Graduate suing over 'forced labour' needs a reality check

Jan 13, 2012

Should she have been forced to give up voluntary museum role to stack shelves at Poundland?

A GRADUATE made to work as a shelf-stacker in the discount store Poundland in order to keep her jobless benefits is taking legal action against the government under the Human Rights Act. Geology graduate Cait Reilly complained that she was told to give up her voluntary work in a museum – her chosen career path – in order to get ‘work experience’ that was unrelated to her skills, and she wasn’t even offered an interview with Poundland after the two-week stint. Some commentators agreed that people shouldn’t be bullied into jobs that are not there, but not all were sympathetic. 

 Reality check Cait

You might think that a student with barely an NI payment to her name would be happy to put something back into the pot, says Jan Moir in the Daily Mail. You might think “she would be very grateful to be in receipt of taxpayer-funded benefits in the first place”.  

Moir goes on to say she wants to tell Cait: “Two weeks stacking shelves in Poundland - a breach of your human rights? Grow up.”

"I am afraid I have some rather unpalatable home truths for Miss Reilly," says Dominique Jackson, also in the Daily Mail. “In this, our new age of austerity, your chances of bagging a reasonably remunerated position anywhere, without any experience of the workplace whatsoever, are limited in the extreme.”

Finding a post in her preferred career in the museum sector was always going to be tough, adds Jackson. But she may have “kyboshed any future employment chances by complaining quite so vociferously” about a little bit of work experience.

You can’t force people into jobs that aren’t there

Never underestimate the power of middle-class umbrage, says Laurie Penny in The Independent. Not that there is anything wrong with stacking shelves, but “there is everything wrong” with stacking shelves for around £1.33 an hour with no security, benefits or expectation of promotion.

The Department for Work and Pension's claim - that making people on benefits do menial work somehow helps them off benefits - “flies in the face of dizzying dole queues”, adds Penny. “One cannot bully people into jobs that aren't there, and it seems there are limits to how far the British public will tolerate the narrative that the sick and unemployed are to blame for their own conditions.”

Welfare reform needed

There are jobs out there, but as customers of many shops know, the staff are almost exclusively immigrants, says Fraser Nelson in The Telegraph. In a country with so many on benefits, “this is a sign that something in the economy is deeply broken”. 

Part of the problem is that many people on welfare wouldn’t earn much more if they were working, adds Nelson. “This scandalous injustice has lasted so long because welfare reform is the toughest task in British politics.” Those who work should be better off than those who do not. But there cannot be the much-debated “fairness” without reform. “We need some tough love to get people off welfare.”

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