Blog: Katy AskewTesco ad sparks UK jobs row

Katy Askew | 20 February 2012

Tesco has again been making headlines in the UK, this time over the company's involvement in the coalition government's controversial scheme to force unemployed people to take part in unpaid work placements.

The retail giant's involvement in the scheme came under the spotlight last week, when the retailer published an advert seeking permanent workers in exchange for expenses and jobseeker's allowance.

In the face of mass media attention and protests organised by campaign group Right to Work, the wheels quickly began spinning at the Tesco PR machine.

The advert, Tesco insisted, was simply the result of an IT processing error at the Job Centre Plus. Moreover, a spokesperson emphasised, participants would be guaranteed a job interview upon completion of the voluntary work placement.

The corporate message is clear then: in spite of first appearances, the company is not looking to replace full-time permanent workers with an army of jobseekers who are paid (by the taxpayer) a measly GBP1.78 an hour, if they are under 25, rising to GBP2.25 if they are over 25.

Nevertheless, while it seems likely the advert was indeed a mistake, the fiasco uncovers one of the most fundamental questions that can be put to the government over the scheme: is the programme reducing jobs by providing profit-making companies with an unpaid workforce?

It wasn't just Tesco running the media gauntlet over the weekend. Chris Grayling, minister at the Department of Work and Pensions, told Sky News that critics of the scheme – and supermarkets involvement in it - were "job snobs about the nature of the work those supermarkets are doing".

While Grayling may have felt his barbed comments a cutting repost exposing the hypocrisy of the scheme's largely left-leaning detractors, a case could also be made to suggest that he was in fact highlighting a failing – not only of the scheme, but of British society as a whole.

Back in 2009, then-Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy sparked a heated debate when he attacked "woeful" education standards in the UK and suggested that school-leavers had not been provided with the skills necessary to gain entry-level employment in supermarkets. These comments were echoed in the same year by former Marks & Spencer chief Sir Stuart Rose, who said many school leavers were not "fit for work".

So, is the government's work-placement scheme proof that the education system is continuing to fail Britain's youth? Why do you need to complete a work placement scheme before you can even get an interview? Are the majority of Britain's unemployed really that unprepared to join the workforce that they need to complete more than a month's work experience to gain the necessary skills to stack supermarket shelves or man checkouts?


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