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Tuesday, February 21, 2012 

The snobbery of a day's pay for a day's work.

There are few things that concentrate the mind of business quite like the threat of a boycott. When last week hundreds of people complained directly to Tesco at how it seemed they were offering a permanent job where the pay was just jobseeker's allowance and expenses, their initial response was to shrug it off and insist that regardless of the inaccuracy of this one specific advert, their involvement in the government's work experience schemes had resulted in 300 people getting jobs with the firm. Besides, their pay is "industry leading".

One temporary closure of a Tesco Express store later, and the company has changed its mind. Clearly not satisfied with the "assurance" from the Department for Work and Pensions that everyone who had taken part in the various work experience schemes had done so voluntarily, they've now put in place a parallel scheme where those who decide to come off JSA to take part will receive normal starting pay and a guaranteed offer of a job rather than just a guaranteed interview at the end of the four weeks. It remains to be seen how many will want to come off JSA only to face the possible prospect of having to reapply if it turns out there isn't a job after those four weeks, but it's clearly a massive improvement that came about purely because of public protest. Coupled with Tesco asking that those who decide to opt for the JSA work experience scheme should not lose their benefit if they fail to complete the four weeks, it's a significant victory.

No surprises then that the government ministers responsible for these plethora of potentially exploitative schemes, no doubt having been subjected to an ear bashing from those they thought they were helping out, have launched a counter-attack. First Iain Duncan Smith's underling Chris Grayling wrote a piece for the Sunday Telegraph, launching an assault on the messengers, with the BBC and Guardian lambasted for daring to provide work experience schemes themselves, and now the boss himself has penned a piece for the Daily Mail. Normally one would suspect that an aide would have wielded the pen, yet it seems so close in tone to Duncan Smith's occasionally bizarre pronouncements that it makes you suspect he wrote it himself.

From the very beginning Duncan Smith deliberately misses the point. No one who has written comment pieces or lengthy blog posts on the subject has suggested that the work experience being provided by the likes of Tesco or Poundland is not worthwhile, as long as it is genuinely providing experience that the person on JSA does not already have. There seems little reason to send someone who has already got significant retail experience onto such placements as Cait Reilly was when there is no prospect whatsoever of a job at the end of it. Rather, the issue is that highly profitable retailers are being provided with free labour by the government, courtesy of the taxpayer. Neither Duncan Smith or Grayling seems to think that this is objectionable. Judging by the increasing number of companies pulling out, or changing their involvement as Tesco has now done, they seem to have come to a different conclusion.

Secondly, both ministers are also convinced that these schemes are entirely voluntary when there is evidence to suggest that the base work experience programme is not. Overlooking the fact that if someone pulls out after a week without good reason (to digress slightly, I have to wonder if someone showing you their bollocks, as they did when I went on work experience while at school would be a legitimate reason for refusing to go back) they face having their benefit stopped for two weeks, the Citizens Advice Bureau for one lists the work experience programme as being compulsory. Similarly, Izzy Koksal writes of how those who refuse to go on work experience may find themselves quickly pushed onto the mandatory work activity programme, where anyone who fails to take part loses their benefit for 13 weeks. Much the same sanctions are in place for those on the work programme who refuse to work just for their benefit.

Having failed to convince that the work experience schemes aren't voluntary, he then engages in semantics over what can and can't be described as workfare. He claims mandatory work activity can't be compared to workfare schemes such as those in America as they are only short term, ignoring how a claimant can be put back onto an unpaid placement as many times as the Jobcentre decides is necessary. While he is right to say that MWA is entirely separate from the work experience programme, it seems likely that some of the same providers are involved. Tesco claim that they would never take part in a mandatory scheme, and it's true that one of the guidelines for those on MWA is that they should be doing something of "benefit to the community". It's completely opaque however just what work of "benefit to the community" the first 24,000 to be referred to the scheme have done (PDF): the contracts went to various companies, and whether we receive a drill down into where they were placed remains to be seen.

It's not then really worth responding to Duncan Smith's claim that "much of this criticism is intellectual snobbery". If a secretary of state wants to make himself look a fool by resorting to ad hominems, smearing his opponents rather than engaging with their criticism, that's up to him. Definitely worth challenging though is the oft repeated start in life for former Tesco CEO Terry Leahy, washing the floors of the supermarket. Less well known is that he subsequently got a degree in management sciences, something that helped him get a job in marketing with the company rather more than his brief stint with a mop.

The clue that the piece is Duncan Smith's own work comes with his sudden going off on a bizarre tangent about the X Factor. Well known as Duncan Smith's belief is that any sort of work is rewarding, even the most mundane, with it "setting you free" as he suggested, this isn't so much an attack on the concept of wage slavery as his setting up of another false dichotomy, between those who believe young people should "work only if they are able to secure their dream job" and those like him who believe in work as an end in itself. If we really wanted to get into this, we could more than point a finger at the Conservative supporting tabloid press that so promotes the unreality of the talent shows, although more as a distraction from the drudgery of everyday life than as a career path for the many. Far more eye-opening is the attitude of Duncan Smith, as opposed to that of the young unemployed; of the million among them without work, only a tiny minority could ever be painted as the kind imagining opportunity will come to them rather than other way around. The final insult is how he links this supposed belief with the influx of foreign nationals; rather than dealing with what went before, it would be good to know what he's going to do now beyond the limitations of the work programme and work experience schemes he so defends.

He alludes to how difficult this is when admits that "finding the right job for someone is not easy" and how "there isn’t always one simple route". No one is denying that in the right circumstances, work experience can be incredibly valuable. It must though be voluntary and tailored to the individual, without sanctions if it goes wrong or turns out to be unsuitable, at least on the first occasion. The potential for abuse, as there is currently, has to be addressed. Duncan Smith would be spending his own work time better if he renegotiated the programme rather castigating those who brought the problems to wider attention.

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