What do you call a job without pay or employment rights?

Being forced to work in Poundland may not be very nice, but equating it with modern-day slavery is probably exaggerating. On the other hand, it’s quite reprehensible for an apparently reputable and successful business to employ people to do jobs that need doing and not pay them anything at all, even if the government has asked them to. It’s exploitation, even if the Court of Appeal couldn’t say so.

Cait Reilly’s claim that requiring her to work for free at a Poundland discount store was unlawful succeeded on a fairly technical basis and not on a finding that this was slavery under human rights law.  The court was quite clear that it had no principled objection to the Back to Work scheme but that it and other work-for-your-benefit schemes were unlawful because of the lack of basic information given to the unemployed.

In fact, Ms Reilly’s assertion that stacking shelves and sweeping floors were akin to slave labour was roundly rejected by a senior judge last year, making suggestions that the judgement was a damning indictment of the government’s work schemes certainly misplaced.  Anyway, ministers will just come up with new, lawful, regulations. 

What is less obvious is whether these revisions will do anything to ensure schemes are ‘designed to assist the unemployed to obtain employment’.  Ms Reilly, a university graduate, had to give up her voluntary work in a local museum to stack shelves and clean floors under a scheme called ‘the sector-based work academy’.  Quite what she was learning is unclear.

Her co-claimant, a qualified mechanic, was told he had to work unpaid cleaning furniture for 30 hours a week for six months under a different scheme known as the ‘community action programme’.  God only knows how that was supposed to help him find meaningful work or how forcing skilled workers to do menial jobs will help boost the economy.

To be honest, I am struggling to see how any of the policies in relation to people’s rights around benefits or employment are going to help the economy.  And they seem to be at odds with recent pronouncements that we must start training our toddlers for work so as to keep up with the top-performing Asian countries – you don’t need a great deal of training to sweep floors or clean furniture (unless it’s antique).

Equally baffling is the continuous trumpeting of the jobs figures that apparently show more people in work than ever before.  Not only do their figures include about 200,000 people on government training and back-to-work schemes (so not actually employed at all) but last week we learned that there are now 367,000 more people who are self-employed than there were in 2008. 

I’m one of them, and while I am relishing the freelance life it has some significant drawbacks compared with being employed.  I have no job security, no sick pay, no holiday pay and no employer pension contribution (actually, at the moment no contribution at all), but it’s almost impossible to get a part-time job and it has a major advantage over a full-time one: I can spend more time with my child.

Wanting to have a decent job, one with fair pay for a day’s work, fair treatment and a bit of job satisfaction is not unreasonable, even if it isn’t exactly a human right.  Standing up for this does not make someone a scrounger or workshy, it simply means they want something better for themselves.

Posted in: Employment law

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