The government claims its workfare scheme has always been “voluntary”. But unemployed young people forced onto the schemes say that’s a lie.
Asa Dawson was made to work at Poundland’s Bridlington branch last October. He is 18 and has qualifications in IT support, but was told he had to do it.
“The jobcentre said once it was offered to me I didn’t have the choice to refuse it,” he told Socialist Worker.
“They said it’s ‘voluntary’, but if you refuse they cut your jobseekers’ allowance. And I’m using that to pay my rent.”
Tim Knight-Hughes says his experience was similar when he was made to work unpaid for door-to-door sales firm JM Enterprise in Norwich.
“I was told it would be ‘minimum wage’ with ‘commission based bonuses’,” he said.
“It was a lie. After completing three rounds of interviews I had to sign a contract saying I would work for free for a trial period without a guaranteed prospect of a job.
“If I walked out in disgust it would threaten my benefits.”
Both Asa and Tim said it was clear they were being used for free labour with no possibility of a job. “Poundland seemed to have people in for four weeks at a time then get a new batch, so they didn’t need to employ any of them,” said Asa.
“I was regarded as someone who obviously wasn’t going to be there for more than four weeks.”
Tim says the vast majority of people who worked for free at the sales firm didn’t get jobs at the end of it either. “After the ‘trial period’ I complained to the jobcentre that this job wasn’t really a job at all,” he said.
“I was reprimanded by the jobcentre manager—and told that ‘beggars can’t be choosers’.”
Asa’s experience was even worse. Despite the risk of sanction by the jobcentre he felt he had to walk out after a week and a half.
“You had no idea what you were supposed to be doing,” he said. “There was never anyone to help. I wasn’t even told how to use the machinery for crushing cardboard or the pallet mover.
“I was given a black shirt and a name badge, and that’s it. They had a strict uniform of black trousers and black shoes but didn’t give you those.”
He says he reached “breaking point” one day. “I walked in on one of my managers cracking jokes about me,” he said.
“And when I walked in, they didn’t stop.”
Asa says it makes “no sense” for the government to hand unpaid workers to companies like Poundland.
“I didn’t get anything to put on my CV,” he said. “I didn’t learn a thing. They should be hiring people for pay. Why should they get free labour?”