First appeared on the alt.cardiff website on Thursday 14 December.
People on controversial work placements in Wales are working unpaid while unemployed. Critics see this as unfair but supporters argue getting experience is vital
In the ‘big society’ there is no place for those who don’t pull their weight, but in Wales there are now 137,000 people unemployed, a record amount.
Jobcentres arrange a variety of work experience to get people back into employment. One of these schemes is Mandatory Work Activity (MWA), where people undertake compulsory unpaid placements, or lose their benefits.
People can be referred to MWA at any time but they have usually been receiving jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) for at least 13 weeks. Placements are up to 30 hours a week, for four weeks.
Specialist providers such as A4e and Rehab JobFit are contracted to deliver placements through a variety of businesses and organisations. Since June 2011 Rehab JobFit has provided placements for 349 people in Wales. Over two thirds of these are in South East Wales, for organisations including YMCA and Wales Air Ambulance.
While some see MWA as work people should do for benefits, others see it as slave labour. Public Interest Lawyers have begun legal action against MWAdescribing it as “unlawful forced labour”.
It has been reported people doing MWA are forced to work in shops like Poundland and Primark, despite any other skills or experience. But some have managed to get placements suited to them.
Katie Simpson, 23 and living in Cardiff, has done two unpaid work placements during two years of unemployment. She said the first, compulsory and arranged through A4e, was for 13 weeks. She was expected to do 20 hours of work a week and five hours job hunting, but says she did get an extra £15 in JSA. She was also able to work for the Youth Offending Service where she already volunteered.
Bronwen Davis, also living in Cardiff, had been unemployed for 18 months when the jobcentre told her she had to do a work placement. She arranged her own with a music studio. “I don’t think a lot of people realise you can do that, but it can be a good opportunity to go and try something you’re interested in,” she said.
She said through running drumming workshops she learned more about working freelance and became more confident about self employment, which is her aim. “I did feel exploited though,” she said. “The company was getting hundreds of pounds a day and I wasn’t getting paid.”
Learning on the job
Katie’s second placement was with a claims management company and although it wasn’t compulsory she was told she had a strong chance of a job if she took it. “I was pretty reluctant to the idea, the placement was full-time. If I worked there I’d struggle to find any time to search for other positions,” she said.
It went well initially and Katie began to apply for jobs at the company but, “By week six the pressure of the job, with an income of £53 a week, started to take its toll and I took a couple of days off sick,” said Katie, who suffers from depression. When she returned she says she was given a disciplinary.
Katie was given the opportunity to sit on the team she had recently applied for a job with but the manager questioned her on her absences. “I knew this wasn’t strictly legal,” said Katie.
After three months another manager confessed to her that she had no chance of a job. “She said that for every application I had applied for there were more experienced individuals applying,” said Katie.
Katie doesn’t feel the placement was worth the work experience. “I had been talked down to nothing,” she said. “I felt incredibly depressed about my abilities. It’s an experience I would rather forget.”
Katie McCrory, media relations manager for A4e, said, “Lack of experience is one of the main reasons why people get turned down for jobs they apply for.”
Rob Fitt from Rehab JobFit, another provider, said MWA helps people, “establish the discipline and habits of working life, such as attending on time or regularly.” But many people have had previous employment.
Boycott Workfare campaign against compulsory, unpaid work experience. A spokesperson said MWA does not tackle unemployment successfully. “We haven’t received any news of people being offered full time paid positions,” he said.
He says they have no evidence people are being matched with relevant skills. “It seems where retail companies are concerned, people are being mandated to stack shelves,” said the spokesperson.
MWA can be seen as a way for businesses to get free labour at the expense of the state, and taking on paid staff, but some argue it is fair that people should have to work for their benefits. Employment minister, Chris Grayling,has said about work programmes: “No one should expect to be able to sit at home doing nothing.”
But with employment levels at a record high in Wales, and austerity measures taking hold, there is increased frustration that in the ‘big society’ hard work counts for nothing.