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Christina Patterson

Christina Patterson: If you want a job, 'slave labour' at Tesco isn't a bad place to start

They seem to think that working in a shop is something that should make you feel demeaned

Britain, according to some people, has quite a lot of slaves. It has the slaves you sometimes hear about, who are smuggled into the country by very bad people, and locked in dirty cellars, and sometimes beaten, and sometimes starved. But it also has quite a lot of slaves who aren't locked in cellars, or beaten, or starved. It has quite a lot of slaves, according to these people, who are sitting at a till in Tesco.

It also has slaves at Waterstones, and Sainsbury's, and T K Maxx. It has slaves at Age UK and Maplin. It has slaves in charities, and slaves in supermarkets, and slaves in bakers, and slaves in farms. And if you want to show that you don't like slavery, then you mustn't go to these supermarkets, or bakers, or farms. If you do, that would mean that you approve of slaves. It might even make you a Nazi. Only a Nazi, according to some of these people, would think that someone could do a few weeks' work in a shop, as part of a Government scheme, and not be paid the normal wage.

And because nobody likes to be called a Nazi, and not even very big companies that make very big profits by paying very low wages, now quite a few of the companies and charities that had the slaves won't have them any more. And the people who were working for a few weeks at T K Maxx, or Sainsbury's, or Waterstones, now won't.

The people who said they shouldn't are pleased. They think that you can be paid a weekly allowance by the taxpayer, which is called a Job Seeker's Allowance, because when you claim it you're meant to be looking for a job, and also maybe housing benefit, which could be more than £20,000 a year, and also maybe benefits for your children, and still be a slave. They think this, even though the benefits you might be getting might be more than you got if you were just being paid by the supermarket. And even when you had chosen to be there because you wanted some experience of work.

The people who think that people who do "work experience" in shops are slaves seem to think that working in a shop is something that should make you feel ashamed. They seem to think that it's much more embarrassing to work in a shop than not to have a job at all. They seem to agree with a young woman called Cait Reilly, who seemed to think that to work for three weeks in a shop, while the taxpayer paid her benefits, was a breach of her "human rights". And with a man who worked for a few weeks in Waterstones and said that after putting books on shelves all day, he could "technically" browse websites for jobs, but was "too tired".

Perhaps the people who think that these people are slaves have never worked in a shop. Perhaps they don't realise that an awful lot of us who now don't once did. Perhaps they don't realise that most people who look for jobs have to do it after work. And that most employers prefer to hear from people who are in jobs than from people who aren't.

Perhaps these people haven't seen all the studies that show that people who don't work are much more likely to be depressed than people who do. Or the ones that talk about the effect of unemployment on their children. And of how the children of people who don't work are quite likely to leave school without qualifications, and end up unemployed themselves. Perhaps they don't realise that most people think that moaning with colleagues about your boss is a lot more fun than screaming at the telly on your own.

The people who think that these people are slaves seem to think that British people should only have to do jobs if they're the kind of jobs they really want. They know that most people in the world have to do whatever job they can find that will help them feed their children, and that most immigrants have to, too. They seem to think that it's fine for a Pakistani, or a Pole, to work in Tesco, but that if you're British, and you haven't worked for quite a while, you should have a much nicer job than working in Tesco. They seem to think that someone who may never have worked, and may not have any training, who spends a few weeks on benefits being trained to do a job by Tesco, is doing Tesco a very, very big favour. They say that the free labour that Tesco may have got might be worth as much as £1,500.

And it's true that if that person learned how to do a job, and was able to do it fairly well, then Tesco might have got some labour it would usually have to pay for. But if it gives that person a job, which is what the scheme is meant to be about, it will have to start paying them then. And although it would be nice if employers were keen to take on people who may never have worked, and pay them really well, they aren't. When unemployment is high, and there are a lot of immigrants who are happy to work very hard for a very low wage, employers can pick and choose. If you want employers to take on people who aren't used to working, you have to give them an incentive. Most incentives in government training and employment schemes are a lot higher than £1,500.

The people who think that all the people who work for benefits are slaves – and not just the ones who are asked to work four 30-hour weeks for their benefits, but the ones who do the eight-week voluntary scheme that has caused such a fuss – don't seem to have heard about other schemes like this. They don't, for example, seem to have heard about the one in America, which helped many poor people back into work, and made them quite a lot better off, or the one in Germany, where "mini jobs" that aren't well paid have helped many people get jobs that are. They don't seem to have heard that this eight-week "work experience" scheme, which started last year, has helped more than half the people who took part in it off benefits.

The people who think that these people are slaves would like the world to be different. We would all like the world to be different. We would all like lovely jobs for everyone who wants them, and good salaries for all work. That, unfortunately, isn't the world we're in. In a country that's in debt, in a world with an endless supply of cheap labour, and in the middle of a massive financial crisis, subsidised stints in supermarkets may be the best chance for long-term employment that some of us get.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/queenchristina_