Government bids to ease work experience scheme concerns

Wed, 29/02/2012 - 11:59 -- nick

The government is meeting companies involved in its unpaid work experience initiatives, following protests about the way the schemes operate.
Employment Minister Chris Grayling will hold talks with dozens of firms. Some want a threat to withdraw benefits from those leaving placements early removed.
Public concern has prompted firms such as Waterstones and Burger King to quit.
Critics call the schemes "slave labour" but ministers insist they help prepare jobless young people for employment.
Campaigners have argued they are not voluntary because people can have their benefits docked if they do not complete the placement.
Supermarket Tesco changed its policy within days of a protest at one of its stores, saying it would start to pay those on work experience and guarantee a job when placements went well.
Benefits concerns
Baker Greggs has offered 40 placements since June, with 14 of the participants going on to secure permanent jobs.
Its chief executive Ken McMeikan said his firm still believed in the scheme but the benefits penalties had created concern.
But he added: "If... somebody decides they don't want to complete the placement, we don't feel they should lose their benefits."
The government is running a series of work placement schemes for unemployed people - including the "work experience" programme, aimed at 16-24 year olds which allows those on jobseeker's allowance to volunteer to do an unpaid placement for up to eight weeks without losing their benefits. They may also get travel or childcare expenses.
But anyone who cuts a placement short after more than a week may have their benefits stopped for two weeks.
The Department for Work and Pensions says between January 2011, when the scheme started, and the end of November 2011, 34,200 people took part, of which 220 had their benefits docked.
'Absolutely degrading'
Mark Dunk, an unemployed activist with the trades union-backed Right to Work group, which campaigns for alternative job creation policies, told the BBC placements must not amount to "unpaid forced labour".
"If you go and do work you're making money for those companies, why can't they pay? It's absolutely degrading to... do exactly the same job as someone else but not be paid."
Fast-food chain Burger King said it had registered to take on youngsters at its Slough headquarters six weeks ago but withdrew due to "public concerns", without having recruited anyone.
Supermarket Sainsbury's said the small number of its stores that took part in the scheme had since ceased participation, as it was not company policy.
Fashion chain Matalan said it had suspended its involvement pending a review, while bookseller Waterstones and electrical retailer Maplin have already left.
Deputy PM Nick Clegg said, under the previous system, young people on jobseeker's allowance were not allowed to take up work experience for a few weeks and keep their benefit which had forced them to "sit at home, feeling lonely, cut off, sending out job applications and often not getting an answer".
"All the evidence shows that if you get young people out of the home, off the sofa, away from the television screen, into the habit of getting up and going to work, getting dressed, being disciplined about it, actually your chances of them finding work are substantially increased".
'Complete muddle'
And former Marks and Spencer chief Sir Stuart Rose told the BBC if he had a child who was long-term unemployed, he would put them into the scheme.
Employment Minister Mr Grayling has blamed a "small number of activists" for targeting "jumpy" firms.
The programme is aimed at 16 to 24-year-olds unemployed for more than three months but less than nine months.
Participants have an unpaid placement for two to eight weeks, working 25 to 30 hours a week.
For Labour, Shadow Employment Minister Stephen Timms said he backed the theory behind the scheme - but said there was a "complete muddle about whether this is a voluntary scheme or not because job centres are telling people it's compulsory".
BBC News

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