Solicitors acting for Cait Reilly, a 22-year-old geology graduate from Birmingham, have been granted a hearing scheduled to take place in May, that could determine if government schemes for the unemployed, amount to forced labour and are a breach of the Human Rights Act.
A report in today's Guardian, says that Mr. Justice Ouseley, a high court judge, granted solicitors from Public Interest Lawyers in Birmingham, a judicial review in the case of Ms Reilly, who says that she was forced to undertake unpaid work stacking and cleaning shelves for three weeks with Poundland, or face losing all her state benefits. Although Reilly was doing voluntary work in a museum at the time and was looking for work, she says that the Jobcentre forced her to cancel this, in order that she should work unpaid doing 'work experience' for Poundland. Her lawyers say that this amounted to forced labour under the Human Rights Act.
The Department of Work & Pensions (DWP), say that the work-for-your-dole scheme was voluntary and that sanctions only applied if Reilly, had pulled out after the first week. The DWP also say that benefit sanctions did not amount to coercing the unemployed into forced labour.
Although under the work experience scheme, the unemployed were allowed a one week trial period which allowed them to leave a work experience placement after the first week without losing benefits, reports published in the press, have shown that some Jobcentres had been telling people that the scheme was mandatory and that they would lose their benefits if they failed to take up the placement. After number of companies threatened to withdraw from the scheme, employment minister Chris Grayling, was forced to do a U-turn and announced that the scheme would be voluntary at all times and benefit sanctions would be withdrawn.
The Guardian also reports that in another case that is also to be heard in May, at the Royal Courts of Justice, a middle-aged man who refused to work for six-months unpaid under the government's 'community action programme' - the newest of its five back-to-work schemes - is claiming that it 'represented a form of forced labour' and an "attack on his dignity". The man who had been unemployed for more than two years, was put on the six-month unpaid placement after a private company who were trying to find him a job, failed to do so. His lawyers say that although he told the jobcentre that he was willing to volunteer for the placement, he did not want to be 'coerced' into it 'as a matter of principle'. The man now faces losing his benefits for up to six months.
With schemes like 'Manadatory Work Activity' and the 'Community Action Programme', the government will have some difficulty persuading the courts that this is not forced labour which is prohibited under the Human Rights Act. Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, told the Guardian:
"This government scheme is going to be given a full going over in front of a high court judge some time after mid-May."
Although the government claim that their work-for-your-dole schemes offer the unemployed formal training alongside hands-on work experience, that helps the unemployed to get back to work, their critics complain that the schemes offer little training and are exploitative, in as much as they offering major UK companies, a pool of unpaid taxpayer subsidised labour that creates more unemployment through substitution, and undercuts the wages of existing employees.
In a recent letter to the Guardian, the Labour MP for Slough, Fiona Mctaggart, said:
" A constituent who works for one of the big retail chains asked her manager if she could do extra hours, but he said he did not want to give more work to people he had to pay at full rate, because he could meet his needs with people on work experience who were getting Jobseeeker's Allowance and to who he paid nothing."
As unemployment increases, there is a danger of this model of work-for-your-dole, being securely built into the economy. Already, the Jobcentre Plus website, describes unpaid placements with firms as 'vacancies' and refers to its work experience scheme as 'Workfare'. Even the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), now recognises that the schemes 'provide free labour'.
In order to justify this system of forced labour, politicians of all the mainstream political parties, often refer to William Beveridge, the architect of the welfare state, who we are told said that dole payments should after a certain period, be conditional upon attendance at a work or training centre. What they invariably fail to mention, is the rest of what he said that this proposal "is impractical if it has to be applied to men by the million and hundred thousand."