So when is forced unpaid work not slave labour?
When it is part of a government scheme.
This was the decision of the High Court in London following the case brought by unemployed Cait Reilly who alleged that the scheme, which meant she had to work unpaid for six months breached her Human Rights.
Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights states –
- No one shall be held in slavery or
- No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.
Claimants were warned that they could lose benefits if they did not take part in the scheme. So they felt that they were being forced to work for nothing. That looks and sounds like slave labour to me.
The High Court decided that the Article in question was enacted to prevent ‘colonial exploitation of labour’ and that it was a long way from modern thinking to say that these schemes fall into this category.
I have to say that if somebody is made to work for nothing and will suffer consequences if they refuse, then that sounds no less oppressive in 2012 than it might have done in 1812.
But the DWP did not get away with it entirely. The judge did say that the letter did not make it clear enough to her that the scheme was not in fact mandatory. The government has said that it will appeal that part of the decision -
"We do not believe there is anything wrong with the original letters and we will appeal this aspect of the judgment, but in the meantime we have revised our standard letters."
I can see why a judge might not want to find that this amounts to slavery which does have a particular stigma attached to it. But if it is, or appears to be, compulsory then it is hard to know what else to call it.
It is encouraging that the Court has found that the misleading letters should be revised and it is to be hopes that the Court of Appeal will give the DWP the short shrift that they deserve.