Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) have begun a legal action challenging the coalition government’s ‘Mandatory Work Scheme’ which it argues amounts to unlawful forced labour.
PIL sent a ‘letter-before-action’ on Wednesday night to the Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan-Smith – the first step in a High Court judicial review action on behalf of 33-year-old Jonathan Shaw from Birmingham.
PIL are arguing that the Mandatory Work Scheme amounts to exploitation, with jobseekers forced to undertake up to four weeks of unpaid work at companies such as Tesco, Poundland and Primark.
At the end of their placements, jobseekers are often not considered for permanent employment and many are simply replaced by other jobseekers who, like them, face losing their jobseeker’s allowance if they fail to carry out the work.
Slavery and forced or compulsory labour is prohibited by UK and European human rights law, in particular by Article 4(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
There are limited exceptions for work such as that carried out in prison.
Also excluded is work forming part of a ‘normal civic obligation’, but such obligations are limited to work as part of jury service and military service and the like.
Forced labour has also been prohibited by international law since 1930.
Jonathan Shaw (33) completed an Access course in Humanities at a Birmingham college last year.
He wanted to go to university to study History, but felt unable to as a result of high tuition fees.
He has been out of work since March. Like thousands of jobseekers, he now fears that at any moment a Jobcentre Plus adviser could decide to force him to undertake what he sees as a pointless and demeaning process, during which he will have no time to actively seek employment.
‘Actively seeking employment’ is one of the conditions on which Jobseeker’s Allowance is paid.
PIL’s Jim Duffy said: ‘The answer to solving the country’s unemployment crisis is to empower and support people, not to punish them by forcing them to work in dead-end jobs for no pay.’
Tessa Gregory of PIL added: ‘This government scheme of forced labour unlawfully exploits individuals.
‘The only beneficiaries are participating companies, such as Tesco and Poundland, who get their workers for free.’
The government has 14 days in which to set out its position in full.