17/01/2012 08:47 GMT | Updated 17/03/2012 05:12 GMT

Paid a Pittance and Paying Penance at Poundland

Dole, many still call it: unemployment benefit, the legal provision of which is enshrined in the National Insurance Act of 1911, though the centenary seemed to pass by without comment or celebration. Paupers previously had to rely for welfare upon begging, parish relief, and the homely, fireside welcome of that great British institution, the workhouse.

Etymologists tell us 'dole' comes from the Old English dál, or 'deal'. In imperial Rome, it was grain, handed out free to plebeians. That the Latin verb dolere means 'to suffer pain or grief' is entirely coincidental.

An intern was, until recently, an 'assistant resident physician or surgeon in a hospital.'

It's all been rather sneaky, in my view: the gradual shift from means-tested entitlement to income support to begrudging allowance to the latest initiative:

"If you don't do as you're told and spend a fortnight stacking shelves in Poundland, you'll get sod all."

It's no surprise that certain supermarkets, food and drink corporations, oil companies and banks have all quickly offered salvation to the country's one million unemployed youngsters. The 'deal' goes as follows.

The government will give you £53 a week to live on as long as you do their bidding. This now includes a mandatory period of 'training' with a large employer, who will get your labour for nothing. They might offer you a job interview, but are under no obligation to do so.

And why should they? Cheaper and easier to wait for the next batch of unpaid trainees to arrive. As neat a wheeze as any I've come across for helping wealthy companies become even wealthier.

It's tough being unemployed. Most people not only lose heart and self-confidence, but also feel inadequate and ashamed. And now this.

Call it what you will - internship, work experience, condition of benefit payment or job seekers' penance - the practice of paying anybody nothing in return for their labour is insulting, demeaning and disgraceful.

Compassion? Past its sell-by date, it seems.

(Marcus' recent blogs include memories of working with Bob Holness, revisiting his childhood home on Google Earth, and the sad decline of the apostrophe.)