In a landmark case, a British woman successfully challenged the legality of the "work-for-your-benefits" scheme. Many aspects of her story chimed with my own experience of taking on voluntary work while unemployed, and frustrations with restrictions imposed by the Jobcentre.


(J D Mack / Flickr)

(image: J D Mack / Flickr)

For most of the first half of 2012, I was claiming unemployment benefit.

Like every claimant, I was required to attend appointments at the Jobcentre every second week, where I would report on the progress I had made towards finding a job. Much of my experience there was deeply frustrating, and there’s a lot that I could say about it—not all of it printable.

After hearing Tuesday’s news that a British woman had won a landmark case against the government in which “work-for-your-benefits” schemes were found to be unlawful, I saw more than a few parallels with my own experiences. And considering that some of the comments on the case have been decidedly unsympathetic, I hope to at least outline the situation that young, unemployed graduates find themselves in.

Working For Free

Reading details of the case Cait Reilly brought against the government, I was specifically reminded of my experience of the double standards that apply to taking on voluntary work whilst claiming unemployment benefit.

First, some background: in 2011, after some time abroad, I returned to the UK to start a part-time postgraduate course. (It only amounted to two hours of tuition per week, so I was fully entitled to sign up for unemployment benefit while I was looking for the job that I would be doing in all the rest of that time).

Finding a graduate job in London isn’t easy, particularly when you’re looking for work somewhere in the chronically oversubscribed but underpaid lefty/liberal NGO-charity-development-journalism-socialwork nexus, and you’ve spent the past year outside of the professional sphere. Moreover, it’s a market already flooded with desperate young humanities graduates, which makes a tough break even tougher in light of, to lean on a cliché, the nature of the current economic climate.

Intern jobs – an industry standard. (image: Daragh_ot / Flickr)

I graduated with a strong academic record, diverse professional experience, and demonstrable interests in a range of extracurricular activities. Regardless, I soon became acutely aware of the fact that I was trying to enter a field in which prolonged internships are the norm—and where competition was so fierce that, when a friend of mine advertised a minimum wage, 3-month contract internship in a campaigning organisation for which he worked, he received more than 300 applications for the role.

I began to realise that candidates of a similar age and experience level had often racked up one or more internships with high-level organisations, so I thought that maybe it was time to look at taking on some unpaid work.

For a while I was in talks with an urban development organisation, but didn’t quite suit the (unpaid) role offered. In the meantime I was writing as much as I could, and pitching my work to various outlets, Urban Times among them. What started as contribution on a casual basis became a more formal position in the magazine’s office, with regular hours in the office and a defined set of responsibilities, all entirely voluntary.

At the Jobcentre I relayed all of this to my ‘advisers’—I can only write the word in scare quotes—but far from being enthusiastic, they seemed suspicious that I was taking on work without being paid, and stressed the fact that I could only volunteer a maximum of 16 hours of my time per week without my benefit being cut.

I tried to emphasise that the unpaid work I was doing had a strong chance of leading to a paid position in my chosen professional field, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears. I knew that I was right, and, while I’d be incriminating myself if I said that I worked more than the allotted 16 hours, suffice it to say that I put in the work necessary to become a permanent part of the company. In short, it paid off.

(image: lydia_shiningbrightly / Flickr)

While she was unemployed, graduate Cait Reilly volunteered at a local museum. Given that this was the field she hoped to go into it seemed like a logical move, just as volunteering at a magazine did to me.

It was in this context that Cait was told that in order to keep her benefit, she would have to give up the museum work, which she enjoyed and gained from professionally, and instead work another unpaid position stacking shelves at Poundland. She felt that this was unfair and unproductive, and was motivated to mount a legal challenge to the entire scheme, the results of which we have now seen.

Commentators on the right, including Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith, have branded her a ‘job snob’; but it doesn’t take a genius to see that the former of the two positions was the one most likely to lead her back into paid work, and that with no financial benefits, the decision to swap one for the other made no sense. There’s a solid logic to the idea that unpaid professional experience can markedly improve a jobseeker’s employability—but the previous ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ stance in which a candidate was forced to accept an unpaid position regardless of suitability was not the best way to put this into practice.

In my eyes, the idea that volunteering hours arranged by the individual must be restricted, but should then be compulsory and inflexible when assigned by the Jobcentre, is patently hypocritical. If the idea of workfare schemes is to improve a candidate’s employability, then participants must be allowed to have more input in how their unpaid labour is assigned, especially when those candidates have a clear and realistic idea of the type of experience likely to help them find paid work.

As of now, the work-for-your-benefits scheme is no more. There are many lessons to be learned from its dénouement, but if the incorporates feedback from the various parties involved, we can see it replaced with a far better system in future. I would hope that, if I should fall into unemployment in the future, I’ll find my advisers more sympathetic to the idea that sometimes, to find a job, you have to work for free.