Tesco’s unpaid labour shows the flaw at the heart of workfare


 

There is fresh outrage against the government’s flagship workfare program today, as an advert on a government job seekers’ website revealed the extent of Tesco’s involvement with the work experience scheme, which involves mandatory work under the threat of removal of benefits.

The advert which sparked the concern was for night shift work with Tesco in East Anglia, with pay listed as “JSA + expenses”. The position was advertised as permanent, despite being labelled as part of the “sector-based work academy” (SWBA) scheme, which limits placements to six weeks.

Within hours, a number of similar positions were found by Guardian journalist Shiv Malik: One advertising salary as “benefits and travel to work costs”, another in Clevedon paying “normal JSA”, and a third – the only one clearly labelled “work experience” in the title – again paying”benefit plus travelling costs”.

Tesco’s response to the discoveries has been fluctuating. Originally, their customer care Twitter feed was replying to complaints by delivering the PR line:

“We are taking part in a government-led work experience scheme to help young people, this has already led to 300 permanent jobs.”

At 10:32 this morning, however, they changed their tone, and started telling people that:

“This is an error made by Jobcentre Plus. It should be an advert for work experience with a guaranteed interview at the end.”

Regardless of whether it was an error – made at least four times, by four different Tesco stores – the fact remains that even the best spin on what Tesco is doing involves getting the free labour of a significant proportion of the 24,000 jobseekers who were told to start working for no pay or lose their benefits.

This represents a significant transfer of wealth from the taxpayer to Tesco, a business which, in a disappointing half year, made only £1.9 billion of profit.

Just as when they refuse to pay their employees the living wage, every person working for the supermarket chain while still receiving state benefits is an in-kind subsidy from the government; this is just more transparently the case when Tesco pays no wage at all.

Tesco has a choice in this matter. Many of their competitors, such as Sainsbury’s and the Co-op, have confirmed that they will not be using work experience labour; but Tesco insists the decision is up to individual store managers, and as a result the allure of free employees seems to tempting to resist.

At it’s heart, however, the problem lies with the government program which legitimises this practice.

The claim that it is aimed towards providing useful work experience that will lead to jobs is demonstrably untrue; both from the preponderance of placements which provide ‘experience’ in jobs which require none, and from the evidence provided by cases like Cait Reilly’s – taken off valuable work experience in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to stack shelves in Poundland.

Instead, it is looking more and more like this workfare program is driven by populist anger against ‘benefit scroungers’: The logic seems to be that if they can work, they should work; and if there are no jobs available, they should work for free until there are. It is policy by demonisation, and it is shameful.

See also:

Five reasons Clegg can’t stand on his social mobility recordAlex Hern, January 12th 2012

2012: The year ahead for young peopleAlex Hern, January 7th 2012

Why workfare won’t workStephen Evans, November 8th 2010

Alexander: Welfare reform is meaningless amidst jobless recoveryLiam R Thompson, November 5th 2010

Tory tough talk on welfare won’t help people into workNicola Smith, April 21st 2010

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