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UK – Government back-to-work scheme not “forced labour”, Judge rules

08 August 2012

The UK High Court this week ruled that the Government’s much debated back-to-work scheme is legal, after a graduate student challenged the programme saying it breached human rights and likened it to ‘slavery’.

The 23-year-old claimant, Cait Reilly, said she was forced to work unpaid for two weeks at highstreet store Poundland as she would otherwise have risked losing her benefit entitlements. She claimed this broke Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits forced labour and slavery.

The Court dismissed the claims saying in the ruling that the scheme does not bear any similarities to slavery. “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,” the Judge Mr Justice Foskett said.

He also said that the scheme was “a very long way removed from the kind of colonial exploitation of labour that led to the formulation of Article 4. The Convention is, of course, a living instrument, capable of development to meet modern conditions, and 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.”

But the Judge admitted that mistakes had been made in the case as Ms Reilly was misinformed about the so-called work academy programme and had not realised it was not mandatory.

This sector-based work programme allows those on unemployment benefits to gain work experience or training without losing jobseeker’s allowances. If long-term unemployed people decide to participate in the scheme but fail to show up without valid reason, they might risk losing their benefits. This has sparked a public row earlier this year with companies such as Tesco and Argos expressing concern over the scheme.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith welcomed the ruling. “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,” he said.

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