The Ericle has become quite exercised by the experiences of the Offspring, as they try to gain a fingernail-hold on employment in the current economic climate. Over the last couple of years, I have witnessed their oft-exploitation by way of ‘internships’ and ‘work-trials’. To be fair, some of these have been straight up arrangements that benefitted both sides; but many have not been. Recently, the Prodigal Daughter was seeking part-time catering employment as a means of funding work experience in her chosen field. It is virtually ‘de rigeur’ to demand a 2 hour shift from candidates for such jobs. What’s even worse is that in some cases the ‘trial shift’ goes on for even longer. One night she came home exhausted after giving her all for 4 hours, without pay, at a local gastropub. Seemingly their intention was to keep her there all evening on this basis and she was roundly abused when she left ‘early’. Why should that be? Interview a prospective employee, by all means, but when did this turn into performing a task for somebody for nothing? Call me cynical but it seems to me that this system is a little bit too convenient for establishments finding themselves a little short on staff of an evening – a fact amplified for me by the number of these shifts that were offered. I am pleased to say that she  has found work at a reasonable-enough local joint. However, I was outraged when she had to fork out £15 for one of their branded tee-shirts, which is a uniform requirement for all their serving staff. Question: how can employers get away with practices such as these? Answer: because they can.


At the end of the 18th century, during the Napoleonic Wars, the UK labour force was facing starvation as a result of rising food prices. In 1793, as a response to this, the magistrates of the Berkshire village of Speen created a food subsidy paid from local taxes, (‘The Poor Rates’), for workers. On the surface of it, this worthy scheme – which became known as The Speenhamland System on its adoption through many parts of Southern England – appears that it could only be for the good. And indeed it was – helping many families stave off starvation during the conflict. Unfortunately the continuation of the Speenhamland System after the war produced some very unfortunate results; particularly the payment of artificially low wages, in the knowledge that local taxes would subsidise employers’ parsimony. In some of the worst cases, where employers also owned the local food shops, it resulted in higher food prices for trapped workers who were forced to buy their provisions from the company stores.

Workhouse Yard

The Speenhamland System was an example of what has become known as The Law Of Unintended Consequences. This ‘law’ was defined by the sociologist Robert K. Merton in 1936 when he identified five different ways that actions, particularly those taken on a large scale by governments, may have unexpected consequences. The two top reasons why unintended consequences occur, according to Merton, are that “the framers of a social change are either ignorant of possible far reaching effects of the law or make errors when they develop a change that don’t have the effects they desired.”

It is not hard to think of modern day examples of this: zero-hour contracts come readily to mind – a reasonable enough idea when applied to niche industries, but a means of virtual enslavement in its wider deployment. One could also argue that the national minimum wage, designed to create an income safety-net, has in fact created a low pay benchmark for the financial benefit of employers.


In the end, it’s really not the fault of the well-intending rule-makers when The Law Of Unintended Consequences rears its ugly head. The villain, sad to say, is human nature that will seek to take advantage given half the chance. As Seneca The Younger, the Roman Stoic philosopher, was prompted to remark way back in the 1st century: “A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer”.  2000 years later, we’ve not made that much progress.

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3 Responses to What’s next? The return of The Workhouse?

  1. Lee Manning says:

    They probably only paid £5 for the tee shirts – mean and undeserving people are all over the place and very few regret their actions .

  2. Tony Davies says:

    Some cynics would say that regrettably the current ethos is as a result of the policies of the Coalition government policies

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