Retail “work experience” is nothing of the kind

Picture of Cait Reilly outside Poundland in BirminghamWhy the government was wrong to make me work in Poundland for free | Cait Reilly | Comment is free | The Guardian

Cait Reilly is currently suing the government after the DWP forced her to leave a voluntary work placement in a museum to do one of their unpaid “training” placements in Poundland (for overseas readers, this is a chain of shops that sells everything for £1) which turned out not to be training at all, but two weeks’ unpaid shelf-stacking and floor-sweeping, something anyone can learn to do in under an hour. Ms Reilly had worked in retail before, as have I, and even till work does not require two weeks’ training — in my case, it took one working day to give us the “customer service” pep talk and to train us on the tills.

There have been a number of moronic, mean-spirited responses to her campaign from the right-wing media; Reilly speaks of how Vanessa Feltz “attempted to humiliate [her] on air” and having listened to her atrocious show (she is a columnist on the Daily Express, by the way) I can well believe that. There was also a piece by Jan Moir in the Daily Mail, which accuses her of exhibiting a “sense of entitlement” which might not endear her to future employment, and ridiculing the human-rights angle of her legal claim by comparing it to ten years’ in Guantanamo Bay:

I would argue that doing a little unpaid work in return for benefits is not a breach of your human rights, it is actually a bonus. See it as a life lesson — and you might get more out of it than you think.

I would argue that a little perspective might not go amiss, even from a typical 22-year-old graduate who knows everything and has big ideas about what she wants to do in the world.

I would also argue that her stance is deeply insulting to those whose jobs actually do entail sweeping floors and stacking shelves. And who do so without complaint to feed their own families and to help to pay Cait Reilly’s benefits allowances. For nobody owes this girl a living. Least of all those who work for a living.

To start with, I think her Job Centre’s insistence that she take part in this placement was a bureaucratic error: she did not need retail work experience (she already had it) and was already in work-related activity, i.e. her ongoing museum work experience placement, which she had shown the initiative of organising for herself. Work experience placements do have a place: for a prospective employee to demonstrate their suitability (over a short period) with an offer of a job if they are, or for a teenager to get a glimpse into some sector of industry, or for someone inexperienced in recent work to gain experience without a great deal of risk for the employer. It is more agreeable that the employer be a small enterprise or a charity, and that the placement be a learning process of some sort.

This type of “work experience” involves doing menial work which requires little or no training that the employer could be paying someone to do, for free, which is a disincentive to them to actually pay people to do the same jobs. Much the same could be said of council work such as bin collections, but public sector jobs are often heavily unionised and employing unpaid menial labour on a routine basis would result in industrial action, and rightly so (while the retail sector has fairly weak union representation). Supermarkets, in particular, nowadays require fewer till staff as many of them use self-service tills which require only one or two for a bank of six or more. When the beneficiaries are enterprises the size of Poundland or Tesco, there is also enormous potential for corruption.

Most people would not mind doing a voluntary position for a charity, or a brief work-experience position with the promise of a job (or at least a reference) afterwards. Increasingly, young people have found themselves doing one “internship” after another, never receiving a wage and leaving them unable to move away from their families’ home. This is not work experience; it is exploitation and benefits nobody except the employer, and serves to make some professions inaccessible to anyone whose families cannot afford to support them for extended periods after leaving school or college. Nobody is talking about the world owing anyone a living, except the Mail with their straw-man headline (“It is my human right not to work for Poundland”). Most people want to work, but if I’m going to sweep floors for nothing, it had better be for a good cause.

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