- Cait Reilly has been looking for work since graduating in the summer
- She volunteered at a museum until ordered to accept two-week placement
- Her lawyer says the ‘forced labour’ breaches her human rights
A graduate made to work for her jobless benefits as a shelf stacker in Poundland is taking legal action against the Government under the Human Rights Act.
Cait Reilly, who studied geology at university, had been unable to find a job in her subject area and was claiming unemployment benefit while volunteering in a museum in the hope it would lead to a job in that sector.
But the 22-year-old had to give up the placement in order to work in the budget store under a Government scheme designed to encourage the long-term unemployed back to work.
Miss Reilly is now taking landmark legal action against the Government after being told she risked losing her £53.45-a-week Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) payment if she turned down the two-week unpaid work experience stint at Poundland.
Lawyers for the graduate are seeking a judicial review into Department for Work and Pensions rules that compel unemployed people to take unpaid work.
They say the scheme, part of the Coalition’s Work Programme to break the cycle of benefit dependency, amounts to ‘forced labour’ and is against the Human Rights Act.
The Government programme aims to help around 250,000 young people over the next two years through training and unpaid work experience in the public, private and charity sectors. Placement providers include chains such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Argos and Asda.
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But Miss Reilly said: ‘I was actually doing something that was helping me work towards a job and was taken away from that to do something of no value to me. It was very frustrating.’
‘I was actually doing something that was helping me work towards a job and was taken away from that to do something of no value to me. It was very frustrating’
The graduate was sucked into the scheme after attending a retail jobs ‘open day’ in the autumn at the suggestion of her Jobcentre Plus adviser, who said it would lead to a period of training and a job interview.
Miss Reilly and other candidates were sent to an employment skills training workshop for a week, aimed at improving attributes such as communication skills, followed by the five-hour-a-day stint at Poundland near Miss Reilly’s home in King’s Heath, Birmingham, in November.
She and five other claimants spent their time on the placement sweeping up and stacking and cleaning shelves, before they had to attend a final week of training under the ‘sector-based work academy’ scheme (SBWA). The promised job interview never materialised.
The SBWA scheme is supposed to offer the young unemployed a direct route off benefits and into work.
Miss Reilly graduated from Birmingham University in 2010 and has been claiming unemployment benefit since August.
She has now returned to her voluntary role at the city’s Pen Room Museum of writing and pen trade memorabilia, still looking for paid employment.
She believes the placement allowed Poundland to use her as ‘free labour’ in the run-up to Christmas.
The DWP says that candidates who ‘express an interest’ in doing unpaid placements will lose their JSA if they pull out after the first ‘cooling off’ week on the scheme. But Miss Reilly says she was not informed about any cooling off period.
JOBSEEKER’S ALLOWANCE BENEFIT
In order to meet the criteria to receive the Jobseeker’s Allowance benefit, claimants are required to participate in Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme.
The scheme offers work placements with companies, working in conjunction with the government, designed to give claimants practical work experience to improve their chances of employment.
If claimants refuse to take part in the work placements they risk losing their benefits.
She said she felt she had to do it because ‘without my Jobseeker’s Allowance, I would literally have nothing’.
Miss Reilly’s solicitor, Jim Duffy, said the practice contravenes article 4 (2) of the Human Rights Act, which states: ‘No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.’
Mr Duffy, from Public Interest Lawyers in Birmingham, said: ‘This Government has created – without Parliamentary authority – a complex array of schemes that allow Jobcentres to force people into futile, unpaid labour for weeks or months at a time.
‘We have no problem with Government schemes that increase the chances of people gaining employment – that is key to combating the current economic crisis – but these “work for benefit schemes” have been proven in other countries to do nothing other than increase the cycle of unemployment and poverty.
‘Cait wasn’t told when she went to the open day that she was committing herself to work for free. She has been taken away from a voluntary role useful to help her break into the career she would like to have, simply to stack shelves.’
Latest figures show there are now more than one million young people not in employment, education or training – so-called Neets. Employment minister Chris Grayling said: ‘We think it’s really important to provide young people with the opportunity to get into workplaces and show what they can do.
‘It’s a nonsense to suggest we should just be leaving them on benefits without making a real effort to find work. Retail offers really good career opportunities for many young people.’
Poundland said it had a ‘positive experience’ of the work placement programme which was ‘designed to provide on-the-job training for those looking to retail as a career opportunity’.
OVERSUBSCRIBED: 1,300 APPLY FOR 16 JOBS AT NEW FURNITURE STORE
A furniture store has received more than 1,300 applications for just 16 jobs at its new branch – just under 87 candidates for each post at the DFS sofa centre in Llandudno, Wales.
The company said it had been ‘inundated’ with 1,385 applications for the 16 advertised positions at the new store, which opens on February 18.
Greg Robbins, Llandudno’s Mayor, welcomed the store and called for other companies to invest in the resort, adding: ‘It’s a very positive thing for the town that a national company is coming here.
‘I don’t know if desperation is the word. It shows there’s a massive shortage of long-term employment jobs and that we need further inward investment.’
He added that he expected vacancies at the proposed Travelodge in Llandudno to be similarly oversubscribed. It is expected to create 60 permanent jobs when it opens an 83-bed hotel.
Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 9.1 per cent of Wales’ workforce were unemployed in the period of August to October 2011 – up from 8.4 per cent between May and July last year.
DFS area sales manager Adam Hankinson said: ‘I have been amazed by both the number of applications we’ve received but also the high quality of the candidates.
‘We’ve recruited a great bunch of people and I’m really excited about creating a new local team who will open the store within weeks.’