The geology graduate I mentioned in this post is being shaped up as a Laurie Penny-style hate figure for the British right. Cait Reilly is a recent graduate and a JSA claimant. She wants to be a curator and had arranged a relevant work experience placement to that end. The Job Centre yanked her off it for two weeks unrenumerated shelf stacking at Poundland. There was no training element or possibility of graduation to full time paid work there. Reilly concluded that the programme was aimed not at ’empowering’ young jobseekers but at propping up dying retail chains with unpaid labour. She went to the press, and launched legal action.
Conservatives are incensed. Richard Littlejohn has had a go, Stephen Pollard, Anne Widdecombe in the Squawk. The flightiness! The arrogance of it! A middle-class girl who wants to work in a museum (well, la-di-da, Mr Frenchman!) refuses to stack shelves for a pound an hour because apparently Europe says there is a human right to a reasonable wage. (Note the use of the dimunitive ‘Miss’ in Jan Moir’s piece. Shut up, you silly little girl, and stay in your place.)
This criticism does grate when it comes from people who are paid well above the average wage to produce what is, in my view, not very good writing. Take Toby Young, who debated the journalist and charity boss Martin Bright on Reilly’s action and DWP policy. Young defends the workfare programme: ‘I approve of these sorts of schemes because they denude young people of their sense of entitlement.’ He adds a story of his own personal struggle.
I once participated in a work experience programme. This was in 1980. I’d left school at the age of 16, having failed all but one of my O-levels, and my father suggested I join this scheme whereby I had to do unpaid work as a condition of continuing to get the dole.
For four months I had a succession of manual jobs: washer-upper, lavatory cleaner, etc. Having never worked a day before in my life, I was utterly appalled. It was a brilliant stroke on my father’s part because I quickly realised that if I didn’t go back to school and get some proper qualifications – which he’d been urging me to do – this would be my lot in life. So I retook my O-levels, managed to get into the sixth form of a grammar school and, from there, went on to Oxford. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the four months I spent doing work experience were the making of me.
Young is an Brasenose graduate and the son of a life peer. The wealth and opportunities chance has flung at him are not enough. Young wants the authenticity of proletarian survival.
Bright’s debating Young in his capacity as head of New Deal for the Mind charity, which places unemployed young people into sustainable, interesting, productive work. Martin Bright has probably done more for the Big Society than a slaughtered rainforest of DWP policy papers. As ever, he’s reasonable and restrained when debating Young. He makes good points which are worth banging on about and expanding upon.
Retail is a hard sector to work in. I’ve known people who have and it is stressful, demanding labour for little prospects and not much money. In terms of net income per hour you could probably make more slinging drinks.
Plus: the high streets are being hit by online retail and the recession. Strategic directors now think long and hard about whether they can justify a store in every town centre. These jobs are not always going to be available and we too should think long and hard before we encourage young people to go into them.
Despite these disadvantages, people do genuinely want to work in retail. A Primark opened in the town centre where I work. It had a few hundred openings and received over a thousand applications. By making people like Cait Reilly work these jobs for nothing, we are excluding people who really do want to work there for pay, people who do not necessarily have Reilly’s advantages and career scope.
Also, we are paying the claimant’s dole even when s/he is working at Poundland for nothing. We lose money, the claimant loses time that s/he could be spending looking for an actual job, so no one wins, except Poundland. You would think you could trust conservatives to at least be concerned about the effective allocation of public funds.
While not a working class hero on the scale of, say, Toby Young, I have done entry level work and agree that there’s nothing wrong with shelf stacking, in principle. But when the government says ‘Actually we don’t have to pay you because this is a placement/internship/empowering sustainable work-experience opportunity’ an important line has been crossed. A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay is the cornerstone of every economic civilisation worth the name.
There is no reason to spend your money or mine on the current system of outdoor relief for incompetent private providers, disguised as welfare reform. It would be better to make serious investment into jobs and growth rather than waste public money on expensive and ineffective workfare schemes.
But practical economic arguments will not sway the wealthy middle-aged columnists of the political class who are mainly interested in seeing young people work for nothing, and to suffer while they work.