Working for no pay: the government’s muddled policies

By Savi Hensman
January 17, 2012

The government claims that its determined attempts to cut the living standards of the poor are necessary to cut public spending. Many have pointed out that the Welfare Reform Bill and other changes have immediate and long-term costs attached, so will not save nearly as much as is claimed. The rationale for harsh new measures looks even flimsier since it has emerged that the government is shelling out public money to take paid work away from the poor.

22-year-old Cait Reilly hit the headlines because she plans to take legal action over being forced to stack supermarket shelves for no pay. A geology graduate who had applied in vain for one job after another, she was already doing volunteer work at a museum. But she was threatened with loss of her benefits if she did not give this up and instead do unpaid work for Poundland.

This was not only an infringement of her rights – it took money out of the pockets of those who would otherwise be paid to do the work. It appears that, at a time when there is an acute job shortage, the government is willing to lavish public money on making it worse, as well as exploiting and humiliating jobseekers.

As Reilly explained in the Guardian, “For me, this unpaid labour scheme lasted only two weeks, but some people, as part of the government's work programme, will have to do such unpaid work for up to six months – longer than the community service orders handed out to many criminals.”

“The nature of such work is not the problem. I would be happy to do it if I had a say in it and, crucially, was paid,” she wrote. “I would grab a paid job in Poundland with both hands.” But making young people work for free on such schemes “leaves them feeling useless and demeaned, denies paid workers the chance to do overtime, and potentially takes jobs from those who need them.”

It appears that the government is willing to splash out public funding provided big companies benefit, while forcing the poor into even worse poverty. Many would regard this as immoral as well as wasteful.


© Savi Hensman works in the care and equalities sector. She is a regular Christian commentator on political and social issues and an Ekklesia associate.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.