Edinburgh stores occupied to oppose workfare schemes
Demonstrators in Edinburgh took direct action on the 31st March Britain-wide day of action against workfare. Protestors occupied British Heart Foundation for an hour then invaded Poundstretcher – both heavily involved in the government’s compulsory “work-for-your-benefits” schemes.
Marching into the British Heart Foundation’s large furniture store in Leith, demonstrators set up camp within the shop, displaying giant banners denouncing forced work for benefits, decorating windows and TVs with posters proclaiming “Workfare attacks both waged and unwaged”, and distributing Boycott Workfare leaflets everywhere. Despite a sizeable police presence, the occupation continued for an hour. Several would-be customers turned away when the reason for the demo was explained.
Demo organisers Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty know significant numbers of unemployed people in Edinburgh have been forced to work in BHF charity shops under threat of their benefits being cut. In the run-up to the demo ECAP wrote and phoned the British Heart Foundation at their Surrey HQ, to urge that they follow the lead of Shelter, Oxfam, Marie Curie and other charities and withdraw from all workfare schemes. BHF responded by trying to justify their participation in the schemes.
We think it disgraceful that charities like BHF and Barnardos continue to use these compulsory schemes. Workfare is now being extended to many sick and disabled people on Employment and Support Allowance – how can charities believe it ethical to participate in a scheme where sick people are threatened with their benefit being cut, in order to force them to work for nothing? This leaves us no option but to take action at their shops, to make it clear that the unemployed and the sick are not going to put up with this injustice.
On leaving BHF, the demonstrators immediately invaded Poundstretcher, also in Leith’s Kirkgate shopping centre. As they displayed banners and posters inside the shop the demonstrators were confronted by two security guards who aggressively ordered them to leave, one guard snatching a banner. The protestors grabbed the banner back, stood their ground and the security guards backed off. Eventually the police insisted the protestors leave, and the demo continued at the store entrance.
The 40-50 strong demonstration saw participation from several groups including ECAP, North Edinburgh Fights Back, Greater Leith Against the Cuts, Edinburgh Uncut, the Anarchist Federation and Youth Fight for Jobs. The Day of Action, called by Solidarity Federation, saw demos in 21 towns. This follows the 3rd March Day of Action, when demonstrators invaded two Tescos stores in Edinburgh.
Action is set to continue, say ECAP:
More unemployed people are joining us and standing up for their rights. We have won several battles with A4e and the DWP and won benefits back for claimants who had been sanctioned. Recently we have forced A4e to accept that claimants have the right to be accompanied by the representative of their choice at their premises.
Jobcentre and Council workers have told us they too are opposed to workfare, and we appeal to all workers to join this struggle. Workfare is a direct attack on workers’ wages and conditions. Thanks to the growing opposition, many employers have pulled out of workfare, but we warn those who persist in using slave labour – if you exploit us, we will shut you down.”
I’m not going to go as far as to say that all work experience is slave labour, or all unpaid internships are slave labour because I simply don’t believe that. I completed a lot of unpaid work experience and I can honestly say that it was instrumental in getting me the job I have now.
But that’s the crucial thing right there. If Workfare is intended to help people into work, then jobseekers have a right to expect something from it. They should have a new skill that employers are looking for, if they’ve done good work they should expect glowing references, they should come out with something.
And unless that’s happening, Workfare is, indeed, exploiting job seekers. Take Cait Reilly. People were queuing up to label her arrogant, but she wasn’t arrogant at all. It isn’t a crime to have a dream job, even if the graduate jobs market is tough. She wasn’t turning down the chance to learn new skills, as she already had a lot of retail experience under her belt. She wasn’t turning down an offer of paid work. And, in my opinion, she wasn’t turning down a placement that had any real chance of turning into paid work.
Had she done any of the above, I’d’ve labeled her arrogant myself. But she didn’t. She was turning down a placement that was of no use to her whatsoever. And I’m fine with that. The only one who stood to benefit was Poundland. Job seekers have a right to expect placements to be of benefit to them.