Thursday, February 16, 2012

When Free Labour is Slave Labour

LAST month I commented on the case of 22-year old Caitlin Reilly, who studied geology at university, and volunteered to work in a museum hoping to get experience that would help her in getting a suitable paid job.

Cait's Job Centre Plus stopped her doing this, persuading her instead to attend a retail jobs ‘open day’, which she was told would lead to a period of training and a job interview. After a week on an "employment skills" training workshop, Cait found herself sweeping and stacking shelves in Poundland, along with five other applicants. Not exactly training, and with no job at the end of it.

Caitlin Reilly was having to work for her dole. In other words, the employer was getting her labour free, while Cait, whose case was reported in the Mail is bringing a legal action saying it was forced labour.

What happened to Cait is happening to people around the country. This week it was reported that Sainsbury and the booksellers Waterstone have decided to stop taking people on these workfare placements. But Tesco, which has spent so much on grabbing sites for stores, is carrying on using unpaid workers, as apparently is the Arcadia group of stores including Top Shop and Burton, whose billionaire boss Sir Philip Green, an adviser to the government, is already notorious for avoiding tax by transferring ownership to his wife's name. (Their family home is in Monaco).

These companies claim they are contributing something to the country by helping reduce unemployment. What a load of rubbish! If an employer can get away with using people who are having to work just for their benefits, why on earth will he bother retaining, let alone recruiting paid staff?

After I raised this issue with friends and colleagues on Brent Trades Union Council, it invited a speaker from the London Coalition on Poverty to put us in the picture about what is happening. Now Brent TUC and the Greater London Association of Trades Union Councils (GLATUC) are submitting a motion to the Annual Conference of Trades Union Councils which meets in Coventry in May, drawing attention to the way compulsory work placements are being used in both the private and public sectors, as well as making a mockery of supposed "volunteer work" in the voluntary sector.

Indeed the way workfare has grown is frightening, as this report from campaigners indicates:

This Freedom of Information response for Kent, Surrey and Sussex has many recognisable brands including: Asda, Wilkinsons, Poundstretcher, Pizza Hut, Savers, Poundland, 99p stores, and more. Worryingly, public sector jobs at Medway Council are also being filled with workfare placements.

This Freedom of Information response for the Thames Valley shows that many charities are using mandatory work placements, despite the threat of destitution for claimants who do not comply. It is also concerning that Slough Library is using workfare staff.

Find out what is going on in your area.

We also know of the following organisations taking workfare:

As the motion from Brent TUC says: "Everyone is entitled to decent work, training and income. Benefits are also a right, not a privilege, and need to be protected. .. We need to act in solidarity with the most vulnerable in society to protect benefits as part of defending society against a wider attack on the welfare state as a whole."

Acknowledging that "claimants may wish to contribute to their community and acquire new skills through genuine volunteering" (something which authorities have not always respected in the past, when assessing whether someone was 'available for work' -CP), the motion contrasts this with compulsory placements which "cause resentment, are against the ideal of volunteering and take advantage of the most vulnerable".

Indeed it is hard to see how slaving for Sir Philip Green can be confused with working for the community, though perhaps seeing some of the salaries being picked up by the chief executives of some of our charities, one can understand how the boundary between the private and voluntary sector is getting eroded.

The motion as adopted as by the Greater London Association of TUCs supports the call for a boycott of workfare placements, and resolves to boycott "all forms of unpaid work such as internships which replace paid employment opportunities".

Abraham Lincoln said that his nation could not survive "half slave and half free". The British labour movement is waking up to a situation where only a dwindling proportion of us enjoy workplace rights and decent conditions, while an increasing part of the workforce has been subjected to outsourcing, casualisation and now, being forced to work just for benefits. If we are not to be all dragged down, we need unity and an outlook that considers the whole of the working class.

Trades union councils, neglected for many years, are still weak, and though showing signs of a revival, in some places barely existing. But as bodies of rank and file members, uniting across different unions and branches in an area, and acting as the voice of trade unionism in the community, they are well-positioned to campaign on such issues as workfare, particularly where they have linked unemployed workers' committees.

They should be strengthened.

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