Last week the Right to Work campaign scored a big victory. The protest group, whose avowed mission is to “stop the cuts, defend public services and the welfare state, and fight for every job,” forced Tesco to modify their involvement in the government’s work experience scheme. While the group may be satisfied, there is a real danger that their actions may prove more damaging to the prospects of the unemployed people whom they claim to represent, than the companies whom they have erroneously accused of exploiting “slave labour.”
Tesco roused the ire of Right to Work after the company gave unemployed benefit claimants four-week work experience placements, with participants receiving expenses and Jobseeker’s Allowance but no pay. For the Right to Work campaign this amounted to “slave labour,” and they duly bombarded Tesco stores with sit-ins. To take the sting out of the protests and play down mounting negative publicity, Tesco responded by announcing that they would offer new entrants onto the scheme the choice to work unpaid and keep their benefits, or receive the minimum wage and a guaranteed job should they complete their placement satisfactorily.
Contrary to the picture the Right to Work campaign has painted, Tesco almost certainly participated in the scheme in good faith. The programme was devised to give young people a short period of work experience which would bolster their CVs and allow them to get a foot in the employment door, while giving the employer an opportunity to assess whether candidates were suitable for a permanent job. In all likelihood, the placements were probably cost neutral from Tesco’s perspective, because of the expense the company would have footed for the induction and management of participants, each of whom would have been an unknown quantity.
What went wrong for Tesco was that it fell foul of stipulations surrounding benefit payments which were beyond the company’s control. Tesco were pilloried for not paying a wage, but government rules actually prevent those claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance from engaging in paid work for more than sixteen hours a week. Likewise the fact that jobseekers ending their placements prematurely could be punished by having their benefits temporarily frozen, reflected poorly on the company. But if Tesco were in error, it was not so much a wilful ethical failing, as a case of naively getting involved in a scheme to put a tick in the box of Corporate Responsibility, while failing to read the small print.
The real story in all of this however is the long list of high street names—from Waterstones to TK Maxx—who have pulled out from the scheme. Risk averse companies wary of an unforeseen PR disaster, might in future decide that these sorts of programmes are not worth the potential bother and completely wash their hands of them.
In order to tackle mass joblessness effectively, the welfare system and the private sector have to work in sync to support unemployed people going into work. The hysterical rhetoric of the Right to Work campaign (who absurdly and offensively call the government “slave dealers”) is not constructive. If they are going to torpedo any scheme which does not conform to the one they prescribe (a public jobs programme in the style of the New Deal), then far from protecting work, they may destroy it.