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Cath Everett

Sift Media

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

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Waterstones ends unpaid work placements

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A high street book store has pulled out of the coalition government’s Work Experience scheme after discovering that unemployed people were working at one of its outlets without pay.

The Guardian said that, after it had highlighted the practice taking place at a branch of Waterstones, the retailer initiated a review of the situation. It subsequently banned branch managers from taking on Work Experience participants because it did not want to encourage a ‘work for no payment’ approach.
 
But the newspaper claims that more than a dozen other high street chains including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Argos, Asda, Maplin, TK Maxx, Matalan, Primark, Boots, McDonald’s, Burger King and the Arcadia group of clothes stores, are still signed up to the government’s ‘work for your benefits’ programme.
 
The scheme has already led to a case being brought against the Department for Work and Pensions by a 22-year-old geology student, Cait Reilly. She claimed that she was made to work in her local Poundland store for three weeks without pay.
 
The case, which is being lodged in the High Court, alleges that this kind of unpaid work experience scheme is in breach of Human Rights Act legislation on forced labour.
 
In court papers filed on Wednesday, the DWP admitted that it had made a mistake by not informing Reilly that she could opt out of the placement. But it denied that docking benefits equated to forcing unemployed people to work.
 
“Where a person is required to perform a task and, if he or she does not do so, loses benefit, that is not forcing a person to work,” the government department said.
 
‘Free labour’
 
The Guardian said it understands that the DWP is facing multiple legal challenges to the terms of a number of unemployment programmes, which includes the recently announced Community Action Programme. The Programme requires people who have not had a job for several years to work on an unpaid basis for six months in order to keep their benefits.
 
But a full-time employee at one Holland & Barrett store, who did not want to be named, also told the newspaper that they believed such placements were starting to be used by some employers as a replacement for paid work.
 
“We have had a number of placements in our store and have noticed that the hours for part-time staff have been reduced. Staff are upset because we are all struggling to make ends meet,” the worker said.
 
They continued that the “real benefactors” of the Work Experience scheme were “the companies who receive millions of pounds-worth of labour absolutely free-of-charge”.
 
The losers, on the other hand, were “the jobseekers who see potential jobs being filled by workfare placements for months at a time and the loyal part-timers who find their regular overtime hours savagely cut,” the employee added.
 
Holland & Barrett said that it had taken on about 50 work experience people as paid employees. “We have committed to working with JobCentre Plus to make available 1,000 work placements available for young people aged between 16 and 24 years,” it explained.
 
Some 250 of its stores were taking part in the scheme as well as its head office and distribution and packaging site, but the retailer ensured that all participants were “given skills and confidence to move forward with their job search and, of course, a valuable reference”, it added.
Author Profile Picture
Cath Everett

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

Read more from Cath Everett
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