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Just how effective is mandatory work experience?

Jenny Gulliford

08 August 2012

Earlier this week (6 Aug), Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson lost their appeal to have two government work experience schemes declared  ‘slave labour’ as defined under the European Convention on Human Rights.  But while it is almost certainly hyperbolic to compare a work experience scheme to slavery, it is only fair to ask whether mandatory work placements actually help people to secure a full-time sustainable job.

There are currently two wholly mandatory work experience programmes:

  • The Community Action Pilot, now known as Support for the Very Long Term Unemployed (SVLTU). This is a 6 month work experience programme, coupled with provider-led job search assistance. This programme is mandatory, with claimants being forced to enter the programme when they have been claiming benefit for more than three years, or after they have left the Work Programme.
  • Mandatory Work Activity (MWA), a placement lasting up to 30 hours a week for a maximum of four weeks, aimed at helping participants who are particularly far away from the labour market become accustomed to the world of work.

So, just how effective are mandatory work experience programmes?

Some might argue that mandatory work placements are both fair and effective. They are fair, the argument goes, because the participant is earning their benefits. The government is only forcing people to help themselves. And they are effective, the argument goes, because with mandatory work placements, the state ensures that claimants aren’t sitting idle between each appointment; furthermore, participants are learning the skills to help them find a full-time, sustainable job.

However, it is my opinion that mandatory activity can be harmful, becoming a punishment which reinforces unemployment rather than a route into work. Whilst how ‘fair’ it is remains subjective, it is not effective for the individual, for employers, or for the programme itself.

If a claimant is forced to enter or remain in a job or sector they do not believe to be useful, the job becomes a punishment and does not add value. Such an employee is unlikely to be either happy or productive. While the organisation may be getting free labour, an unproductive employee, even in a placement lasting only a few weeks, may eventually cost more in terms of overheads and the time lost through training. As a result, only the small range of organisations for which this isn’t an issue  are likely to come forward to offer such work experience placements. After all, who would want to hire, even temporarily, a surly, unhappy employee who didn’t want to be there?

Moreover, making a placement mandatory lessens the worth of the programme as a whole, not just for the individual. It tarnishes the status of any experience, skills or qualifications gained, because even if the participant was keen and eager to partake, it may appear that they were forced to do so. There is therefore little indication as to whether they will be a reliable employee.

A recent government impact assessment of Mandatory Work Activity supports these arguments. The investigation found that 3-5 months after the placement there was no difference in the number of people claiming benefits between those who had been referred to MWA and those who had not. In the report’s own words ‘a MWA referral had no impact on the likelihood of being employed compared to non-referrals.’


Comments in Chronological Order (Total 2 Comments)


09 Aug 2012 4:23PM

One problem is that removal of benefits is treated as an idle threat.
The first thing concept I was introduced to at the Work Programme was "raising a doubt about your job search". What a way to introduce clients to a scheme that is meant to help. I am often met with absolute contempt from my provider as default, even though I try to play by the rules and cause as little friction as possible.

We are pushed onto schemes that are similar for someone who has committed a criminal offence. I will be refusing any 6 months unpaid work, I'd rather have the sanction on principle and go hungry. If I steal and get caught, to get by. Then I end up with the same result probably. Maybe less hours overall. It would be interesting to see the comparison, don't you think?

Job seekers aren't given any freedom to find their own placements because the work programme is all designed to take autonomy away from you, because it's simple to do and easy to measure. Besides hiding behind a few data protection laws "they can make you do whatever they want" in the words of one Job Centre + advisor.

I'm set to take an interview skills workshop, despite being prepared for interviews in college and university. Not to mention the few jobs I've managed to obtain in the past. Money in the bank.

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