The Government was forced to deny exploiting "slave labour" yesterday over its controversial "workfare" schemes which see job seekers working for no wages.
An unemployed graduate, who claims she was made to work in a shop for no pay other than her benefits, has asked the High Court to declare that her human rights were breached in a case which could have far-reaching implications for the Coalition's flagship back-to-work programme.
Lawyers for Cait Reilly, 23, said she was made to carry out tasks which "did not contribute to [her] search for work to any extent". Nathalie Lieven QC told Mr Justice Foskett that Ms Reilly was told to carry out basic tasks such as sweeping and shelf-stacking "without training, supervision or remuneration".
Speaking outside court, Ms Reilly said: "Forcing people to work for free does nothing to tackle the causes of long-term unemployment."
An unemployed 40-year-old is challenging the legality of another Government work scheme that pays no wages. Both cases seek the quashing of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) regulations under which the schemes were set up and declarations that there have been violations of Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits forced labour and slavery.
The cases come weeks after it was revealed that job seekers on the DWP's workfare schemes were employed at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Pageant without pay. The schemes, which the Government says are intended to provide vital work experience to job seekers, have attracted criticism because people are often asked to work for no wages beyond their benefits payments.
Opponents have expressed fears that job seekers are being exploited as cheap, disposable labour and some have claimed they were told falsely that signing up the schemes was mandatory for job seekers.
The DWP said: "We will be contesting these cases vigorously. These schemes are not slave labour. They play an important part in giving job seekers the skills and experience they need to find work. It is entirely reasonable to ask job seekers to take real steps towards finding work if they are claiming benefits."
Yesterday, anti-workfare activists in Liverpool began a campaign to disrupt the communications systems of A4e, a company heavily linked to the schemes.