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28 October 2020updated 29 Oct 2020 12:26pm

People work for weeks unpaid in “abhorrent practice” hidden by a gap in DWP data

The Department for Work and Pensions lets employers trial jobseekers for up to 30 working days without paying them wages.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Jobseekers are working “up to a maximum of 30 working days” for free, according to a letter seen by the New Statesman written by the employment minister Mims Davies.

The letter, dated 23 October, outlines the controversial practice of work trials: when people looking for jobs work for no money other than their usual benefits and any travel and occasional accommodation expenses.

The letter was sent to Stewart McDonald, the SNP MP for Glasgow South who is campaigning against unpaid trial shifts, and whose bill to ban them was blocked by the government in March 2018.

Davies was responding to concerns McDonald had recently sent to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) about the practice, calling it a “national scandal” and urging wages to be paid for such trial schemes.

In an attempt to address his questions, Davies wrote that such unpaid stints can last up to “six calendar weeks” only in “exceptional circumstances”, although she “strongly recommended that the initial work trial period should just be for a few days”.

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The DWP declined to clarify what such “exceptional circumstances” would be by the time of publication. The New Statesman understands that trials can be up to 30 days if the vacancy is six months or longer, or if the worker wants more time to adjust to being back in work.

The letter states:

“It is strongly recommended that the initial work trial period should just be for a few days. This can then be reviewed and, if all parties are in agreement, extended on an incremental basis.

“In exceptional circumstances only, a trial can last up to a maximum of 30 working days (over a period not exceeding six calendar weeks).

“The length of each work trial must be decided on a case-by-case basis between the claimant and the employer. Each has an equal say and the Work Coach must remain impartial in brokering an agreement on the initial duration.

“For jobs that are expected to last less than six months it would not usually be appropriate for a work trial to last longer than a total of five days. This limit should not be exceeded unless it is clearly in the best interests of the claimant to do so.”

This letter is the latest clarification that work trials, unpaid for up to 30 working days, will continue without reform, despite a jobs crisis ripe for exploitation. The pandemic has forced millions more to apply for Universal Credit, and further redundancies are predicted over winter with one-third of companies planning lay-offs. Young people are being hit particularly hard, with 19 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds who were furloughed during lockdown unemployed in September, according to the Resolution Foundation.

[See also: “I feel completely worthless”: Universal Credit claimants offered two weeks of unpaid work]

Work trials have been offered by different schemes overseen by the DWP for some time, including in placements by Jobcentre Plus and the sector-based work academy programme. These present jobseekers and other claimants with unpaid work while they still receive their benefits, and they are under no obligation to accept. The idea is to give people a path into work, and to tempt employers into filling much-needed vacancies by trying out individuals who may be harder to place. Such placements can be mutually beneficial.

Yet they are brokered on a “case-by-case” basis at the “discretion” of the parties involved, according to Davies’ letter: an opaque process that risks exploiting people desperate for jobs, who may be willing to accept unreasonable working practices – such as missing out on a month’s worth of wages.

“Jobseekers and those on benefits participate in the DWP’s ‘sector-based work academy programme’ and ‘Jobcentre Plus work trials’ out of good faith, so for such schemes to last up to a month at a time – and to receive no wage and face the threat of no job at the end of it – is totally unacceptable,” said McDonald.

Unpaid trial shifts in recruitment are also used outside the benefits system by employers taking advantage of a legal grey area under the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, which makes exceptions for schemes involving the “seeking of or obtaining of work” or providing “training, work experience or temporary work”, as the employment lawyer John Skelly explained to the BBC in September.

The most recent high-profile case is that of Ellen Reynolds, 19, from Glasgow, who did a five-hour waitressing shift at a restaurant without being paid or kept on afterwards. She ended up £20 out of pocket because she had to buy a shirt and trousers for the appropriate uniform beforehand. She is now petitioning the government to ban all unpaid work trial periods.

“While it is important that we do what we can to help businesses get back on their feet after full lockdown, this cannot be to the detriment of potential employees, many who will be suffering mentally and financially as a result of the effects of the pandemic,” said McDonald.

“Given the precarious job market many people find themselves in as a result of Covid-19, we cannot allow jobseekers to be taken advantage of and made to feel even more insecure about work because of unfair, unpaid trials.”

A man on Universal Credit seeking work – he had lost his job due to shielding during the first wave of coronavirus – told the New Statesman in August of his distress at being offered two weeks of unpaid work. “It makes you feel completely worthless,” he said at the time.

[See also: Why the UK is sleepwalking into a job crisis​]

When asked, the DWP did not provide data requested by the New Statesman on how many people work without wages, and what the average length of an unpaid work trial is.

According to a statement by Davies on 29 September, the department is “continuing to work to establish a robust data source for sector-based work academy programme participation”, and doesn’t “hold data on work trials arranged by Jobcentre Plus. These opportunities are individually negotiated between the Jobcentre, employer and job candidate at a local level. This data is not available to extract from our systems, and to minimise the burden on work coaches’ time we only collect data clerically where it is essential to do so.”

This means that ministers and officials have no detailed oversight of the practice – and therefore no idea of how many people are working a full month for free. This is despite the department’s responsibility for, and promotion of, such schemes.

“I was astounded to find out that the DWP… does not even know how many jobseekers and those on benefits are being asked to work for free – that beggars belief,” said McDonald.

“The UK government must now urgently tell us how many people have taken part in these schemes and for how long, and also review the terms of these placements and trials and ensure that everyone is paid fairly and properly for the work that they do… This abhorrent practice must end immediately. People who do a fair day’s work deserve a fair day’s pay.”

The DWP was contacted for comment but did not respond by the time of publication.

UPDATE 12.12pm 29/10/20

A DWP spokesperson said:

“It is misleading and disingenuous to suggest that work trials are exploitative. If a customer volunteers for a work trial, the Jobcentre will first ensure the employer is offering a genuinely worthy opportunity that could lead to employment.

“Work trials are usually five days and customers who volunteer are financially supported throughout by the Jobcentre.”

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