In the rain, on Saturday 3 March, a small, but determined group gathered outside the Job Center on Edward Street to take part in a “National Day of Action” to protest against one of the Coalition’s flagship policies.
‘Youth Fight for Jobs’ (YFFJ) and ‘Brighton Benefits Campaign’, as well as a collection of students and Trade Union members, marched from the Job Center to the Tesco on Jubilee Street and finally to McDonald’s on London Road, in order to demonstrate against the
Government’s Work Experience Scheme. Jon Redford, organizer of Saturday’s demonstration, thought that Brighton’s ‘Day of Action’ brought successes. He said: “As you probably saw, we shut McDonalds”.
The ‘Welfare to Work’ program aims to give young unemployed people, aged 18-24, unpaid work placements at companies such as Tesco’s, McDonald’s and Gregg’s Bakery.
Young people in the work experience placements work for 30 hours a week for up to 8 weeks, receiving no wage from the employer and £53.45 from their Job Seeker’s Allowance.
This compares to the £182.40 per week they would receive if they were employed on minimum wage.
The idea of ‘working for welfare’ is not unpopular with the general public.
A ‘YouGov’ poll published on 26 February put support for the scheme at around 60 percent and this support was echoed by some onlookers at Saturday’ s protest.
As one passerby put it: “If they’re gonna just sit on their arse and still get the same money… go and do something a bit more constructive”
However, these accusations have been rebuffed by Joe Paul, a Brighton University Student
He said: “young people should be given a decent opportunity to get a decent job with a decent wage, not to sit at home and rot on benefits, or be forced to work for free. There’s enough wealth in society to make that a reality”
Despite the high level of public support, the scheme has caused a lot of controversy. Through nationwide demonstrations like these, as well as websites that help sympathetic customers send automatic tweets to companies involved in the scheme, public criticism of participating companies has increased.
Sainsbury’s, TK Maxx and Waterstone’s have all withdrawn from the scheme as a result. Tesco has also announced that they will start to pay work experience staff the same wage as their other workers and they will offer an interview for a job at the end of the placement.
The Coalition has retracted an important element of the programme after some of Britain’s largest companies threatened to withdraw from the scheme. Originally, a participant in the programme (which is meant to be completely voluntary) would have had 2 weeks of benefits revoked if they dropped out of the scheme in the first week.
This sanction led to widespread criticism that the scheme is exploitive of young people. This criticism has been supported by some of the data surrounding the issue.
For instance, Tesco said it had taken on 1,400 young people in the last 4 months, as part of the scheme. This amounts to 336,000 hours of unpaid work if all the participants worked for the total 30 hours a week for 8 weeks. This would mean Tesco avoided paying out £2,420,880 in wages that participants would have been entitled to if they had been paid minimum wage.
Instead, via the scheme, the participants’ combined earnings from dole money would have been £598,640.