Work schemes which seek to get unemployed people back into work have been deemed lawful by a High Court judge today following claims by an ex-Poundland worker that non-paid programmes were tantamount to slave labour.
Government-backed schemes have been found not to breach human rights by Mr Justice Foskett as he made his judgement based on a claim by unemployed graduate Cait Reilly, who said along with another claimant Jamieson Wilson that working for free violated article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights against forced labour and slavery.
Noting that Poundland’s voluntary work scheme is lawful, the judicial review also found that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) can continue to help people gain experience and required skills to aid them in getting full-time work. In his ruling, Mr Justice Foskett noted that the Convention was initially set up to tackle “colonial exploitation of labour” and that modern times have seen the scope of the article change.
“The Convention is, of course, a living instrument, capable of development to meet modern conditions, and views may reasonably differ about the merits of a scheme that requires individuals to “work for their benefits” as a means of assisting them back into the workplace,” he conceded.
“However, characterising such a scheme as involving or being analogous to “slavery” or “forced labour” seems to me to be a long way from contemporary thinking.”
However, Foskett also ruled that the Department should improve the clarity of its letters when warning claimants of potential sanctions should they choose not to participate in such schemes, following suggestions from Reilly that she did not understand that the scheme was voluntary, though the DWP said it will appeal that aspect of the judgement.
The judge also pointed out that errors made in notifying Reilly of the requirements of the Work Academy Scheme did not violate jobseekers allowance rules. Commenting on the ruling, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said:”We are delighted, although not surprised, that the Judge agrees our schemes are not forced labour. Comparing our initiatives to slave labour is not only ridiculous but insulting to people around the world facing real oppression.
“Thousands of young people across the country are taking part in our schemes and gaining the vital skills and experience needed to help them enter the world of work – it is making a real difference to people’s lives.
“Those who oppose this process are actually opposed to hard work and they are harming the life chances of unemployed young people who are trying to get on.”
Poundland, which last month reported a 21.6 per cent rise in total sales for its full financial year, welcomed the judge’s findings.
“Poundland strongly believes in the importance of work experience for young people and has hired many of its colleagues permanently through that route,” a spokesperson said.
“Over 1,000 people have carried out voluntary work experience in our stores. Out of this number an encouraging 25 per cent have left their work experience early because they received a job offer and a further 10 per cent have gone onto employment with Poundland.
“The Government’s back-to-work schemes have been ruled lawful and this means we can continue to support young people and provide them with an opportunity to pursue a career in retail on a voluntary basis.”