Poundland has been criticised for employing jobseekers, without pay, for up to two months under a deal with the government.
Several of those who have worked on the scheme told the Guardian they had worked up to 30 hours a week for at least three weeks stacking shelves in Poundland. They were told that the work experience was voluntary but one said: “I had no say in it really.”
It’s not clear how many jobseekers have been used by Poundland under the scheme as the government said it did not collect information centrally and the work experience was managed locally by jobcentres across the country. However, one store in Bolton has taken on 21 placements since last August, according to information provided in response to a freedom of information request by the Boycott Workfare pressure group.
“Considering it is supposed to be work experience you’d think they would teach you how to work the till. But we have just been stacking shelves all day,” one person on the scheme told the Guardian.
More than one work experience participant in Bolton said that their local jobcentre had provided a bus pass to cover travel expenses and suitable clothing – of black trousers and a polo shirt. Poundland paid no wages and made no other contribution. Participants said they were not provided with any paperwork to record the time they had spent in a store.
All the participants contacted by the Guardian said they had been told they needed to do work experience by a “work coach” at their local jobcentre. The coach selected Poundland from a list of potential employers.
Poundland said it had signed a deal in January with the Department for Work and Pensions, which oversees the Jobcentre Plus work experience programme, to take jobseekers on work experience on condition that this was voluntary and not part of any benefit assessment.
It said the programme was designed to “help provide a taste of the world of work” largely for 18- to 24-year-olds with placements lasting between two and eight weeks and for between 25 to 30 hours a week. Those taking part continue to receive their benefits and store managers had been explicitly briefed that volunteers could not replace any paid employment.
“This is not work experience, this is work – and Poundland should pay for it,” said Tanya de Grunwald of the Graduate Fog website, which first revealed the existence of the Poundland work experience scheme.
A spokesman for the retailer said Poundland did not participate in work programmes such as workfare that could lead to benefits being withheld from participants. It said a number of work experience workers had been given a permanent job, but could not say exactly how many.
In 2013, the chain was at the centre of a legal action against the government by Cait Reilly, a geology graduate, who won a case arguing that it was unlawful to force her to work for free at the budget chain as a condition of her claiming jobseeker’s allowance.
A spokesman for Poundland said: “We’re sorry some of the people you spoke to felt their time with us wasn’t worthwhile. Our stores try hard to make it a positive experience and we know it has been for many. We’re always open to being told directly how to make it better.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “It’s important that all opportunities – including those in the retail sector – are made available to jobseekers to help them move towards permanent work. Work experience is entirely voluntary and gives people the chance to increase their skills and gain vital on-the-job experience, something that businesses really value.”
It said that, ideally, claimants should complete only one work experience opportunity, although it is not clear whether this happens in practice.