The supermarket chain Tesco is the U.K.'s largest private employer, they're also the largest beneficiary of the Department of Work and Pensions flagship unemployment program that forces tens of thousands of young people into compulsory unpaid labour to receive government benefits. These aren't "lazy" kids either, rather the unemployed young people forced into this program often have university degrees and represent some of the best talent in the U.K. has to offer, yet they're stacking shelves on High Street.
In recent days Tesco and other large British retailers have come under increasing criticism for the use of forced labour amid a public outcry and in response many are pulling out of the program altogether; futhermore, this backlash comes at a time when there are mounting legal challenges against the use of forced labour under the provisions in the U.K.'s Human Rights Act.
The U.K. stands as a global model for how not to go about addressing intergenerational equity. Young people in the U.K. have been under prolonged attack from progressive government who have created an environment which is ripe for exploiting young workers, consider that: youth unemployment is at an all time high in the U.K., employers consider unpaid labour to be almost a right (be it through workfare programs or the rise of unpaid internships), and the skyrocketing tuition fees at British post-secondary institutions. It's a tense situation as austerity measures slash the lingering remains of the social welfare state and underlying problems that gave rise to last summer's riots go unaddressed amid growing intergenerational fracturing.
What we're seeing with the U.K.'s experimentation with forced unpaid labour is a concrete example of how neoliberal public policy is birthing the formation of a precariat class in post-industrial societies, of which youth figure heavily into it's structure. With little or no prospects of gaining a secure job youth have become perpetual outsiders cast out of the mainstream economy and political discourse.
The disenfranchisement of youth has come about as a result of the failure of neoliberal public policy projects, which have left young people to confront and pick up the pieces of what Henry Giroux terms a "debilitating and humiliating disinvestment in their future." As the Occupy Wall Street, the San Precario Connection, and Indignado movements gain strength the impacts from precarious and forced unpaid labour will need to be addressed through comprehensive ameliorative public policies aimed at reducing income inequality, labour market insecurity, and precarity.
For more about forced labour there are a number of great resources on the web: the International Labour Organization's website has a great microsite on forced labour; the Boycott Workfare campaign is extremely topical as it deals with the situation at Tesco; and, Ontario's shameful history of deploying workfare programs. Also, I recently wrote a couple of topical articles: here's an interview with Guy Standing about the growth of the precariat and another on the campaign against unpaid internships in the U.K. started by the TUC and NUS. Finally, check out this video from an anti-Tesco protest yesterday in the heart of London, see: