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David Thomas: Unpaid work isn't a disgrace, it's an opportunity

If unpaid work is a privilege for one group of young people, why is it demeaning for another?

A few years ago, one of my children got an internship working for a national newspaper. This was a fantastic opportunity to do interesting work in a top-level professional environment, but it was, of course, unpaid. I covered the entire cost of those few weeks. Since I am a freelance journalist, I was therefore in the strange position of subsidising a wealthy newspaper while simultaneously cutting down employment opportunities for actual, paid journalists like me.

You could say I had mixed feelings. I'd started my career on the same paper almost 30 years earlier, when the unions still controlled Fleet Street. God knows there were endless restrictive practices: shutting off the presses at the slightest excuse, for example. But anyone who did a day's work damn well got the going rate for the job.

Nevertheless, this unpaid internship, which was in some senses slavery, was also a mark of privilege. It would not have been possible without professional contacts and the ability, however tightly stretched, to fund the time involved. For that reason, many people on the liberal-left object to the whole concept of internships: they simply entrench status by pricing less fortunate kids out of the market.

Now cut to the announcement earlier this week that the Government is testing a scheme by which unemployed young people will have to work for three months at an effective hourly rate well below minimum wage if they want to collect their benefits. I don't have to tell you about the obvious objections to this proposal. But if unpaid work is a privilege for one group of young people, why is it demeaning for another?

Something has gone drastically wrong, right across Europe, with the process of getting young people into the working world. Youth unemployment rates of more than 50 per cent in both Greece and Spain can be blamed on the euro crisis, but the rate is heading towards 25 per cent in this country, too. And it's not as if there aren't the jobs, in some parts of the country at least. It's just that almost all the people behind the counter at Pret à Manger, or waiting tables in your local restaurant, are Polish, Spanish, Kiwi or anything but British.

Young foreign graduates appear to be willing to take jobs that many Brits with virtually no qualifications, let alone those with degrees, either think are beneath them or lack the basic skills to carry out. Back in January, an unemployed Birmingham University graduate called Cait Reilly took legal action when she was told she would lose her £52 weekly benefits unless she worked for two weeks unpaid in Poundland. This, her lawyer argued, was forced labour and thus a breach of her human rights. Reilly also claimed the work was irrelevant to her needs, since she wanted a career in museums.

More recently, the blame for G4S's failure to honour its contract to provide security at the Olympics rightly fell on the company's chief executive Nick Buckles. But just as shocking was the failure of many of the people hired actually to show up for work. Even in areas of high unemployment, they simply couldn't be bothered.

Some would call them bone-idle scroungers, but let's be more generous. Let's assume that they were handicapped by a benefits system which effectively imposes 70 per cent marginal tax rates on additional earned income; or the failure of British education and business to give young workers the skills required to make them employable; or a simple lack of the confidence and self-discipline required to get out of bed and go to work. Whatever the reasons, the outcome of people remaining idle while jobs went unfilled was a disaster.

Yet getting work of any kind matters: today's McJob, however meagre, can lead to tomorrow's career. My children have a school friend who opted out of university and went to work stacking shelves in a local builder's merchant. Today, while they're looking at huge student debts, he's a manager at the store.

My point is not to attack the unemployed. It's a moral outrage that so many young people live without work, without aspiration, without any hope for the future. But I do think that part of the solution to the problem is a recalibration of social and political morality.

We tend to assume that giving workers additional rights is a good thing. But across the EU young workers are being kept out of employment because employers simply cannot afford the cost and risk of hiring them. In Germany, where deregulation led to a decrease in workplace rights for young people, youth unemployment has dropped to 8 per cent. Isn't having a job the most important right of all?

Likewise, support for a benefits-based welfare state is considered a non-negotiable aspect of "progressive" thought in this country. But why should the working poor be disadvantaged? What right does anyone have to expect the state and the people who comprise it to pay for them if they give nothing in return? Why, in other words, should ordinary workers in Poundland pay their taxes so that Cait Reilly can receive benefits while refusing to work alongside them?

The middle classes subsidise their children's internships because they know that even this slave labour is at least one toe on the working ladder. If it takes a welfare-based equivalent of that to give less fortunate kids a similar start, is it really such a terrible thing?