If you were out of work for a length of time and were told that you had to participate in a mandatory work experience placement as a requirement for receiving your unemployment benefits, would you:
1. Be grateful for the safety net that exists to support you, and comply with the programme, or
2. Take the government to court for enslaving you, citing the European Convention on Human Rights?
Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson both decided to opt for choice 2. According to The Telegraph:
Ms Reilly’s barrister told the High Court that the geology graduate’s stint at the Poundland near her home in Kings Heath, Birmingham, involved her carrying out “unpaid menial work”.
This consisted of very basic tasks such as sweeping and shelf-stacking “without training, supervision or remuneration”.
If indeed this is all that the work involved, this is disappointing as it breaches the terms by which the companies participate in the back-to-work schemes. In exchange for receiving free labour, the participating firms should ensure that they fulfil their obligations by providing a suitable induction, training and supervision. However, this is a reason to update and modify the scheme, not to abolish it altogether. The secondary benefits (keeping people in the habit of work during a period of unemployment, and providing additional labour to British companies so that they can generate further profits and employ more people) remain intact, even if the primary benefit was not realised in this case.
And it is hardly slavery.
Fortunately, the presiding judge agreed. The Telegraph gors on to report:
Mr Justice Foskett criticised the DWP for the lack of clarity over the potential loss of benefits to claimants who fail to take part in the schemes without good reason.
But addressing the issue of article four of the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans forced labour and slavery, he said the schemes were “are a very long way removed from the kind of colonial exploitation of labour that led to the formulation of Article 4. “
“The Convention is, of course, a living instrument, capable of development to meet modern conditions, and views may reasonably differ about the merits of a scheme that requires individuals to ‘work for their benefits’ as a means of assisting them back into the workplace,” he added.
If the Department for Work and Pensions has not been crystal clear on the conditions for receiving benefits and the potential ways in which they could be forfeited, this needs to be remedied immediately.
However, the broader ruling, upholding the government’s back-to-work schemes, is very satisfactory indeed. Crying “slavery” and running to the European Convention on Human Rights because you dislike the “menial” work you are asked to do is overdramatic in the extreme, and does a disservice to the many people around the world who are in actual bondage, the victims of sex trafficking or any other kind of real slavery.
Not being able to watch Jeremy Kyle on television every morning while you balance a work placement with job searching ≠ modern day slavery.
It just doesn’t.