Unpaid government work placements 'are not slave labour', rules High Court

Work schemes that require people to work unpaid or lose their benefits are not a breach of human rights

The High Court
The High Court

Government schemes that require unemployed people to take unpaid jobs are not slave labour, the High Court has ruled today.

Cait Reilly, a museum volunteer, launched a judicial review after she was told she had to undertake an unpaid work placement in order to retain her Jobseeker’s Allowance. Reilly had argued that making her work unpaid at a Poundland shop for two weeks or risk losing her benefits was a breach of human rights.

Jamieson Wilson, an unemployed HGV driver, also challenged the government’s use of work placements for job seekers using human rights legislation.  

Charities have come under fire from pressure groups for accepting unpaid work placements from government work schemes.  

But the judge, Justice Foskett, ruled that the government’s Community Action Programme and Work Academies Scheme were lawful and were a "very long way removed" from slave labour. "Characterising such a scheme as involving or being analogous to ‘slavery’ or ‘forced labour’ seems to me to be a long way from contemporary thinking," he said.

However, Foskett did rule that the Department for Work and Pensions should improve the clarity of the letters that warn claimants of potential sanctions should they fail to participate in the schemes without good reason. The department is appealing this ruling, but in the meantime it has revised its standard letters.

Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Secretary, said: "We are delighted, although not surprised, that the judge agrees our schemes are not forced labour. Comparing our initiatives to slave labour is not only ridiculous but insulting to people around the world facing real oppression.

"Thousands of young people across the country are taking part in our schemes and gaining the vital skills and experience needed to help them enter the world of work – it is making a real difference to people's lives."

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