Saturday, May 16, 2015

Call it "Community". Sounds nicer than Slavery on the High Street

LONDONERS and South-East commuters must be very well-informed. We get regional news and features on TV, and free newspapers cluttering the tube. We even have a new regional commercial TV channel. We know from national TV how well the country is prospering, and people are getting back to work, and house prices, even if we can't afford them must mean prosperity in London and the South East.

Some people even have two jobs, Boris for example, and even if Labour now has a string of London boroughs, we are told it must do more to target the "aspirational", those who "shop at Waitrose" and want a "home and garden". Obviously those Londoners who have been told they might have more chance of a council flat if they move to the Black Country are not enough.

There's more to London life than the diet of government hand-outs and West End shows publicised on  BBC, as people know from experience, but it sometimes seems to take less conventional media and unpaid journalists to see what's going on, and talk about it.  One example I've come across is a poet, entertainer and educationalist going by the name of  Pete the Temp

Here's an extract from his blog recently:

Workfare, Forced Labour and the new ‘Business and Community Wardens’.

Arriving at Finsbury Park station I came across a group of men people in high vis vests. Their vests read ‘Business and Community Warden’. I’ve learned to be suspicious of people who claim to be ‘public officers’ or ‘wardens’ so I went up to one to ask what they do. My mistrust quickly melted to sympathy. The man I was speaking to walked with a heavy head, sagging eyes and a narked expression.  His colleagues also looked seriously bored and disaffected.

He told me he is on a six month, 30 hour per week Workfare placement. The work is a compulsory condition for receiving his Job Seekers Allowance –  a meagre £240 a month to live off. Of this he has to pay his own travel (£88 a month) to get to and from his  unpaid work. That leaves him a grand total of £152 a month (or £38 a week) for food, bills, and any other services or contingencies needed to maintain his home and his health. I don’t imagine his weekends are particularly lively.

The frown on his face crept over my own as he told me that he they do not provide food so many days he can’t afford to eat at work. One day he was ill with a virus and needed to miss a day. He was told that “that wasn’t good enough” so he worked through his illness. If he misses a day of work he loses 1 month pay. If he misses 3 days he loses months of pay.

I was left wondering how much time he and his fellow unemployed colleagues  were able to look for work while they stood motionlessly and reluctantly outside the station waiting for members of the public to ask them directions. They told me that they “have a list of things to do” including patrolling local supermarkets (they have been dealing with shoplifters for both Sainsburys and Tesco) but mostly they have to just stand there.

Why do these supermarkets (who have already dodged so much tax) get free forced labour from some of the borough’s most vulnerable involuntarily unemployed? Was it not these same corporations who lobbied so hard against the minimum wage and are now cutting costs on their own security? If they are benefiting from this labour then why don’t they, and not the tax payer, pay the Job Seekers Allowance ?

“How do I complain?” I asked the Warden.

“Phone the number on my vest and speak to Courtney Bailey, he’s the boss”

When I phoned I got through to The Finsbury Park Business Forum. This is an odd place to be directing a complaint about a body of public wardens, regularly briefed by the MET to carry out low level police patrol and ‘counter terrorism’ duties as a kind of forced volunteer unit of para- police. The Business forum’s website says that one of their duties is to ‘lower the perception of crime’ at the station. In helping the police clear the area of ASBOs this can be seen as the civilianisation of social cleansing. Poor people forced to police poor people on behalf of business.

Courtney Bailey met my complaint by quickly becoming loud, aggressive and insulting. When I pressed him on the scheme he accused me of being “wrong in the head”, “full of it” and “one of those anarchists” (he was at least right about that last point).

“Name me one person who is has no choice to work for us?!” he shouted.

“I’m not going to name them because you might report them to the Job Centre and they could lose their benefits” I replied.

He hung up.

Kerry- Anne Mendoza, in her fantastic new book: ‘Austerity: The Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Economy’ points out:

‘Article 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights clearly states: ‘No-one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.’ If the government threatens to withdraw a person’s sole lifeline unless they supply their labour, then it can clearly be argued that this labour has been obtained forcibly. The labour is also clearly compulsory.’

She goes on to point out that benefits such as the JSA are a safety net that help citizens ‘live in dignity’ and are a ‘foundation stone of social democracy’. Why are we now submitting people to compulsory work in order to get it?"

The Jobcentre sends people on this scheme where they are supposedly gaining training and experience.  Pete reckons the "training" consists of a visit with someone from the Metropolitan Police to give the "volunteers" training in "self-confidence".

The Forum says ‘This is truly a community coming together as one team for a safer neighbourhoods in   Islington…Our aim is to promote community solidarity and encourage neighbourhoods to identify and solve problems and be a trusted friend for Business and the Community.’

"The newsletter thanks VIPs in the police, local businesses and stakeholders. Not a word of thanks  goes to the Wardens themselves, who will be working without pay outside Finsbury Park station for the next six months.  The scheme is soon set to be rolled out to Drayton Park, Arsenal, Highbury & Islington, Holloway Road, Angel, Camden, Kings Cross – tube and train stations." 

A few years ago I seconded a motion at the annual conference of trades union councils calling for a campaign against these workfare schemes. Some sisters and brothers from Merseyside felt our London motion did not go far enough, and they successfully moved an amendment promising more action.

I'm afraid I missed the report the following year on what had actually been done. If anyone can set me right on I'd welcome their accounts.

Meantime, we have the Tories back with a vengeance, and we can see why they are keen to get rid of awkward notions like Human Rights that they find restrictive.

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