We believe that it is entirely wrong-headed and snobbish to look down on our pre-teen chimney interns for the very valuable work they do for themselves and for the community. Spending ten hours a day sweeping the majestic smoke stacks and fireplaces of Britain is not a waste of time but essential grounding for future success in the world of work. After all, everyone has to start somewhere, and going up a chimney is as valuable a learning experience as going up to college. The fact that these young people aren't directly remunerated is quite beside the point. The experience they gain from this Mandatory Work Activity is worth far more to them in the long run than mere wages.
Or so they might have put it in Dickens' day. Ridiculous to compare Victorian forced labour to stacking shelves on the government's mandatory work experience programme? In terms of personal risk, perhaps. But what is interesting is the similarity of the arguments used than and now in defence of the practice of getting young people to do dull and routine work for nothing. There was fierce opposition to attempts to stop thousands of unpaid children being sent up British chimneys, and it wasn't finally abolished until 1875. The argument was that the young sweep would, after seven years apprenticeship, become a journeyman sweep, and have a skilled trade. That the trade largely involved getting other young children to go up chimneys was not seen as a problem.
The point is that forcing people to work, effectively, for nothing has been around a very long time, and it is unjustifiable whether it is up a chimney or in Poundland. Yet, under the government's work experience schemes, thousands of young people are being forced to work for eight weeks without pay and without any job at the end of it. And they risk having their benefits cut if they drop out of the job after the first week. This is American style workfare in action. Tough love. It is also an open invitation to exploitation.