“Slave Labour”: this was the description given by critics to the Government Work Experience Scheme earlier this year when it was announced that people who were long-term unemployed could volunteer to engage in unpaid work placements at Tesco, Argos and other large companies without losing their job-seekers’ allowance. Protesters claimed that since participants could lose their benefits if they failed to complete the placement, this made the scheme mandatory and created forced labour. The High Court has how held in R (on the application of Reilly and another) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions  EWHC 2292 (Admin) HCthat two different but similar government schemes in which individuals who are on jobseekers’ allowance are given unpaid placements are lawful and not a breach of participants’ human rights. Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits slavery, servitude and forced labour.
In the instant case, Miss Reilly was a geology graduate who was required to work in Poundland for two weeks. Mr Wilson was a HGV driver who was required to work for an organisation delivering refurbished furniture to the needy in the community. His placement was to be for 30 hours per week for a period of 26 weeks.
Both claimed this amounted to a breach of Article 4. The Court held that although views may reasonably differ about the merits of a scheme that requires individuals to 'work for their benefits' as a means of assisting them back into the workplace, such schemes could not be said to amount to 'slavery' or 'forced labour'.
This case should reassure employers that participating in back-to-work schemes is not unlawful. However, employers are still obliged to pay at least the national minimum wage to individuals undertaking work to get a “foot in the door” or carrying out an internship. If you need advice on work experience schemes or any other aspect of employment law, please do get in touch.