John Harris

Journalist & Author

Opposing free labour doesn’t make us ‘job snobs’, Iain Duncan Smith | John Harris

I’m all for ‘real jobs that worthwhile people do’, be they in a supermarket or anywhere else. So let’s see those jobs

The last five days have been very interesting indeed. Last week, an amazing outburst of anger followed a Tesco advert for nightshift workers who would be paid only their jobseeker’s allowance plus expenses – and as the issue was frantically discussed just about everywhere, a steady stream of employers announced that they had pulled out of the government’s latest “work experience scheme”.

Sainsbury’s and Waterstones had already exited; they were followed by such charities as Marie Curie Cancer Care, Shelter and Scope, as well as the electronics retailer Maplin, and Matalan, who suspended their participation and put it under “review”. Tesco seemed to hold its nerve – but today, it announced that such placements will now be “paid” (though how much is unclear), and come with a guarantee of a full-time job “if the trial goes well”.

Such is the result of a very quick campaign conducted through social media, the outpouring of public opposition via endless radio phone-ins, and the threat of a national day of action tomorrow. But while everything shifts around the government, the Department of Work and Pensions isn’t budging – and with that slightly unhinged air he occasionally affects, Iain Duncan Smith has been given space in the Daily Mail to malign those of us who are opposed to supplying free labour to huge multinationals as “job snobs”. You can read his full piece here: my bullet-point responses to his main points run as follows:

1. “… armed with an unjustified sense of superiority and sporting an intellectual sneer, we find a commentating elite which seems determined to belittle and downgrade any opportunity for young people that doesn’t fit their pre-conceived notion of a ‘worthwhile job’.”

Wrong. Not “any” opportunity, but the kind of faux-opportunity that involves a large element of compulsion (remember, though you can turn down the offer of “work experience” and leave during week one; thereafter you have stay, or your jobseeker’s allowance can be withdrawn), and an overwhelming likelihood of no job at the end. My pre-conceived notion of a worthwhile job, particularly for vast retail chain, is simple enough: it ought to have prospects of some kind, and pay the minimum wage. Incidentally, for 18 to 20-year-olds that’s £4.98 an hour, and for 16 to 17-year-olds, £3.68. I think most big businesses can afford that: Tesco’s latest move suggests they definitely can.

2. “This Government does not have a workfare programme.”

It does, actually. Post week one of “work experience”, people have to work for their benefit. Moreover, workfare is exactly what Mandatory Work Activity amounts to: as IDS says, “it is true that we have a programme which can require claimants to undertake a short period of compulsory work if we do not believe they are engaging properly in the pursuit of employment.” He doesn’t mention it, but while we’re here, we should also mention the Community Action Programme, which involves up to six months of unpaid graft for your benefit.

Incidentally, focusing the debate only on “young people” is disingenuous: the government’s push on “work experience” affects people of all ages – which is why the Jeremy Vine show’s spot on the issue included a caller phoning in about her 60-year-old brother recently doing “work experience” at a golf club in Whitstable (here, at around 18m45s). And one other thing: arguing about supposed job snobbery misses a crucial point completely: that what really offends me and thousands of other people is a vast taxpayer subsidy to private business. Which, if you think about it, is also antithetical to the very free market economics in which IDS is said to believe.

3. “The fact is that the Government’s opponents – who constitute a group of modern-day Luddites – are throwing around these misleading terms in a deliberately malicious and provocative fashion …”

Brilliant! The use of “Luddites” and an accusation of using “misleading terms in a deliberately malicious and provocative fashion” in the same sentence. Did he read this back to himself?

4. “Out of around 1,400 individuals who have taken part in the Work Experience placement at Tesco, more than 300 have been taken on in permanent roles with the supermarket.”

That’s a success rate of 21%, and 1,100 people who worked for nothing, for nothing.

5. “Sadly, so much of this criticism, I fear, is intellectual snobbery. The implicit message behind these ill-considered attacks is that jobs in retail, such as those with supermarkets or on the High Street, are not real jobs that worthwhile people do … We all have to start somewhere: Tesco Chief Executive Sir Terry Leahy began his career scrubbing supermarket floors. I doubt I’m the only person who thinks supermarket shelf-stackers add more value to our society than many of those ‘job snobs’ who are busy pontificating about the Government’s employment policies.”

Jobs in retail are self-evidently “real jobs that worthwhile people do.” And we do all have to start somewhere: I began selling fruit and veg. The topsy-turvy logic here is mind-boggling: claiming people should be happy working for £2 an hour on the vague promise of either “experience” or a 21% chance of employment sounds not so much snobby as almost feudal: as has been pointed out, there’s a whiff of the workhouse in all this. And if anything represented snobbery, that particular institution did.

6. “… we are caught in a battle between those who think young people should work only if they are able to secure their dream job, and those like myself …”

This is followed by some impenetrable stuff about The X Factor, and the term “straw man” barely does it justice. I’ll conclude with a simple enough point: that this is not about “dream jobs”, but the most basic of civilised conditions. Oh, and a quote from that philosopher, stretcher bearer, engineer and primary school teacher and all-round grafter Ludwig Wittgenstein, which IDS should perhaps consider: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

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