“We should not say that one man's hour is worth another man's hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour. Time is everything, man is nothing: he is at the most time's carcass” - KARL MARX
Real-life experience of work can only be a good thing. There is absolutely no doubt about that. It was, therefore, a relief to hear that Tesco have said they’ll offer people on work experience a choice of doing the government scheme, or a job: as long as they “do OK” on a four week work placement. That’s progress.
But the government’s "sector-based work academy scheme" has, predictably, been challenged by critics mainly on the left. “Exploitation”, they cry. “The modern equivalent of slavery” they say - something we supposedly abolished 200 years ago. Not even Hitler went this far, says the Daily Mail. And they’d know about that.
There is, however, something of concern to capitalism as a whole if we are to remove the right to payment for work in an environment where everyone else is getting a wage for their labour. After all, it’s hardly a radical left-wing statement.
Whereas I’m not against a work experience scheme per se, I'm deeply uncomfortable with the presumption that it is right that an enormous, billion-pound company like Tesco can get away with not paying people for work that paid workers will get a wage for. I can speak with some authority, having worked in Tesco myself, shelf-stacking as a student, many years ago. The people I worked with would be appalled that others would be expected to do the same job for no financial recompense, aside from jobseekers’ allowance. And unfortunately there's little opportunity for promotion in places like supermarkets – aside from back office or managerial work. Much of the work is menial, arduous and physically exhausting. It's not job snobbery to criticise an arrangement where people do work that is unpaid, mainly because it isn't community service.
These schemes are supposed to that helps give people a routine preparing them for the world of work. There is much merit in the principle of doing work-like activity, but how might you be expected to actually search for work while undertaking a 10-hour shift?
So who really gains more? The “employee” or the employer? There may be some expectation of an interview at the culmination of an individual’s placement – which, importantly, Tesco has said it will do, and also offer a job. But for all of those other employers that are still on the scheme, could it be possible that the scheme simply doesn’t serve the individual jobseeker’s interests whatsoever, but rather provide the employer with a source of cheap (i.e. free), desperate, casual, unpaid labour? What's more, non-attendance at the voluntary job coming with the threat of cutting off JSA is just inhumane.
To me, the whole thing is rather an unimaginative solution. It’s not Stalinist or totalitarian to expect government to step in and provide meaningful work schemes where the private sector has failed to create new jobs in the void created by public sector cuts. If Tesco are successful and continue to open new stores – and in turn, hire new staff, that’s great. But they should pay the people who put products on their shelves, and haul roll-cages in an out of warehouses, freezers and stockrooms, cleaning up rotten food while being on their feet all day long. Everyone will be happier for being recompensed for the work we do. And we do society at large no favours by demonising the unemployed, wilfully denying them proper work.
There is much about modern working life that is unrewarding; not least because the division of labour from the goods that we produce and the services we provide has never been greater. We can do much better as a society to make work meaningful.