Joan Smith: You try working in a cake shop, Mr Cameron...

Share

I've worked in shops. I've bagged doughnuts, stacked shelves and been sacked from a Saturday job in a boutique. What did I learn from this experience? That I'm good at mental arithmetic and hopeless at persuading women to buy clothes that don't suit them. Oh, and that the boredom would have been intolerable without a pay packet at the end of the week.

Years after I'd given up shop work, a legal minimum wage seemed one of the flagship achievements of Tony Blair's government. I felt like flipping two fingers at bosses who whined that they couldn't afford it, as though labour costs came bottom of their priorities.

Then David Cameron's government offered businesses a legal means of getting round the minimum wage. Dozens of high-street names signed up to provide a "work experience" scheme lasting up to eight weeks; they'd have thousands of young unemployed people providing free labour in their stores while the state paid them £53.45 a week in jobseekers' allowance. No one seemed to mind that taxpayers were subsiding profitable companies such as Tesco – pre-tax profit £1.9bn in the six months to August last year – and T K Maxx.

Until a nationwide campaign against "workfare" took off, participating companies were getting up to 30 hours' unpaid work from each individual who took part in the scheme – a weekly saving of more than £180 if they took on an unemployed 21-year-old. Anyone who left after a week risked losing benefits, undermining the Government's claim that the scheme was entirely voluntary. Now, following a blizzard of bad publicity, T K Maxx, Argos, Superdrug, and now Burger King have withdrawn from the scheme. Several charities have suspended their involvement, and Tesco has offered to pay anyone taking part.

The Prime Minister is furious. Last week, he attacked "dangerous" anti-business hysteria and claims about "slave labour", bringing along the Prince of Wales as a fine example of someone on a work experience scheme. Social commentators joined in, accusing opponents of being snobs who find the whole idea of working in a shop demeaning.

It's hard to think of a more bone-headed accusation. It should be levelled at the companies that offer these "jobs", preferring to have their shelves stacked and floors swept by people they're too mean to pay. What dignity can there be in work when the business offering it values it so little? And then there's the knock-on effect: why would a high-street store pay the minimum wage when the company next door is getting free labour, thanks to the Government?

We're seeing a return to the notion of the "deserving poor", those who have to demonstrate that they're worthy of support through displays of meekness and deference. It's an ideology that gets Tory MPs swooning, even though there's little evidence that such schemes work. Cameron told MPs last week that around half the people on work experience are "actually getting work" at the end of it, but the organisation Full Fact looked at the Government's figures and concluded that there did not seem to be an "adequate basis"for the claim.

The Prime Minister may be getting carried away by his own rhetoric, announcing last week that business is "the most powerful force for social progress the world has ever known". There speaks a man who's never worked an eight-hour shift behind the counter in a cake shop.

www.politicalblonde.com; twitter.com/@polblonde

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

CRM Developer (MS Dynamics 2011/2013, JavaScript)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: CRM MS Dynamic...

IT Teacher

£22000 - £33000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: ICT TeacherLeedsRandstad ...

Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL) Su...

Junior SQL DBA (SQL Server 2012, T-SQL, SSIS) London - Finance

£30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior SQL DBA...

Day In a Page

Read Next
On alert: Security cordons around Cardiff Castle ahead of this week’s Nato summit  

Ukraine crisis: Nato is at a crossroads. Where does it go from here?

Richard Shirreff
Mary Beard has helped her troll get a job - and a new start in life  

Mary Beard's troll-taming is a lesson for us all

Katy Guest
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution