Unpaid-work: an irregular verb. I’m a volunteer. She’s on placement. They’re on workfare.

It started with Tesco, moved onto Poundland and Argos, and took over the Jubillee  so here is my personal guide to the irregular compound verb unpaid-work.

I’m a volunteer
Amazingly Fraser Nelson and I share something in common. In our youth we both spent time unpaid doing something we felt passionate about. I was at the National Union of Students; he was a trainee journalist. As far as I can tell from his recent article on this issue  – we both have the same feeling about what we did: it was FANTASTIC.  Set us up for our future careers. Allowed us to practice at a level that no-one would have paid us to do. Got contacts. Made friends. Enjoyed ourselves. Chose to do it. I still volunteer – I chair the board of one of the most fantastic Charities LASA. I feel privileged to be part of their amazing work. Volunteering is about choice and passion,

She’s on Work Placement
I have also helped a lot of  people get work placements. Organised programmes like the award winning Marks and Start give people chance to explore what working in retail is like.  M&S didn’t pay, but they gave you a uniform, access to the subsidised canteen and shop, you did the work – but for a limited time and and staff members supported you. It was not exploitative because M&S had to put in a lot of effort and support to give the person on placement the opportunity. All placements were supernumerary. When I was involved about half the people said they were glad they had done it so that they could work in retail; the other half said they were glad they had done it because now they knew they did not want to work in retail. But people valued it, and Marks and Spencer did too; as candidates made clear that being a parent and a good employee went hand in hand. The best Work Programme Providers help people to do this too, and I am proud to work alongside them. Work Placements are about exploring, trying out a job for size, allowing an employer to see you in action.

They are on Workfare
Chris Grayling said recently they one of the reasons they would not bring in Workfare – working for your benefits – for everyone is because it is too expensive.  And Minimum Wage legislation should mean that if you work you are paid – otherwise what is it there for? But the lines are getting hazy, the definitions blurry, and the explanations, sometimes bizarre – at the same meeting Grayling also said that if you are long term unemployed and your adviser thinks that all you do all day is “stay in bed with your girlfriend” then its fair to ask you to do a mandatory work experience with a charity. Not particularly scientific, or possibly great for the charity.

What makes people cross is when private companies exploit people for profit. If Tesco, or Argos, or Poundland need someone to work on their tills, or fill their shelves, they should  pay them. And if we want people to Marshall the Olympics or the Jubilee then either we pay them or we make it the best damn work placement ever. We don’t leave them in the rain, under a bridge, without a toilet or privacy to change.

But what makes me really worried, is that there seems to ba a culture now – at all levels of employment that means that you have to give your labour for free before you are considered for a job. Interns at management level and long term unemployed are facing similar issues. And this is bad not only for the individual but for the economy.

And whilst some are very angry with the Welfare to Work Industry I feel the need to point out that it makes little sense for entry level jobs to be filled by unpaid labour. And that many people on benefits really do benefit from doing volunteering that they enjoy.

We need some honesty and clarity on these issues. From Government, employers, companies, chairites, Primes and Subs. Without it we will throw the baby out with the jubilee rainwater.

Useful links

Fraser Nelson – the ladder of full time employment needs a bottom rung Spectator 8/6/12

John Harris  – Back to the Workhouse  Guardian 9/6/12

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