Tut tut, Tesco. OK, your market share may have slipped to a seven-year low and you may have issued your first profit warning in 20 years, but to resort to slave labour? The outcry surrounding the government’s Workfare scheme, under which young unemployed people work up to eight weeks unpaid while keeping their benefits, shows the difficulty in addressing unemployment and welfare.
I expect Tesco, Greggs, McDonald’s et al truly thought they were helping to address soaring youth unemployment. But the outrage is easy to understand. The problem is one of people at the top getting fatter - not only at public expense but by preying on the vulnerable. There is a feeling the scheme is unfair as those in placements can lose benefits if they drop out after a week.
Last Wednesday’s meeting between employers and employment minister Chris Grayling clarified some misconceptions about the scheme, with Grayling stressing its voluntary nature and saying the majority of docked benefits had resulted from participants’ misconduct, not because they had dropped out of the scheme. Still, he sought to soothe employers’ concerns by dropping this element altogether. Meanwhile, Tesco has said it will start paying those on work experience.
Protestors talk about forced unpaid labour for the benefit of capitalists, right-wing commentators call these critics Trotskyites. Neither view helps address the fundamental issues: that youth unemployment now stands at 1.04 million, equating to 22.2% of 16 to 24-year-olds, and that business is concerned about the lack of work readiness in young people.
According to Grayling, people are lining up to take part in the Workfare scheme. We mustn’t let bad execution, political leaning nor poorly thought-out elements detract from the fact that work experience is the single most important thing employers look for when recruiting. Equally, employers must ensure that those on such schemes get something valuable from them.
I would like to see young unemployed being placed in the not-for-profit sector, where they can learn useful skills while giving something back to society. I would also like to see private sector employers prioritising those who have been on such schemes when recruiting. That way we can start making real inroads into the travesty that is youth unemployment in this country.