The creeping notion of working for free

Yesterday’s Guardian carried the story of a recruitment agency advertising for warehouse staff who would have to complete a three-day unpaid “induction” (yes, I know it went online on Sunday, but I am old school and still read a print version). The agency (GB Recruitment) was recruiting for a logistics company (Wincanton) who in turn was running the warehouse for DIY retailers B&Q.  Quite apart from being a vivid illustration of the chains of labour supply now at work in the economy, it highlights what according to Unpaid Britain’s initial (if largely, at this stage, anecdotal) findings suggest has become a common practice, seen by many young workers in particular as normal practice.

This seems to be combining two factors. One is the gradual creep of the notion that some workers – as a working category I am calling them new entrants (or re-entrants) to the labour market[1] – have labour power that is worth little or nothing. The other is the ingenuity of employers in labour intensive sectors in finding ways of trimming labour costs so that they fall below the National Minimum Wage.

Unpaid training had already been identified as a problem area in the care sector, by HMRC . They found unpaid training to be the most common type of unpaid working time contributing to non-compliance with the National Minimum Wage. However, they seemed to suggest some circumstances in which this might be lawful:

We found instances where prospective workers attend pre-employment induction events to assess their suitability for employment or as part of the job application process. In the circumstance where this activity is not undertaken as part of their terms of employment or not for any form of remuneration paid to or benefit received by those attending, the time spent is not working time for NMW purposes” (p. 5).

In conducting research on internships in an earlier job, I was struck by the many ways in which the work of the young had been down-valued to the extent that even some of them accepted that their labour power had no market value, beginning with work experience at school, job placements at college or university, advice to “volunteer” to improve c.v.s and culminating with full-blown unpaid internships.  Wage-free labour has become embedded in some sectors of the labour market, such as the cultural industries where unpaid internships still abound, and entertainment trade unions such as Equity and the Musicians Union are being forced to campaign for young people to be paid at all.

Interviews conducted during the early stages of the Unpaid Britain project revealed an initial unpaid training (also known as induction, or trial shifts) has almost become a rite of passage for young workers. Staff from one advice organisation told me that they were aware of one employer who seemed to have a constantly replenished supply of young workers working “training weeks” for which they would never be paid, nor would they progress on to paid contracts, thus guaranteeing the company an almost free workforce. Of course abuse on that scale can hardly be a long term strategy, but the more limited unpaid induction, trial shifts and unpaid training can be found with relatively little research.

So for example last autumn one health and social care recruiter was advertising care worker posts in London for which there was an unpaid induction (of unspecified length), while another agency  was recruiting parcel sorters in the Midlands who would also be required to “complete an unpaid induction during unsociable hours”. But agencies do not appear to be alone in playing fast and loose with the notion of a wage/work bargain. A hairdressing apprenticeship scheme in North London, which claims to be sponsored (among others) by a London borough, the Skills Funding Agency, City & Guilds and the EU Social Fund, advertised vacancies for apprentices who might be “subject to a 6 week to a 6 month unpaid trial period”. This perhaps reflects the 2014 NMW (Amendment) Regulations which introduced new rules for traineeships for young people aged 16-24, excluding them from NMW rights – again suggesting that such workers have little value.

But then JobCentre Plus has for decades been organising work trials of up to 6 weeks, for which the worker receives no wage from the employer – only benefits (plus travel expenses) from the state. It is said to be “voluntary”, but it is work, and it is unpaid. Unfortunately, “…the TUC has accepted Work Trials. We are sympathetic to the plight of long-term unemployed people, unemployment is a threat to all workers and the people who need to be helped are our friends, neighbours and relatives.” (TUC 2008)

B&Q and Wincanton both told the Guardian that unpaid induction contradicted their policies, and that the advertisements had been withdrawn, but the idea of them did not appear out of thin air.  Economist Joan Robinson’s statement that “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all”[2] is often used to justify all manner of abuses. But it is based on the notion that while the system denies (for those who have only their labour to sell) the means of sustenance to those who do not work, for those who do, work is the route out of poverty. But this notion is turned on its head if, in order to have the chance to be exploited, one must provide labour power for free. This is the lesson which is apparently being passed on to young workers, and is no doubt music to the ears of the abusive employer.

[1] This would include young workers (including working students), recent migrants, ex-offenders, those returning to work from long-term illness, and the long-term jobless, for example.

[2] Robinson, J. (1962) Economic Philosophy p.45

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