Reply to Bluebird Tea Co. Re: ‘Packing Apprenticeship’

In a recent blog post addressed to your customers you attempted to defend your vacancy for a one year 'Packing Apprenticeship' (later re-advertised as a 'Warehouse Apprentice') paid at £3.30 an hour (rising to £3.75 an hour after 3 months) in your Brighton warehouse, against criticisms made by myself and others that you are using the Apprenticeship scheme to undercut the minimum wage.
You announced that in order for your customers to reach an informed decision about this issue, "you must ensure that you are able to get all the facts"; yet it is these very facts which are missing from your blog. In this response I am being careful not to be sidetracked by the various personal insults scattered throughout your blog and tweets ("some thoughtless individual", "little Twitter troll", customers being "disturbed" etc.), and to concentrate instead on these facts, or rather omissions, which are highlighted below. I also ask a series of questions about your use of apprenticeships, which your blog has conspicuously failed to answer.

1. Government funding
The first fact which is missing, and of which your customers might be unaware, is that businesses participating in the apprenticeship scheme routinely receive government grants. The question of how much state money you receive was explicitly asked on Twitter and not replied to. The issue of government funding was also raised in the leaflet handed out outside your shop, and the assertion has not been challenged in your blog, so although you have not acknowledged this fact, it is reasonable to believe that it is correct and that you do receive government money. It seems that the amount awarded is typically £1500 per apprentice.
Of course, mentioning this funding in your blog would significantly weaken your claim that an apprentice costs three times more to employ than a fully paid worker, but we’ll come back to that.
In the meantime, can you confirm that you receive government funding for apprenticeships? And if so, how much is that funding?
(Incidentally, your comment that if Bluebird was intent on abusing the scheme "we could very easily have 100 apprentices now ... but we have only one" is rather disingenuous, as the rules stipulate that small businesses can only claim government funding for up to five apprenticeships. And soon you will have at least two.)

2. ‘Study hours’
It is also unfair to compare an apprenticeship year to other jobs, it is more accurate to compare it to university or college – where in fact, you have to pay to gain similar skills and qualifications.
The wage is lower than ‘regular’ national minimum wage as it takes into consideration study hours that are on paid working time, that go towards an NVQ qualification on completion of the scheme.
The apprenticeship lists an employer, a 'wage' (£132 per week), working hours (40 per week), and duties including the following: 
  • pack tea and fulfil customer orders.
  • prepare products to be sent to our store and events.
  • Dispatch all orders through various computer systems.
  • Accept, check and store deliveries arriving to our warehouse.
  • Assist in blending tea.
  • Assist in managing stock and ensuring the warehouse can run efficiently.
Despite this, you claim that this apprenticeship isn't a job, and you compare it instead with a university course. To resolve this confusion, therefore, let us consider what these ‘study hours’ involve.  
We learn that the apprentice receives "workplace training sessions" from the boss (does this count as 'studying'?) and "further development support and training" from an NVQ trainer, again in the workplace. We know from the vacancy that the resulting qualification is a "level 2 Warehousing and Storage NVQ"; but it is not clear how this differs from a certificate to say that someone has worked in a warehouse for a year and picked up certain skills in the process.
You do not specify in the blog how many of the 40 hours a week of the apprenticeship are spent 'studying', and you refused to answer a question about this on Twitter, directing the person instead to your email address.
Another detail curiously absent from the blog is that while the job and the employer are based in Brighton, the training provider – Vision West Nottinghamshire College – is located in Mansfield. One would think this worthy of at least a passing mention in an article expounding the scholarly virtues of an apprenticeship. What exactly does this arrangement entail, in the context of a 'packing apprenticeship'? Is it distance learning? Warehousing seminars? Or is it, in fact, a checklist of competencies and assessments indistinguishable from in-work training?  
We can also compare this emphasis on the importance of skills and qualifications for warehouse packing with your current vacancy for a 'Packing Area Manager'. This offers a "competitive salary" and states: "Don’t be put off - No previous warehouse or logistics experience is necessary as full training is provided."
So much for a 'packing apprenticeship' being equivalent to a year’s undergraduate study. At management level it turns out that none of these skills or qualifications are prerequisites, as they can be taught on the job.

3. Characterisation and eligibility of potential applicants
to give people, who are otherwise struggling, a chance to learn key workplace skills and experience.
Upon starting the placement, an apprentices skill and experience levels can be very low or they may have personal or medical issues that make it difficult to find employment through the usual, unsupported route.
We are more relaxed to start with with things like timekeeping, presentation and communication as we understand they are all new skills to be learnt.
the candidates may have little or no workplace experience at all which can be a huge drain on a businesses resources. 
The portrayal of young people entering the labour market as uncommunicative, poorly presented, incapable of punctuality and "a huge drain on a business’s resources" is now a well established justification for paying these people below the minimum wage or nothing at all. Of course, this argument goes, school-leavers, even those who have been through a rigorous application and interview process, can't be expected to just turn up at work on time and perform the tasks assigned to them. Therefore they can't expect to be paid a proper wage until a further period of 'training' or 'work experience' has been completed.
This stigmatising narrative has been cooked up by government and business in order to re-brand low-paid work as a form of education, and to present it as a gift offered by the employer rather than an economic exchange, born not out of commercial necessity but social beneficence. Because so many people are chasing so few jobs, employers can get away with saying this with a straight face. Applicants can't go elsewhere and have no option but to accept it.
No amount of PR waffle can disguise the fact that this is exploitation. People of any age or level of experience travelling to a warehouse to pack and dispatch goods from 9am to 5pm deserve to be fully paid for their work from day one.
If there are applicants with genuine "personal or medical issues", since when did employers have the right to accommodate them not by meeting their equal opportunities obligations but by lowering wages?
Another thing your blog fails to mention (although it is stated in the vacancy for the position on a jobs website) is that apprenticeships are not open to applicants who hold a degree qualification. This means that graduates are excluded from this vacancy and therefore from the chance of a fully paid job. Is this not also a form of discrimination?
With its emphasis on people who are supposedly "struggling" and not work-ready, the apprenticeship also excludes those who have the relevant experience, but just need a job. Are these experienced workers also excluded from the prospect of a warehouse job at Bluebird, or are they expected to simply exclude themselves by not applying for the apprenticeship?
Regarding this, you will remember that on Twitter you stated that if a person doesn’t want to work for half the minimum wage for a year towards a certificate in something they’ve already done, then "you don’t have to apply [smiley face]".

4. Cost to the business
Again, in terms of the supposed costs of training and the value of the skills developed on this apprenticeship scheme, it must be emphasised that the occupation we are discussing here is not nursing or plumbing, it is warehouse packing.
To come to the boldest claim in your blog (and I admire its audacity, if nothing else about it):

the costs to a business training and supporting an inexperienced and under qualified team member in the workplace are very high.

To a small business like ours that cost is even higher, around triple that of employing an experienced and fully trained team member.

I can see why on first glance it appear that we make money out of paying someone £3.30 an hour – but it just isn’t the case.

Profit making is 100% not on the agenda as quite simply it doesn’t make us any money.

You cannot even admit that the work of a warehouse packing 'apprentice' makes money for your company. Bluebird is not an educational establishment or a charity, it is a business. There is no shame in admitting this. There is however, a great deal of shame involved in claiming the role of a college campus or social service to avoid acknowledging the real reason you employ workers and deny the real value of their work.
Are you perhaps confusing a passionate commitment to improving lives above and beyond commercial interests with the routine business practice of investing in new staff who inevitably become more productive over time?
Are you seriously saying that the duties set out above are not profitable for the company unless they are performed by "an experienced and fully trained team member"? (It is revealing to note that even for a warehouse packing job an employer expects to pay the adult minimum wage only to an already 'experienced' worker.)
And are you really claiming that someone doing this work for £3.30 per hour costs you more than a worker paid £6.70 an hour, even with the government subsidy you receive for each apprentice?
The individual journey of your ex-business administration apprentice - who apparently, unlike most other people, managed to live on an apprentice wage and didn’t mind being paid far less than her work was worth - is heart-warming. However, gushing testimonies from current employees, like your personal jibes towards me, are hardly objective, and distract attention from the facts of the matter.
This so-called 'packing apprenticeship' is an entry-level warehouse job, which until a few years ago would have been fully paid. Now the cost of gaining on-the-job experience has been transferred from the employer to the employee, and this has been passed off as an apprenticeship "qualification".
As for the experience of an apprenticeship providing a substitute currency which is supposedly "just as valuable (if not more) to a team member as money", this can be easily disproved. Experience, no matter how fulfilling or enjoyable, is not accepted in lieu of cash by any landlord or supermarket, nor as far as I know by any of your own shops. This economy of experience is therefore somewhat one-way, as the parents and partners of 'apprentices' working full-time for £150 a week will no doubt attest.
Your indignation at criticisms of your involvement in this scheme is sharpened by your image of Bluebird as an ethical company; but being ethical is not just about being friendly or donating to charities, it is also about the terms under which you employ people. If Bluebird wishes to set a positive example to other employers and to its staff and customers, you will have the decency to pay your 'apprentice' workers a full wage and withdraw from this exploitative scheme, rather than be its "success story".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis of this exploitive scheme. Bluebird Tea Co. are simply taking open advantage of these people, and then disguising it as some sort of charitable endeavour. At the end of the day it's cheap subsidised labour for them.