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Bank denies exploiting teenagers

Barclays Bank, which notched up a record Pounds 1.125 billion profit this week, is about to launch a controversial work experience scheme for 16 to 18-year-olds amid accusations that it is casualising the workforce and employing cheap labour.

The scheme was initiated by its Slough branch which will offer 20 to 30 teenagers the chance of two hours' work for two or three evenings a week. The teenagers will help with administration and answer telephones for about Pounds 4 an hour. After training and if they show an aptitude, they may work on the counters. Five schools are said to have shown an interest in the idea.

However, BIFU, one of the banking unions, points out that Barclays has shed some 18,000 jobs since 1991 with more to go by the end of the year.

Rob MacGregor, assistant secretary of BIFU's Barclays division, said members were not opposed to work experience but this scheme could hardly be called that as it was not related to the curriculum, it would not take place in school hours, and it was paid for. "I think they've panicked and called it work experience to counter criticism of cheap labour. It's an amateurish method of releasing pressure on the working day for a small rate of pay. We have no problems with proper schemes but this is different." It could lead to casual workers replacing permanent staff, he said.

A Barclays spokeswoman called these accusations "nonsense". The youngsters would get the standard rate for a trainee which compared well with supermarkets' pay. She stressed that "nothing was concrete yet. It's an idea which will depend on the level of interest from parents and teachers."

The scheme would help the bank staff its extended opening hours, but was mainly intended to improve links with local schools as Barclays was not employing as many school-leavers as it used to. "It is quite a useful way of helping young people to acquire useable skills. We can't guarantee permanent jobs for all, but we hope we can for some of them. We see it as a very positive scheme. "

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "We're all in favour of work experience, but it does smack a bit of cheap labour. I presume they would still have time to do their homework - it's better than watching television or drinking down the pub."

For the Secondary Heads Association, Bob Carstairs, the professional officer, assumed it was coincidental that the news came with the announcement of the biggest profits ever. SHA had nothing against work experience but hoped that the placements would lead to eventual employment in a bank, he added.

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