I’m not sure about you, but when I think back to my early twenties I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I ended up studying a postgraduate and entering into the world of HR mostly based on the advice of friends and family. I figured that if it didn’t work out, I could leave and do something else. Fortunately, it turned out to be the right career.
Having seen my son entering into the world of work last year, much of his experience has been similar to mine. A vague idea of the kinds of stuff that he likes doing and is good at. Less certain about what he wants to do and where he wants to do it. But an understanding that his first job won’t be his last job and that he will work for good and employers and sometimes have to move on. I’m sure neither he nor I are particularly unique.
But imagine if the mistake you made in choosing your first job meant that you had to pay off thousands of pounds in “debt” for “training” that didn’t lead to any formal qualifications. Of course it would all be in the small print of the contract, you’d have signed to say you accepted it, but how many of us in our 20s would either read the agreements to that level of detail, or be so cynical to imagine it would all go horribly wrong so quickly?
Unfortunately that’s the case for hundreds of young people every year who are approached by companies offering them placements with prestigious brands and training that can take as little as a few weeks but result in an obligation to repay tens of thousand of pounds if they leave before the fixed term of their “graduate scheme”. These companies have been highlighted as part of a campaign by Tanya de Grunwald. The stories shared by individuals trapped on these schemes is shocking and resonates with some of the personal stories I’ve also heard, where even in the case of some of the most personal and disruptive life events, the exit fees have been applied and legally enforced.
This is very different to the study aid that most organisations offer to employees who have been in their service for a number of years. Someone who has time to understand the company and the work before making a personal choice to undertake study for a qualification and commitment to repayment in the case they leave. These are young people at one of the most anxious and vulnerable points in their lives making a multi thousand pound commitment without knowing anything about the company or the work and then being threatened by lawyers and debt collectors if they leave. And of course this disproportionately impacts those without the family support or connections to fully understand the implications of the contract.
Exit fees aren’t illegal, although you can make a good argument that they should be, and these organisations can argue they’re doing nothing wrong and that the contracts are set out and explained. And whilst client companies are willing to contract with them, then the practice is legitimatised. But in a world where big organisations sign up to the Living Wage, Social Mobility pledges and employability programmes it feels pretty incongruous that at the same time they’re facilitating a modern version of bonded labour.
Which is why, if you’re running an organisation it is worth checking out whether you’re supporting this kind of activity and whether you think it reflects the values of your organisation or whether your commitments to society stop before they come to the actions of your supply chain. If you’re interested and want to do something about it you can find out more and sign up to the campaign here.