Earlier this summer, a case brought in the Administrative Court by two benefits claimants made the headlines when two schemes requiring claimants to join unpaid work experience schemes on pain of losing Jobseeker’s Allowance were challenged. In one, a geology graduate already working as a volunteer in a museum in pursuance of her ambition to secure a paid job in the museum sector was expected, instead, to work in Poundland for two weeks, although this meant it cost her her voluntary position. In the other a qualified HGV driver was required to undertake a full time voluntary position for six months on an unpaid basis.
Much of the judgment of the court in Reilly & Another, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Work & Pensions was concerned with issues of maladministration and whether the schemes were within the statutory powers of the DWP, which are important issues but not issues of employment law. The crucial issue that made the case newsworthy, and does have an employment flavour, was whether these schemes represented “forced labour” and were thus contrary to Article 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Mr Justice Foskett took the view that while opinions might differ as to the appropriateness or effectiveness of such schemes they are “a very long way removed from the kind of colonial exploitation of labour that led to the formulation of Article 4”and so could not be called “forced labour“ or “slavery”.
Just a thought, but perhaps the sort of situations where vulnerable workers are trafficked across borders to work unpaid (often with loss of liberty), are a more current point of comparison from which to judge whether these schemes are slavery or not.