Even as ministers found themselves compelled to drop sanctions from a work experience scheme aimed at young jobseekers, Boots has pulled out of a work programme for the long-term unemployed due to similar elements of compulsion.
The pharmacy and retail chain said in a statement that some of its stores had already provided work experience placements to a small number of individuals. But because it was company policy never to participate in schemes that compelled people to work, it “would no longer be offering any new placements”.
Kirstie McHugh, head of the Employment Related Services Association, a trade association that represents the interests of work programme providers, described the move as a “real shame”. “I think it’s a bit of an over-reaction from Boots,” she added.
On the other hand, some organisations are complaining that the number of people being referred to them via such initiatives is nowhere near predicted levels, according to the BBC. A Jamie Oliver restaurant, ‘Fifteen Cornwall’, which joined the scheme when it started last June, has reportedly not had a single individual referred to it.
But this is the second coalition government programme to run into trouble in recent weeks. Following a meeting yesterday with dozens of firms and charities that had concerns over an unpaid work experience scheme for 16-to-24-year olds, ministers dropped the threat of docking benefits for a fortnight if participants dropped out of the voluntary eight week scheme after the first week.
The government said that only 220 cases out of the 34,200 people taking part between January and the end of November 2011 had actually been sanctioned, mainly for misconduct, but agreed that penalties would in future only apply in cases of gross misconduct.
Companies ranging from fast-food chain Burger King, bookshop Waterstones and electrical retailer Maplins all pulled out of the work experience scheme after it was criticised for using “unpaid forced labour”, while fashion chain Matalan suspended its involvement pending a review.
Sainsbury’s said that individual stores that had taken part were no longer doing so as it was against company policy, while Tesco intimated that it would start paying work experience participants as well as guarantee them a job if the placement went well.
Despite such high profile defections, David Cameron claimed during Prime Minister’s Questions that 200 small- and medium-sized companies had expressed an interest in joining the controversial scheme in recent days.
Music retailer, HMV, will not be one of them, however. It has decided to withdraw from all of the work schemes that it offered to the unemployed following an internal review.
The company had been subject to a protest at its flagship London Oxford Street store last Saturday and told the Daily Telegraph that it was coming under fire on blogs and websites.
Although HMV is not a member of either of the government’s more controversial work placement initiatives, it said that it felt that it had no choice but to pull out of other schemes, whereby employment agencies acting on behalf of Jobcentre Plus would ring it up on occasion to take on a number of young people for two weeks at a time. The aim was to give them an idea of what it was like to work in retail.
A spokesman said: “HMV has no national agreement in place with the government’s work experience programmes, although individual stores have previously had some leeway in responding to local requests. However, following a review prompted by recently-expressed concerns regarding particular aspects of such schemes, HMV has decided that its stores will no longer participate on this basis in future.”