We believe that it is entirely wrong-headed and snobbish to look down on our pre-teen chimney interns for the very valuable work they do for themselves and for the community. Spending ten hours a day sweeping the majestic smoke stacks and fireplaces of Britain is not a waste of time but essential grounding for future success in the world of work. After all, everyone has to start somewhere, and going up a chimney is as valuable a learning experience as going up to college. The fact that these young people aren't directly remunerated is quite beside the point. The experience they gain from this Mandatory Work Activity is worth far more to them in the long run than mere wages.
Or so they might have put it in Dickens' day. Ridiculous to compare Victorian forced labour to stacking shelves on the government's mandatory work experience programme? In terms of personal risk, perhaps. But what is interesting is the similarity of the arguments used than and now in defence of the practice of getting young people to do dull and routine work for nothing. There was fierce opposition to attempts to stop thousands of unpaid children being sent up British chimneys, and it wasn't finally abolished until 1875. The argument was that the young sweep would, after seven years apprenticeship, become a journeyman sweep, and have a skilled trade. That the trade largely involved getting other young children to go up chimneys was not seen as a problem.
The point is that forcing people to work, effectively, for nothing has been around a very long time, and it is unjustifiable whether it is up a chimney or in Poundland. Yet, under the government's work experience schemes, thousands of young people are being forced to work for eight weeks without pay and without any job at the end of it. And they risk having their benefits cut if they drop out of the job after the first week. This is American style workfare in action. Tough love. It is also an open invitation to exploitation.
Tesco say it was a “mistake” that a job centre in Suffolk posted an advert for a post in one of their stores that offered “JSA + expenses” (ie Job Seeker's Allowance of £53 pounds a week, way below the minimum wage). Maybe, but this clearly was what the scheme was all about: free shelf-stackers, with the government's blessing. Tesco is a very savvy company, and it has since wisely withdrawn from the scheme They say they it's more efficient to recruit proper workers to do real jobs. The internet campaign attacking the company for benefiting from “slave labour” may have helped persuade them of this.
No, of course it isn't real slave labour – slaves were indentured for life not 8 weeks. However, it is a form of compulsory or coerced labour which is almost certainly illegal under the Human Rights Act, and something no democratic government should sponsor. The firms involved, including some charities should be ashamed of themselves. The episode has turned into a presentational disaster for David Cameron, following the controversy over his government's welfare reforms. It is the Tories rediscovering themselves as the “nasty party” - and now with the support of the Liberal Democrats, who of course would have been the first to denounce this kind of workfare in the past. Could you imaging Charles Kennedy, when he was leader, endorsing a compulsory work programme?
Actually, I suspect that the government hadn't really thought through the implications of MWA – Mandatory Work Activity – and its associated schemes. It always looked suspiciously like one of those PR policies, beloved of Tony Blair, which “sent a message” that the government was cracking down on the workshy, while not exactly doing very much except urging employed people to do something other than languish in bed all day watching MTV. The problem arose when private companies, like A4e, were enlisted to run the programmes. They took it all very seriously indeed, realising that there was good money to be made selling free workers to big employers. Or to themselves. A4e has been criticised for employing some people on work experience programmes in their own offices. Neat. You get paid by the government to put young people to work for nothing, so why not pay them nothing to work for you?
The boss of A4e, Emma Harrison, has now resigned from her position as the government's “problem families” adviser following a fraud investigation into her firm, which has led to four arrests. There is no suggestion that Mrs Harrison has been involved in any wrong doing. However, it has been a nice little earner for her. She paid herself over £8m in dividends last year derived from the £180m her firm earned from various government contracts.
Labour's Margaret Hodge, chair of the Commons Public Accounts committee, has called for A4e to be relieved of those contracts while the fraud is being investigated. But Labour are on shaky ground here. A4e's massive expansion took place after 1997 when it was given welfare-to-work contracts by the Blair governments. The former Labour home secretary, David Blunkett, is one of Mrs Harrion's leading advisers. However, it was this government's decision to move into the questionable area of compulsory working.
Now, the Prime Minister, and many commentators, have said there is nothing wrong with getting people to work for their benefits, and work experience very popular with voters. The work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, is a thoughtful chap and has spent a lot of time on the ground in places like Easterhouse. He is surely right that it is unacceptable for generations of families to have no experience of the world of work. However, there is an obvious limit to what can be achieved by forcing people to do jobs that they don't want to do, and it is quite wrong to allow the unemployed to be used as a source of cheap labour. The programme has backfired, making large firms like Tesco wary of getting involved with any DWP projects in future.
And you wonder if the employment minister, Chris Grayling, isn't a few stacks short of a full shelf when he suggests that working for nothing in a supermarket is as useful a preparation for work as full time education. And this is not to demean routine or mundane jobs like shelf stacking or flipping burgers. These jobs often carry their own intrinsic reward, and many people – especially the recently retired – rather value the lack of responsibilities they carry.
But that is their choice. There is no place for compulsion in the labour market. As any economist will tell you: it's just not worth employing people who don't want to be there.