Muddle of government initiatives branded ‘a jigsaw without a picture’ despite High Court giving notorious scheme the all-clear

The last thing any retailer wants is a baying mob camped outside the front door. In February, that’s exactly what they got.

Hundreds were targeted by angry protesters after it emerged they were using jobseekers to stack shelves without pay under the government’s Workfare scheme. The argument ended up in the High Court when graduate Cait Reilly sued the government for infringing her human rights by making her work in Poundland for six weeks - or face losing her benefits.

On Monday, Justice Foskett dismissed suggestions the scheme equated to “forced labour”. That put retailers in the clear under Article Four of the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans forced labour and slavery.

But now they have been given the green light, will those who swiftly dropped Workfare in February return to take advantage? Or will they steer clear, wary of the negative publicity that hit them first time around?

Officially, Workfare offers participants skills, experience and a job interview. But its fiercest critics brand it slave labour and some retailers, including Sainsbury’s, wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. Others, such as Tesco, called on the government to drop the benefits aspect of the scheme but never announced their departure. It failed to respond when asked about its involvement this week. Asda appeared on a Freedom of Information list of those using Workfare in December, but this week Asda said it only offered “voluntary” placements.

Poundland - thanks to Reilly’s legal action, the retailer most associated with Workfare - suspended its involvement at the height of the controversy. A spokeswoman couldn’t confirm its current plans in light of Monday’s ruling but defended its original involvement, arguing that “35% of participants are hired by third parties or Poundland due to their extended CV”. She said Poundland would keep working with the DWP on a separate, voluntary experience scheme.

But retailers won’t return to the original Workfare scheme anytime soon, says former Morrisons HR director Norman Pickavance - partly due to the threat of bad publicity, but also the chaotic nature of the government’s multiple schemes.

“Retailers are wary,” he says. “For many people, work experience is the missing link that enables them to demonstrate they can work in a fast-paced retail environment, which can secure them employment. But the government has launched so many different initiatives, people can’t see how it fits together. It’s a jigsaw puzzle without a picture. That confusion raises questions of exploitation instead of producing a clear runway into employment.”

Pickavance says he, the CBI and the BCC met with employment minister Chris Grayling last month to help draw up a more cohesive strategy. But for the protesters, work experience is not the solution. And Monday’s decision doesn’t change a thing.

“The High Court ruling is not the final chapter,” insists a spokeswoman for Boycott Workfare. “We will appeal and we will continue to target those still involved. Two days of action starts on 7 September targeting Asda, Tesco and others listed on our website. Any retailer attempting a U-turn in light of Monday’s ruling will go to the top of the list, be bombarded on Twitter and Facebook and get targeted by pickets.”

You wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t rush back.