CONTROVERSY over a government work experience scheme has spread to Horsham District Council.
Unpaid roles for young people on Jobseeker’s Allowance are being offered at the local authority - this been called a ‘worthwhile initiative’ by the leader.
But Unison, the union representing council staff, said ‘people are entitled to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’.
Placements for up to eight weeks are being offered to young people aged 18 to 24 so they can get ‘their first taste of work and foundation for a future career’, said the council’s Horsham District News magazine.
Jobseekers are identified by Jobcentre Plus and the unpaid work will involve a ‘number of areas of council business’.
A fierce national row has brewed since the scheme started, with critics saying it is depriving people of jobs and those on work experience should be paid a fair wage for their work.
It has even been termed ‘slave labour’ as those on the scheme have to complete their placement or else their benefits are stopped.
Tesco has now agreed to pay participants and a range of companies have pulled out of the scheme or suspended their involvement.
But the council, which has made a number of redundancies in recent years, is ‘calling on other businesses to get involved as well and offer young people the chance to show what they have to offer’.
Council leader Ray Dawe (Con, Chantry) insisted, despite the national furore, that it was not a controversial scheme and offered interviews with participants to find out what they were learning.
“This is a very worthwhile initiative,” he said. “The purpose of the programme is to give young people an opportunity to gain experience and an opportunity to build their CV for a period up to eight weeks.
“Approximately 28 per cent of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants in the Horsham district are 18 to 24-year-olds (this excludes those young people not working, in education or training who are not claiming benefits) and Horsham District Council is keen to help develop opportunities for young jobseekers and to help embed a culture of work and provide on the job work experience.
“Fifty per cent of those applying to Horsham District Council for these placements are graduates, which is a telling tale in itself.
“A key priority of Horsham District Council is to support and encourage economic development; employment and creating job opportunities are fundamental to achieving this.
“The Horsham district wants to hold on to its young people, hence why we are being proactive on this initiative.
“In no way does Horsham District Council see this as a ‘controversial’ scheme. It must be stressed that this is not being funded by local council tax payers. The young people are still allowed to claim their Jobseeker’s Allowance and gain up to eight weeks’ employment with us.
“Horsham District Council does not pay those participating in the scheme a salary.
“Instead we provide worthwhile job experiences to them and we give them an opportunity to gain additional skills or demonstrate that they have the potential.
“There are some extremely gifted and talented young people in our district and for them this may provide the ‘first break’ into the employment market.
“For example, some young people currently involved in placements are contributing to specific projects or using their IT/social media knowledge and/or assisting the council with the development of events and research.
“Many young people have a considerable amount to give and this is one way they are able to ‘showcase’ themselves and gain valuable on the job work experience.
“We are aware of some of the criticisms by some industries using the scheme as ‘free labour’, however our reasoning for getting behind the initiatives is very much driven by economic development objectives and supporting our young residents.
“We are aware from Job Centre Plus in Horsham that 34 per cent of young people who have participated in this scheme so far have gone on to find paid employment as a direct result of the programme.
“This is a success story and we need the local media to help us and other businesses drive the message that local young people are worth employing.”
A Unison spokesperson gave its position on the scheme: “We believe the Government has a responsibility to create and not to cut jobs.
“If they want to give companies a financial incentive to take on the young unemployed that is good, but they should not be using them as free labour.
“We are totally opposed to any compulsory element or threats to lost benefits for refusing to go on the scheme - whether overt or not.
“In addition there are no guarantees at the end of the placements that they will get permanent work.
“The fact is the minimum wage is only £6.08 an hour and for those between 18 and 20 it is just £4.98 and for 16 and 17-year-olds only £3.68 so hardly a huge amount, especially when put against the profits of some of the companies taking part.
“If the Government were serious about tacking youth unemployment they should not have devastated the ConneXions service that provided career guidance and help to so many.
“In addition their policy of cutting jobs in the public sector is also making it harder for young job seekers.”