MPs call on government to ban unpaid work trials

7 Feb 2019 By Maggie Baska

Parliamentary debate seeks to stop ‘scam’ of free shifts and introduce legislation to further protect workers

A number of MPs have called for a crackdown on the use of unpaid trial shifts for candidates as part of the recruitment process – a move the government has indicated it will resist.

In a parliamentary debate yesterday, MPs from both sides of the house said current national minimum wage (NMW) regulations were not sufficient and called for laws on unpaid labour to be tightened.

Stewart McDonald, the Scottish National Party MP who called the debate, said there was a “deficiency” in the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 allowing for unpaid labour when someone is participating in a scheme “seeking or obtaining of work” or “designed to provide training, work experience or temporary work”.

“Hundreds of people” had been in touch with MPs with their experiences of unpaid trial shifts, added McDonald, ranging from a couple of hours in a coffee shop to a “40-hour working week where people tried out for a job that they would not be paid for and had no guarantee of securing permanently”.

McDonald, whose Unpaid Trial Work Periods (Prohibition) Bill has been left stalled in parliament since March last year, pleaded with the government to “do something meaningful and introduce legislation”.

“My bill was all about empowering applicants and making it clear to them that the law is on their side, rather than it being deficient and too often working against them,” McDonald said. “Let us stop putting the onus on the person being exploited and, for once, give job applicants some of the cards to hold.”

McDonald’s bill would require employers to remunerate individuals participating in a trial shift to at least the NMW for any work carried out and would oblige them to inform candidates how long the trial period would last, provide feedback following the shift and inform them of what arrangements would be made to notify them of the outcome of their application.

Labour MP and shadow minister for business Justin Madders also contributed to the debate, calling unpaid trial shifts a “scam” used to give young people a “false hope of employment”. 

“The sad reality is that we are having this debate today because both the law and culture in this country place little emphasis on workplace protection and do not support or respect it,” Madders said. He added the government paid “far too little attention in this place to the reality of the world of work”.

Kelly Tolhurst, minister for small business, said the government had clarified its view that work trials which were “reasonable, not excessive and clearly part of a legitimate recruitment exercise do not require payment at the relevant minimum wage rate”. 

She said employers may wish to test an individual’s skill – for example, in a restaurant kitchen – through a short trial that “would probably have little or no economic value for the employer”. As such, it would not entitle the candidate to pay.

Tolhurst did acknowledge unpaid trial shifts were not permitted if they were excessive in length or “simply for the financial benefit of the employer”.

“As part of HMRC’s involvement and enforcement of the NMW, it investigates a number of breaches, including unpaid trials,” she said, adding investigators considered work trials on a “case-by-case basis” and had taken enforcement action in the past where workers were “expected” to complete an unpaid work trial.

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