Cait Reilly has had a tough time.
The 24-year-old graduate, who objected to being made to give up work experience at a museum to stack shelves for free in Poundland, has been bashed on all sides, and will be in for more of the same now the Government has been told by the Supreme Court that its workfare regulations of 2011 were flawed. Critics of the scheme have already been branded "job snobs" by Iain Duncan Smith.
That was a cheap populist shot by the Work and Pensions Secretary, and laughable coming from such a well-to-do minister in a Cabinet of millionaires - are we really to believe that the Bank of Mum and Dad would not step in if one of their children were faced with giving up their hard-won work experience to do shelf-stacking without pay? No matter: "job snob"was the phrase that stuck.
I have some sympathy with Cait. I don't really believe the workfare scheme amounts to slave labour and I don't have any particular objection to people being asked to do a limited amount of unpaid work while on benefits, provided it genuinely helps them find paid work, but I cannot begin to see the sense in making people take on irrelevant work experience in place of their existing relevant work experience.
After all, the Government saved no money by making Cait work in Poundland - it was still paying out Jobseeker's Allowance - and she moved no closer to finding employment (she already had plenty retail experience). The only party to benefit was Poundland, which obtained free labour.
Cait Reilly was never above the work -since the case first erupted in 2012 she's been working part time in a supermarket for heaven's sake, having hated being on benefits - but if she sees that as a short-term way to earn money, not a career in itself, then there's nothing wrong with that.
Mr Duncan Smith has sneered about young Britons' desire to be celebrities; not so Cait - she wants to work in museums. She is no overprivileged layabout snubbing a decent employer.
She has done lots of paid and unpaid work, and dearly wants to pay off her £18,000 student debts, but the point of that expensive education was to help her get a graduate-type job. Are we really to start branding graduates as hoity toity for wishing to pursue work experience that will help them get such jobs? If the Government is going to take that stance, one wonders why they encourage young people to go to college and university at all.
Not all work experience is equal. I worked after university as a waitress, which allowed me to cover my rent and bills. Unfortunately, such jobs are not so readily available for young graduates now, which is why so many claim benefits. Because my waitressing shifts were in the evening, I could do unpaid work experience by day and it was that work, for a charity, that helped me get my first graduate-type job.
I realise now that I learned many useful things as a waitress, but no prospective employer ever asked me about those. They only wanted to know about the work I did for the charity. Cait Reilly knows this is how it works so no wonder she was mystified when told she had to stop doing her career-focused voluntary work and start doing unpaid shelf-stacking, even though making her do so saved the Government precisely nothing.
Perhaps these schemes can be helpful. They may be good for people who lack experience and good references. For people who are already doing work experience as part of a self-motivated job search plan, though, they make very little sense. The really big winners are the employers who get free labour.
Hang on, but she chose a field - working in a museum - where there are scarcely any jobs, you might respond. Not everyone can expect to make it in their chosen field if there are no jobs. This is true, of course, but they should be given the chance to try and, if that fails, supported to find work in a related area where there are more jobs. How does forcing them to do unpaid unskilled work with no training and no job at the end of it help either them or the benefits bill? The lot of many young people is to work in low-paid jobs, with stints on benefits, building up unpaid work experience until they finally get their "break". The Government's workfare scheme as currently constructed often hinders rather than helps them.
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