Uncertainty is something many of us in the UK have become accustomed to over the last few months. As the infection rate rapidly increased during spring, the government eventually took the decision on the 23rd of March to impose lockdown measures across the entirety of the country. Since then, many of us have often felt both our livelihoods, and security, wavering in the uncomfortable unknown of when this global pandemic may come to an end.
Perhaps for me, this uncertainty was somewhat more acute. Having being diagnosed with a chronic auto-immune disease at the beginning of 2018, I was quite quickly instructed by the NHS to shield until told otherwise. Naturally, as much remained confused about the nature of this new disease, I took the health services’ advice and did as I was told.
As for many people who were similarly instructed to shield, this, of course, involved being unable to go to work. At the time, I was working for the largest supermarket chain in the country as a customer service assistant, on a temporary contract like the vast majority of its staff. I hadn’t truly understood the drawbacks of the gig economy until roughly a month after lockdown. After which, I received an abrupt call from my shift manager, informing me that my contract was terminated. I was left without furlough pay; left uncertain of both my livelihood and my health.
Naturally, the next step was to sign up to Universal Credit, how else was I going to be able to afford to survive while forced to isolate and shield myself from the virus? Luckily, if you can even call it luck, I was already in the system having been let go from my previous employment due to my disability ‘not being a good fit for the company.’
Now, anyone familiar with the Universal Credit online system will know that communication between Universal Credit recipients and their Work Coach takes place through what’s known as the online Journal, which is accessed by both parties to keep each other updated on both job opportunities and the recipient’s applications. Work Coaches will often post employment opportunities from local firms within these journals, allowing recipients to see opportunities that may or may not be a good fit for them and their circumstances. I have no qualms about this practice, and up until this point, had found it a useful way to alert me to opportunities I would have otherwise known nothing about.
Nevertheless, the employment opportunity I received in my journal on the 16th of July concerned me greatly, the message read:
THIS IS A GROUP MESSAGE SENT TO ALL JOBCENTRE CUSTOMERS – PLEASE IGNORE IF THIS IS NOT APPROPRIATE FOR YOU.
Bond It are currently recruiting for Production Operatives
Based in Elland, the company are major suppliers of building chemicals, sealants and adhesives to leading builders’ merchants.
Vacancies exist for Production Operatives working on automatic filling machines and mixers. Previous experience in a similar environment would be beneficial.
The company offer competitive remuneration with a generous productivity bonus scheme.
Recruitment will be by a two-week unpaid work trial, followed by a guaranteed interview.
For more information and to apply, please contact your Work Coach.
One sentence stood out to me in particular, as I’m sure it will have for you: ‘Recruitment will be by a two-week unpaid work trial, followed by a guaranteed interview.’ Hold on a minute. Now I’m sure many of us have no problems with the concept of a trial shift, in my younger years it was common for a local shop, pub or restaurant to request a relatively short, two-hour shift, to determine whether or not you’d be a good fit for their business – that seemed fair, no?
What doesn’t seem fair is a two-week, unpaid, work trial with the meagre reward for your labour being the opportunity to interview. Is this not an example of predatory employment practices? With manufacturers warning of a UK ‘jobs blood bath’, high street staples such as M&S announcing hundreds of job losses and even the Tower of London’s Beefeaters taking a beating is it not ethically wrong for a company to feed upon the desperate and uncertain victims of the post-COVID economy?
In fact, doesn’t such predatory behaviour fall under the definition of exploitative employment practices? There is, of course, no guarantee of a job at the end of your two-week trial, only an interview, and you explicitly are not going to be remunerated for roughly 80 hours of work on a production line, for one of the nation’s ‘major suppliers of building chemicals, sealants and adhesives.’
What concerns me more, however, is that my Universal Credit Work Coach clearly thought that this opportunity was nothing extraordinary, or unusual, when they posted it in the journal. Two-weeks unpaid work with a guaranteed interview, is this the new normal unemployed people in the UK can come to expect in the post-COVID economy? There are of course so many things wrong with this notion, but it speaks volumes about the messages being relayed from the top of the Department of Work and Pensions to those involved in the day-to-day running of Universal Credit. Do the heads of the Department of Work and Pensions believe that it’s an appropriate use of taxpayers money, to subsidise the wages of a company that describes itself as a ‘major’ and ‘leading’ UK enterprise. A company that is clearly abusing recipients of Universal Credit by offering what could potentially be an illusory employment opportunity. Furthermore, what measures are in place ensuring this company even takes on a Universal Credit recipient at the end of the unpaid trial, would it not be entirely possible of them to churn through a large number of ‘free’ workers, denying them the job at the guaranteed interview after two weeks of free labour?
Visiting Bond It’s website further strengthens this perception of the illusory ‘employment opportunity’, as there are no references or links to potential vacancies on their website. A quick browse online for the exact position within the company returns the employment opportunity posted by my work coach, but instead being listed on the online jobs board Totaljobs. However, unlike the Universal Credit posting, there is no mention of the two weeks unpaid trial period. The job listing instead reads: We require a Production Operative, ideally experienced in mixing and batching processes, to prescribed quality standards, while operating in a busy factory environment.
Fork lift truck licence would be a distinct advantage but not essential if willing to train.
Remuneration will be competitive commensurate with experience.
I have contacted Bond It directly, enquiring whether or not there are any positions available, unsurprisingly I’m yet to hear back from them. In response to these inconsistencies, and having not received a reply from Bond It themselves, I reached out to my local Labour MP, Holly Lynch, to see what she made of the insidious ‘employment opportunity’ being offered by the Department of Work and Pensions in her constituency. She appears to share my concern for what she defines as ‘irresponsible and exploitative practices’, replying: Thank you for bringing this to my attention. This is appalling to see. I have written to the Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions, to request that she looks into this urgently. I have attached this for your information. There are thousands of people who have been forced to claim Universal Credit due to the COVID-19 crisis. Irresponsible and exploitative practices such as this will be seized upon by those who are desperate to return to steady work. It is extremely concerning to see that the Job Centre are condoning such unscrupulous employment practices. I hope that this is urgently rectified, and that training is deployed to regional Job Centres to ensure that incidents of this nature do not occur again. If there is anything further I can do to assist in future, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Although it’s somewhat comforting to know my local MP shares my concerns, it’s even more concerning that she seemed completely unaware that such exploitative practices were even occurring in the first place. Furthermore, it begs the question, are these exploitative practices top-down directives coming from the Department of Work and Pensions, and does this signal a new normality for the UK’s unemployed in the post-COVID economy?
* This story was picked up and used by the New Statesman on the 19th of August, 2020. Please find the link to the article here: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/welfare/2020/08/i-feel-completely-worthless-universal-credit-claimants-offered-two-weeks