers might have been planning to employ those numbers anyway, and the use of workfare staff means that employed staff may lose overtime.

    My basic point is that, whether people are being exploited or not, this is not a long term solution to this very serious problem. My feeling is that any exploitation involved is mild, and the experience does have significant good points .

  • David
    The report says
    “There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers.” . That doesn’t seem promising from your point of view.
    I don’t think many people are against work experience if it is voluntary, well-targeted, provides genuine skills, and doesn’t distort the labour market but the govt’s scheme doesn’t seem to fit these criteria.

  • David Allen 27th Feb '12 - 5:57pm

    “The problem with Workfare is that companies can take people on with no intention of employing them at the end. Holland and Barrett have employed only 50 out of 250. How do we know if they would have employed those 50 in the first place?”

    Well, the best guess is that they always knew they wanted about 50 people. Without this scheme, they’d have had to pay for them straight away, and they’d have had to pick them by interview, and expect some to prove unsuitable. With this scheme, they effectively took government funding (in the shape of benefits) to conduct a free trial and then pick the best. A good idea from their point of view, but not a very defensible use of public funds.

  • “What voluntary work experience is not is exploitation.”

    Or to put it a better way: what voluntary work experience is, is exploitation.

    Tesco made £3.54bn profit last year. Why can’t they just pay these people the minimum wage? This would seem to me to be the absolute barest minimum they could do under the circumstances. For such an ultra-profitable company to be taking on “voluntary” (read “desperate”) unpaid workers is sickening.

    Just to put this in to some kind of perspective, Tesco’s annual profits alone would be enough to provide full-time jobs for 340,000 people at the national minimum wage for 18-20 year olds. And that is just one company.

    It’s time we stopped deluding ourselves that there is any kind of solution for unemployment other than the creation of real, actual jobs. Anything less is mere smoke and mirrors. Even the much vaunted apprenticeship scheme is an insult to most of the young people who are given the “opportunity” to participate. Where I work (in the public sector), hundreds of staff have been made redundant over the past couple of years. At the same time, several hundred apprentices have been taken on. I see several of these young people every day and they are all being worked just as hard as their employed colleagues. Quite frankly, many of the apprentices are working at a higher level of competence than the experienced staff they work alongside. For this they are paid £2.60 an hour.

  • Chris White 9th Mar '12 - 12:47am

    I can’t begin to express my deep concern and disappointment over this ill informed and offensive blog that clearly misses the mark. There are several points that I find extremely disturbing! What is meant by the comment today’s labour market’s tough for those with question marks by their character or employment record? I understood that the country was in recession and that actually figures for economic inactivity have in fact fallen, redundancies are still a major problem and unemployment is rising, and the issue is a lack of demand for labour, not a lack of supply. What is meant by repeating an unfounded politically childish comment like “however bizarre it may strike us middle-class snobs, to ‘stack shelves’? Some of us middle class snobs stacked shelves as we studied at university. I was actually paid to do it though; does the writer really find it bizarre that someone would want to stack shelves? That sounds very ‘snobbish and elitist.

    What is the evidence of poor skills and attitude of our own school-leavers? This is a statement often made but aren’t more people leaving school with more qualifications at every level. This risks sounding like deep routed anti libertarian prejudice from the grammar school elite.

    And benefits are paid in exchange for labour, is the writer not clear of the moral ethical and legal implication is this was to be the case?

    Asking what voluntary work experience is not is exploitation clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of the nature and benefits of volunteering, there is some interesting literature that the writer may which to study on this subject which well the writer should have some knowledge of as he is quick to point out that he is on his forth unpaid internship. I always find the term internship interesting it very often exemplifies a class divide. Poor uneducated people are coerced into volunteering and if they are lucky a week at Butlins, whilst more privileged people get to take internships, gap years and trips to China. After 4 internships the writer seems to complain that he doesn’t even get welfare support, I presume therefore he has experience of ‘begging’ by a train station upon an evening? I have deep concerns for the country that people with these views hope to get real jobs in politics. Having a great deal of experience working in politics, labouring, temping, stacking shelves and working in the NHS I have seen very few ‘real jobs’ in politics.

    I would also remind the writer that the UK does not have dole queues in the same way that the government will be quick to point out that we do not have ‘workfare’. What I find most disturbing is that the writers’ evidence base seems to stem from too many afternoons watching parliamentary debate and reading certain newspapers in order to make the claim that the socialists and reactionary left are leading a campaign to bring down tesco. Obviously not fully aware of what is going on there.

    For the record, I oppose workfare, I went to a grammar school, I went to University, I have a fairly privileged background, and I have been a party member, though not any longer. I have designed and promoted actions in protest of ‘workfare’ approaches, from a researched evidence base. I am not aware that I am part of the socialists and reactionary left and I see little evidence of this in any of the campaigning I have been involved in. I thought I had been shocked by some statements by politicians over the last month, but actually this is the most offensive piece of writing that I have seen in recent weeks. I find it a sad reflection on liberalism, and both the Twickenham and Richmond and the Gravesham & Dartford branches.

    There are serious concerns by many that following the next election the country will emerge as a two party state. In some ways I think it has already become I two party state. If that becomes a reality then Liberal Democrats will need to decide which side they are on.

  • I have to say that the post to which this post is a response was far better considered. For a start the unpaid work experience scheme was not run by Tesco! Note, they have now started their own scheme in response to public pressure.

    You are quite wrong in believing that participation was voluntary. You should also be wary of believing that MWA = workfare. All five of the DWP schemes equate to workfare as the term is generally understood (or for that matter the definition to be found in the Collins dictionary). “In neither scheme is work unpaid, as benefits are paid in exchange for labour.” That’ll be workfare then!

    Do you honestly believe that people should work for benefits if the benefit equates to less than minimum wage? Do bear in mind that min wage is not a living wage and that living costs continue to increase as does the rate of unemployment.

    I am confused as to how you believe that Tesco was responding to demand in the labour market. With unemployment at a distressingly high rate of course people are clambering over themselves to do something, anything to give them a step up. Problem is when everyone is pushed into work programmes they remain at the lowest level regardless, especially as the experience gained often bears no relation to prior experience or future ambition.
    We need to take care too in repeating The mantra that the routine and discipline is good for jobseekers. I agree up to a point, this will be good for some. The flip side is that they may find being forced to work unpaid demoralising and demeaning.

    “Today’s labour market’s tough for those with question marks by their character or employment record. Beyond the ongoing economic quagmire, record levels of immigration mean thousands of well-educated and hard-working foreigners are competing to work in unskilled, low-paid conditions. Furthermore, UK businesses have been complaining for years about the poor skills and attitude of our own school-leavers. Firms taking a chance on those unable to prove their employability should be applauded, not condemned.” Seriously? Please avoid lumping a huge and growing number of jobseekers with a wide variation of background and experience all in together with negative comment on their character. This displays a worrying lack of concern or understanding, Please also do some research into the success rates of the schemes. At best the DWP can say that 50% of people involved come off benefits. Note they do not say that 50% go into work. A4e and other pirate contractors will freely admit that they have poor records on moving people into employment, as do Tesco and Holland and Barrett. Success rates around 20% are claimed though leaked info from A4e suggests 8%. This very poor record would seem to support the DWP’s own research from 2008 (based largely on experience from Aus and N America) that finds workfare is least effective during periods of high unemployment.

    I suggest a lot more real-world discussion and far less hypothesising will be useful to further this debate.

  • *pirate* above should have read ‘private’

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