Last October I was sitting in the Job Centre when I picked up a leaflet headed ‘The Big Society’, I made a joke to my advisor about Cameron’s empty rhetoric to which she replied “actually is quite a good idea, it’s work experience with local companies, if you don’t find a job by your next visit we will put you in for the scheme”. I looked at the list, most of the jobs involved working in retail sales or basic unskilled labour. The fact that I have a degree, several years experience and had already completed a summer internship both whilst at University did not seem to persuade my advisor that unwaged work experience stacking shelves would not be a rich addition to my CV. Luckily, I found employment so I did not have to provide free labour to Poundland or a similar outlet. Many other young people however, are being exploited under the current government policy which has been described as a return to “sweatshops and workhouses”.
Since 2010, the work experience and training for young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs) has increasingly been pushed into the private sector. Most recently, this issue has been highlighted by the employment of security staff during the Queen’s Jubilee weekend. In this instance, employees were forced to reside in ”swampy“ camps, work extensive hours without payment whilst providing security to the general public in London. The same company has also been awarded the contract to provide fire marshals during the Olympics, due to being able to undercut the cost of better trained companies. This is not the first time the current government’s youth unemployment policy has been called into question, with the case of the Geology graduate who was forced to work unwaged in a high street shop currently being processed by the High Court. The policy of paying private sector companies to employ unwaged staff is arguably inherently flawed, as the private sector desire to maximise profit through free labour is evidently overriding any sense of meaningful training and work experience. Boffey stated “The private firms are monopolising the welfare system and taking control over the fate of the half a million people referred to the programme…with less than 22% of benefit claimants finding any [paid]work”. Indeed, many of those who are on the list of companies which are involved in the workfare scheme produce a substantial turnover and can afford to pay young people working for them at least minimum wage.
This problem appears particularly exacerbated in the 2012 unemployed youth report, which highlights that 62.2% of young people are applying for jobs in sales and low skilled work. This means that through the process of forcing young people into low skilled unpaid work, it is narrowing the paid jobs available to them in this sector. Moreover, through the lack of meaningful training it is further limiting the opportunities for young people to break out of this cycle. Brendan Barber the TUC general secretary, raised concerns as long ago as last November over the new youth unemployment policy stating “Young people on the programme [are] being exploited. Keen unemployed youngsters desperate to find work shouldn’t be conscripted into edging out other workers who should have been paid the going rate for the job.”
Arguably, it is important to remember that the workhouses which commentators are comparing the current youth unemployment measures to were created as a deterrent, which treated the poor as the cause of poverty. Indeed, with the contrast between those who instigated the current economic climate, who continue to ride on a wave of bonuses and high wages against the increasing exploitation of unwaged youth, it is perhaps easy to hear the ghosts of Victorian economic policy in the hands of the Con-Dem government.