“I’m not your slave” is a phrase that parents of teenagers across the land come to hear on a daily basis for at least five of their little darlings’ “difficult years”. In a recent case before the High Court two individuals, who were taking part in the Government’s programmes intended to return individuals on state benefits to work, brought a number of claims that the removal of benefits, if they did not take part in the scheme, was unfair. Part of the Government’s plan to get more people back to work is to require eligible participants to take part in unpaid employment for a specified period of time (although their benefits continue) and, if they fail to complete this, their job seekers benefits may be stopped for up to 26 weeks.
Both Claimants claimed the scheme violated Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights in that it required the performance of “forced or compulsory labour” or, in simple terms, they were being treated like slaves. To our mind, this is an odd claim as slaves do not usually receive state benefits and allowances for carrying out work in reputable and safe establishments; however, the Court listened to the arguments made.
The Court took an eminently sensible approach to these claims and found that, no matter whether an individual felt that such schemes were effective or not, characterising them as involving or being analogous to “slavery” or “forced labour” would be a long way from contemporary thinking.
These Government programmes, often referred to as “welfare to work programmes”, have received a lot of bad press; however, we hope that this judgment encourages more employers to give individuals, who have not had experience of the work place for some time, the opportunity of gaining the skills and confidence to be able to smoothly return to employment.
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