Belfast Telegraph

To get people working we need scheme working too

The Government's Get Britain Working initiative is criticised as 'slave labour'. But it benefits both employers and employees, says Donald C McFetridge

I'm sure no one would disagree with the view that it's imperative we get our unemployment figures under control and that government should make every effort possible to help the unemployed find gainful employment.

That's what the Government claims is behind its Get Britain Working scheme, which has recently come in for criticism.

In principle, it's a great idea: the employee is offered work experience with an employer for eight weeks to gain useful work experience and with the possibility of paid work at the end of that period.

The principal drawback, however, is that employer and employee have only one week in which to decide whether or not the placement is right for each of them.

In addition to this, any employee who decides to terminate the placement after the mandatory one-week trial period can, as a sanction, have their benefits removed.

Tesco recently came in for criticism after an advertisement was placed for 'permanent night-shift workers' at their Bury St Edmunds store 'in exchange for Jobseeker's allowance "plus expenses"'. Tesco has formally stated that: "Any young person accepted for work experience with Tesco will be offered a choice to participate in the Government scheme ... [and] ... to avoid any misunderstanding about the voluntary nature of the scheme, the risk of losing benefits that currently exists should be removed." This is a commendable turnaround.

There has also been criticism from many employees who have agreed to participate in Get Britain Working, some of whom argue it is tantamount to slave labour and in breach of their human rights.

The unions, too, in particular Usdaw, argue that, while work experience can be valuable, such schemes should be voluntary and pay employees the going rate.

But trainees need to remember it's a tough market out there and jobs are few; additionally, without relevant and up-to-date work experience it has become increasingly difficult to find employment.

Therefore, while the scheme may be flawed and appear to some to be unfair due to the threat of removing benefits, it does provide unemployed people with the opportunity to engage with an employer with a view to finding full or part-time employment, post-completion.

On my first work experience in a solicitor's office I was asked to make the tea, do the washing-up and deal with a nest of mice in one of the offices - with the back of a brush.

While many would consider this menial work, everyone has to start somewhere.

Any schemes of this nature need to be well-conceived and managed with clearly defined training plans in place, stating specific aims for the programme being undertaken. This needs to be agreed pre-engagement and fully completed in order that both employees and employers benefit to the maximum degree. Such training plans should have induction in week one and a range of indicative activities which accurately reflect the sort of work which might potentially be involved post-placement.

We want to see the statistics reduced on our unemployment register, but it's also important to instil self-worth and value on those who find themselves in this situation.

To push them into unpaid jobs and threaten them with sanctions should they not complete the placement is hardly the best way to achieve this.

Slave labour? I don't think so. And, yes, there are definitely benefits for both employees and employers. It's a matter of fine-tuning a commendable programme and ensuring everyone benefits and finds work right across all sectors.

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