There has been much in the Press over recent weeks regarding the UK Government’s ‘Welfare to Work’ programme. For those of you unfamiliar with the programme, the idea is that employers offer work experience to 16 – 24 year olds who are currently unemployed, with the aim that it gives those individuals exposure to work and improves their chances of gaining employment – previous experience obviously being one of the key factors that is sought after by prospective employers. Otherwise they can find themselves trapped in the cruelest of Catch-22s, i.e. that they cannot get a job without work experience but cannot get work experience without a job. Participants of the programme keep their job seeker’s allowance and are paid their expenses, but they are not paid anything beyond this. Furthermore, until 29 February, if they dropped out of the programme prior to its scheduled completion, they risked losing their benefits for a fortnight, which brought into question whether the programme was truly voluntary.

Many employers, particularly those in the retail sector, have come under fire for being involved with the programme, perhaps unfairly given that they were only implementing a programme designed by the Government. It is seen by some (albeit through some wildly partisan hyperbole) as nothing more than ‘slave labour’ masquerading as something that is meant to be of benefit to the individuals, but is ultimately of more benefit to employers who get essentially free (or at least very cheap) labour.

The protests have caused a number of major UK employers to drop out from the programme or to dip into their own pockets to provide additional financial benefits, for fear of being a party to any scheme that has been so panned in the community generally.

The protestors may have had a point from a legal perspective (unless work experience is truly voluntary, individuals will be classed as workers and therefore attract minimum wage) and, depending on your point of view, from a moral perspective (individuals should be paid for work that they undertake). However, from a practical point of view, the more difficult, expensive and risky it is for businesses to offer work experience, the fewer possibilities there are for those young people who are unemployed to find work. Putting arguments about pay (or lack of it) aside, the programme does unarguably provide the opportunity to get some first-hand experience of the discipline and commitment required by working life. If the chance is seized properly, perhaps the individual may make a positive impression and at least get a good reference for a future “real” employer, even if he is not kept on this time.

No-one would pretend that an unpaid work placement is remotely a substitute for a proper job, but as a start to working life it is certainly better than the likely alternative, i.e. nothing at all. Hopefully the Government’s announcement on 29 February (that the sanctions for dropping out of the programme will no longer apply) has not come too late and some of the biggest UK employers have not been put off for good.