Work experience does not equal exploitation

I was surprised and disheartened to see the word ‘exploitation’ being thrown around in the media recently in relation to the government’ work experience initiative. The Right to Work campaign has forced the government to withdraw its threat to deny benefits to anyone who leaves a work placement early. This is no bad thing in itself & work experience should promise to aid the participant’ personal growth, not threaten to leave them destitute. However, some campaigners are seeing this victory as just one battle in a continuing war on unpaid work as a whole, which is where my sympathy for the cause comes to an abrupt end. The claim by some that work experience is exploitative implies that the employee stands to gain little or nothing, while the employer reaps all the rewards of a free workforce. The reality is virtually the complete opposite. The employee gets to learn all the skills that simply can’t be taught in an academic environment, filling gaps in their CV and earning the chance to gain references that future employers will respect. Meanwhile the employer often invests a significant amount of time imparting expertise that the employee then takes away with them to another company. The one advantage to the employer, which clearly works in the employee’ favour too, is the chance to see if the individual is a potential candidate for a permanent position. The employee gets that all-important first job, while the employer gets a new team member who they know is up to the challenge. To put the campaigners’ claims into perspective, consider the fact that university students pay up to £9,000 a year to earn their degrees. Now, while I’m certainly not saying jobseekers should pay for work experience, I believe it should be seen as a continuation of their education and training and thus afforded the same prestige, not dismissed as a worthless tool used by greedy businesses to edge up their profit margins. After decades of unpaid work placements helping first-time jobseekers into full-time employment, why has the mood suddenly turned sour? Anyone who has picked up a newspaper in the last year will be aware of the current global anti-capitalist sentiment, symbolised by the peaceful Occupy movement. The risk here is that legitimate protest will turn into a corporate greed witch hunt, as the demand for anti-capitalist headlines gives some of the more marginal views a disproportionately loud voice. Tightening legislation and forcing companies to pay their interns will not create a utopian job market, where all jobseekers are free to enjoy the personal and financial benefits of work placements. In the current financial climate, the added cost will make offering work placements an unattractive or even impossible option for many businesses, denying thousands of jobseekers a golden opportunity to launch their careers. Chris Setford is a founding partner at Setfords Solicitors.