Free and fair?

Are the government’s ‘back-to-work’ schemes the right way forward?

Free and fair?

When assessing the success of a political party’s stint in government, people often use the unemployment rate as a decent marker. Needless to say, this issue has been a key one for the Tories and Lib Dems throughout their time in coalition. However, whilst things on the unemployment front aren’t as grim as they were this time five years ago, a few of the measures that have been put in place to tackle it have sparked some controversy. 

So-called ‘back-to-work’ schemes – which are designed to offer the long-term unemployed a route back into work through unpaid placements – fall firmly into this bracket. Last week the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that the regulations underpinning such programmes were invalid and legally flawed. It was adjudged that not enough information was given to jobseekers. The decision was a victory for graduate and former jobseeker Cait Reilly, who initially brought the case because of what she claimed was unfair treatment at the hands of high street retailer Poundland. Reilly was said to have worked without pay for three weeks at the store and faced losing all of her benefits if she hadn’t seen out the term, as stipulated under the terms of the sector-based work academy (SBWA) scheme.

Critics have slammed such measures as something akin to ‘slave labour’ whereas supporters recognise the government’s efforts in returning people to employment. What, though, do those at the coalface think? Do back-to-work schemes offer a fair deal for both employer and employee?


Far from perfect but benefits on both sides’, says Graham Ewart managing director of Direct Healthcare Services

Although the back-to-work scheme appears far from perfect, it does certainly allow prospective employees to benefit from practical work experience, while providing businesses with the opportunity to trial employees before committing to anything. As a growing specialist healthcare manufacturer, hiring the right people with the correct skillset is of the utmost importance to us. That said, we are very open to hiring people with the right attitude and willingness to learn new skills.

We have benefited in the past from a situation similar to this scheme. One local person religiously came in to our offices and asked if we had any job opportunities throughout the winter months. Unfortunately, there were none available at the time, but he offered to volunteer for us to demonstrate his potential. He was willing to learn and to work hard and quickly proved he possessed the appropriate skillset. 

We subsequently offered him a permanent role within the company and he is now overseeing one of the key processes in our manufacturing facility. This example shows how a smaller business can support unemployed people, by helping them gain practical skills in the workplace and providing them with the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities to a potential employer.


Probably in need of a rethink’, says Daniel Booth, search marketing manager at Jelf

Back-to-work schemes may one day work for larger organisations, but by and large they probably need a rethink in order to work properly. Being valued is an important part of a working relationship, and free labour from someone that may have little motivation to try, let alone turn up for a hard day’s work, is only ever going to end badly.

Surely putting somebody back into work from long-term unemployment – in a fair and properly paid position – and giving them the opportunity to develop their skills and grow as a professional is far more rewarding than getting free labour from a back-to-work scheme. Also, as a small business, the quality of your staff is in many cases even more important than in a big company where you have more staff to support the work effort. So the question is whether small businesses want cheap and quick or would prefer to wait for the right person for the job and be prepared to pay a little more. 


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