Sunday, February 19, 2012

How much do you think you are worth, boy?

Janice Turner has a great piece in yesterday's Times reflecting on recent discussions about the latest government workfare scheme. Ads appeared last week - quickly withdrawn - offering a permanent Tesco shelf stacking job paying only job seekers allowance (£53) + travel expenses. It is not an isolated incident.

Many have questioned whether the tax payer ought to be subsidising some of Britain's most profitable companies by offering 'work experience' employees who cost these companies nothing. As Turner points out the tax payer has already gifted Tesco - net profits last year £3.7bn - 168,000 hours of virtually free labour. That's the equivalent of 420 full time jobs at the supermarket.

Other retailers have similarly benefited, though some have withdrawn from the scheme. Some of the most profitable companies in the land are having their bottom lines significantly boosted by the hard-pressed taxpayer (isn't that George Osborne's favourite way of describing us?). Some of these - notably the Arcadia Group - are already embroiled in rows about the avoidance of shed-loads of tax.

Turner's point is that our young people - and it's mostly young unemployed who are sent on these worthless programmes - are worth better than this. One, a graduate called Cait Reilly, is suing the government for breach of her human rights. As Turner astutely observes, amid all the vilification of this young woman, one vital point has been missed: she would happily have done all that was expected of her by Poundland and more if they would only give her a job and pay her for it.

There are hundreds of thousands of young people desperate for work, keen to get into retailing, and this half-baked scheme is keeping them out of the labour market; it is preventing them from becoming tax paying citizens contributing to the national cake, helping to pay off the deficit. As a policy for tackling unemployment, it beggars belief.

Turner also notes that a recent report on supermarket workers pointed to the fact that pay levels in the industry were so low that thousands with permanent jobs were not able to make ends meet without state help in the form of in-work top-up benefits. And this in an industry making tens of billions in profits every year, profits heavily subsidised by the tax payer.

It's time to ask, in the words an old and almost forgotten Graham Kendrick song, 'how much do you think you are worth, boy?' Well, most young unemployed think they are worth a shot at a permanent job (and most of them are). They think they are worth a place in the labour force earning enough to live on and to make a contribution to the society that has given them an education and a reasonable start in life. And in the spirit of the song, I'd suggests that God thinks they're worth that as well for we are made in his image to work and contribute to the community of which we are a part.

The question is, do we think they are worth that? Or are we prepared to go along with a scheme where retailers - already making hefty profits - are further subsidised by us tax payers (from who they earn their profits as we shop in their stores) through these half-baked workfare schemes?

We could all, of course, take a leaf out of Janice Turner's book and refuse to shop at any of the stores taking part in this scheme. She has printed the list of those firms - McDonald's, Boots, Primark, Asda, the Arcadia Group, TK Maxx (though I heard that it might have withdrawn), Matalan - 'because I will not give these firms a penny until they stop exploiting young people - and my tax bill.'

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