Friday, 24 February 2012

Work experience should be for those that need it

The Government operates several schemes that involve people on benefits working for a charity or a business. These initiatives were trialled under the last Government in working only with charities but have been more widely rolled out by the present Government. Some of these schemes are in theory voluntary where as others are in theory mandatory. This difference in theory is unimportant as jobseekers are told to attend the voluntary schemes are also told “Your benefits may be affected if you do not attend” which is exactly the same phrase used in the letter asking them to attend the job centre to sign on (an activity which is definitely needed in order to receive benefits).

The Government claims that these schemes are helpful because they give unemployed people skills and experience that they need in order to find a job and that some are offered a job by the organisation they do their experience with. This does in principle sound like a great idea, that people are given the skills they need to find a job and can prove it on their CV. The problem is that this has no relation to how the scheme has been implemented. Several first-hand accounts (like this one in the Guardian) have shown that the people on benefits who are being mandated to complete these activities already have the skills and experience but just can’t find a job. The work placements are not focused on increasing the skills of those taking part but instead are focused on doing the work that a paid worker could have done. Effectively this means that jobseekers are being forced to do work without being paid and taking the place of a potential paid employee.

Aside from the potential distortive effects of free labour on the labour market, this is not good for those without work. A Department of Work and Pensions study of Workfare (the name given to schemes making people work for their benefits) schemes across the world has shown that Workfare can actually decrease the chances of participants finding work as they have less time to actually apply for jobs. In response to these criticisms the Government has pointed to the fast rate that people come off benefits after being on these schemes. However, when the data is placed in context, it is no faster than people normally come off Jobseekers Allowance.

The problems with the Government’s existing work experience schemes do mean that all unpaid work experience schemes are necessarily a bad thing. If the participant is receiving much needed training and experience then it is not unreasonable for them to do a small amount of unpaid work which benefits the organisation in return. There are existing unpaid internships which function like this and ironically many of those taking part are barred from receiving benefits. However any Government scheme that did this would have to make sure that those being enrolled into it needed these skills and were not being unfairly exploited. The government’s current schemes are a long way from being this kind of scheme.