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Here’s a story to chill the heart.

Unemployed Geology graduate Cait Reilly, aged 22, was forced to give up volunteering at the Pen Room museum in Birmingham (she was hoping it would lead to a curatorship further down the line) in order to work for nothing at Poundland, sweeping the floors on a government scheme.

She was told she would lose her £53-a-week Jobseeker’s Allowance if she did not submit to the “forced labour” of stacking shelves for the discount retailer, which did not have to pay her.

Let’s put this into context: Poundland’s annual profit in 2010 was £21,500,000. Split among its 390-odd stores, that’s more than £54,000 – or enough to pay three extra employees, per store, on minimum wage, with cash to spare. That’s up from the previous year, when it could have paid two extra employees on minimum wage, with cash to spare.

Ms Reilly said in a Telegraph article: “There were five of us sent there. I was the only graduate. We were doing exactly the same work as the paid staff. It makes no sense.

“If the Government subsidises high street chains with free labour, they don’t have to recruit. It causes unemployment rather than solves it.”

Absolutely correct.

Ms Reilly has employed a lawyer to sue the government for contravening article 4(2) of the Human Rights Act, which states: ‘No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour,’ and I think many people around the UK will be waiting impatiently for the result of that action.

The Daily Mail appears to have reverted to its usual form (after the moment last week when one of its columnists actually stood up for disabled people, who are also being victimised by the current government).

That hideous harpy, attack columnist Jan Moir scribbled: “Cait, I really want to say this to you. Two weeks stacking shelves in Poundland — a breach of your human rights? Grow up.

“You might think that a student with barely an NI payment to her name would be happy to put something back into the pot, would be very grateful to be in receipt of taxpayer-funded benefits in the first place.”

Catherine Bennett in The Guardian leapt to pour acid on this attitude: “Many Daily Mail columnists, you gathered, would not have reached the ethical heights they occupy today if they had not, once upon a time, been willing to wash down the Tesco aisles with their own tongues – and, yes, to pay Tesco for the privilege. Forgive them, but what exactly is wrong with no pay for a decent day’s work?

“Annoyingly, for this school of thought, Reilly’s story requires a little finessing before she can be depicted as a total princess. Prior to Poundland, she was regularly volunteering – for no pay – in a Birmingham museum, hoping this would help her find a job in curating.”

The whole saga is the result of a scheme in which Job Centre staff have the power to force anyone claiming unemployment benefits to take part in “mandatory work activity” designed to get them used to working from nine to five.

The pilot scheme found that one in five who were ordered to take part in a four-week community project stopped claiming immediately. Another 30 per cent never turned up and had their benefits axed.

This result – people coming off benefits rather than submitting to being treated as slave labour – was treated as a huge success by Employment Minister Chris ‘Goebbels’ Grayling and his cronies.

A ‘source’ told the Telegraph: “What this demonstrates is that there is really a hardcore of claimants who have absolutely no intention of working come what may.”

I say: The people who refused to do unpaid work were absolutely right to do so and should never have been penalised for it.

If commercial work is available and needs to be done, then companies should be employing people to do it.

This scheme is nothing but another scurrilous attack on the people who are least able to defend themselves, by the most privileged and least deserving government in the recent history of the UK.

To describe this scheme as a success because it has deprived people of the income they need to survive, is sickening.

To those responsible, I say: Shame on you. May you suffer poverty and homelessness for the rest of your days and may good people shun you.

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