Halfords has been identified as one of the companies found to be employing young people without pay for six weeks or more under a government scheme.
Halfords has a two-month programme through Qube that involves trainees working in-store for 25 hours a week and three at a training centre.
Since it launched two years ago, the scheme has hosted 115 trainees, 45 of whom went on to become apprentices at the retailer.
Meanwhile, several other businesses — mostly smaller in size than Halfords — such as coffee shops, and hairdressing and nursery firms, run traineeships that last as long as six months.
Although introduced in 2013, traineeships have entered the headlines again thanks to a new youth obligation scheme introduced at the end of April, which will see people aged 18 to 21 who have not done any work experience for six months after signing on potentially losing their benefits.
According to the Department for Work and Pensions, youth obligation is part of a universal credit system that is now operational in 101 job centre areas in the UK.
Traineeships offer 16 to 24-year-olds a chance to undertake work experience and classroom training in maths, English, and skills such as IT, teamwork and CV writing.
While they can claim benefits if they are eligible, traineeships are usually unpaid.
Because of this, employment rights lobbyists and experts have criticised the use of sanctions that could essentially force young people into unpaid work experience.
“These schemes are clearly not about training, but forcing people into unpaid work,” Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary at Unite workers union, told the Guardian.
“The fact that well-known brands are operating these schemes to boost their profits is especially alarming.
“These schemes are a worst-case scenario and fall far short of the assurances Unite was given when these traineeships were introduced.”
The news comes after Poundland was recently criticised for employing jobseekers without pay for up to two months under a government deal.
“Many employers don’t offer young people roles because they lack the experience,” a government spokesperson told the Guardian.
“Through our youth obligation, we are also making sure that every young person receives the support they need to find work, including arranging work placements to boost CVs.”
In a statement, Halfords said: “The programme is run across a number of employers by a third party operator, Qube, and includes classroom learning, in-store work experience, as well as tutor support during the course of the seven weeks training.
“Since we started working with trainees, we’ve offered over 150 people, who were finding it hard to get jobs, permanent roles in the business.”
Qube business development director Joe Crossley said Halfords’ programme was “short” and “sharp” and supported 45 people into work who otherwise would not have a job.
“A lot of young people on traineeships have never worked,” he said.
“They don’t know how to present themselves or how to dress or not to use their mobile phone.
“They have to develop those skills and [to do so] in six weeks can be a challenge.”
Crossley added that sanctions via the youth obligation scheme would not be helpful, and that longer programmes threatened to bring the traineeship scheme into disrepute.
Halfords stated: “This government-backed traineeship is designed to help young people get work-ready, particularly those who have been unable to secure employment.