In the last few months, there has been a constant stream of stories in the media concerning the rise in youth unemployment and the state of the benefits system. All of these issues undoubtedly provoke strong reactions from all sides, but one recent story that has completely divided public opinion is the case of Cait Reilly, the geology graduate who is taking legal action against the government after allegedly being ‘forced’ to work at Poundland to earn her Jobseeker’s Allowance.
Reilly, who graduated from Birmingham University in 2010, was apparently told by her local Job Centre that she would lose her benefits if she did not agree to do two weeks’ work experience at the budget retail store. The placement was part of a government scheme designed to get the long-term unemployed back into work by giving them training and skills to make them more attractive to employers. But Reilly has launched judicial review proceedings to challenge the regulations that require jobseekers to work for major corporations without any pay other than their Jobseekers Allowance.
Ann Widdecombe called her a “pompous ass” who considered shelf-stacking to be “beneath her”
Naturally, Cait was always going to face criticism from those who disagreed with her actions. After all, a 22-year-old who is happy to claim taxpayers’ money, yet complains that having to work for it is a breech of her human rights, isn’t right? Who wouldn’t hold her in contempt? Not many, it would seem. Right-wing political blogger Paul Staines, aka ‘Guido Fawkes’, posted on Twitter, “Cait Reilly suing coz she had to do menial work experience or lose her benefits. Too grand to sweep floors. Not too grand to claim dole”. Ann Widdecombe called her a “pompous ass” who considered shelf-stacking to be “beneath her”. Even the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, described her as a “snooty-so-and-so” because she seemed to be saying she was too intelligent to stack shelves.
But in their haste to cast judgement, these critics seem to have completely missed the point. It was not that Cait was unwilling to work; she had already secured herself some work experience at her local museum which was relevant to her chosen field of study. But she had to give this up in order to go and work in Poundland, despite already having previous retail experience. Nor did Reilly have a problem with stacking shelves. As she told readers of the Guardian, “the nature of such work is not the problem. I would be happy to do it if I had a say in it and, crucially, was paid”.
…it seems absurd that major corporations are receiving free labour …
That is the point. Reilly, and thousands of others like her, are being forced to work at retail chains such as Poundland, Tesco and Argos for fear of losing their £53-a-week Jobseeker’s Allowance if they refuse. Yet they receive no extra pay for doing so. While many graduates today might expect to have to carry out some unpaid work in order to get experience working in their chosen careers, most people in minimum wage retail jobs will only receive one or two days’ training and will mostly learn on the job. Therefore, the reality of these placements is that jobseekers are being obliged to do the same work as a fully paid employee for significantly less than the legal minimum wage, while paid workers are being denied the chance to do overtime. Not only that, but with 38 per cent of graduates now reportedly claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance when they leave university and the level of unemployment now reaching over 2.5 million, it seems absurd that major corporations are receiving free labour at the taxpayer’s expense when they could potentially be hiring more paid employees.