Running is one of my worst things. But yesterday afternoon I found myself running up and down Oxford Street with one hundred other workfare protesters. We’d gathered in Central London to take action against high street stores profiting from forced unpaid labour for benefits. After two weeks of online and street protest, this Saturday was our National Day of Action Against Workfare with actions happening all over the country.
We weren’t convinced by the government’s ‘concessions’ this week – and were also clear that this was not the end of workfare as there were four other workfare schemes that had been overlooked by the media. We wanted to remind people of these and to show the high street stores that our campaign had not ended with the weak government response. If they continued to participate in workfare schemes, we would be outside and inside their stores raising this issue until they stopped.
We met outside BHS which had since pulled out of workfare schemes, reflecting the impact of the last two weeks of public pressure. From here we would head to our secret location. In the quickest example of consensus decision making ever we decided there and then that we would shut down a workfare store and set off following two Boycott Workfare flags that were held above the crowds. In a wonderful police radio conversation reported by @thinktyler one was heard saying ‘they don’t seem to have a leader’.
We passed Topshop which was heavily guarded by gigantic security guards – they’d clearly got this action confused with UK Uncut. We left them be and headed further on. Our group surged along the streets with the police jogging to keep up to form a moving kettle around us. We ran around them trying to get in front of them so that we’d be able to enter the high street store to fully shut it down. But they seemed to have done some research because when we approached Pizza Hut, two police officers had managed to get in front of us and block the doors.
Pizza Hut was our first target because it is part of the Work Programme – the government’s much lauded workfare scheme that is costing billions of pounds of tax payers money but will do absolutely nothing to alter the unemplopyment figures and is basically about bullying unemployed people and pushing them onto workfare. The Work Programme gives billions of pounds to companies such as A4e who are being investigated for fraud and G4S which was involved in the murder of Jimmy Mubenga.
We stood outside Pizza Hut and unfurled our huge banner declaring ‘If you exploit us – we will shut you down’. From here it was put to the group whether we deemed the Work Experience scheme to be workfare still, in the light to the government’s ‘concessions’. Considering the direct and indirect sanctions that are still in place in the Work Experience scheme there was immediate agreement that companies involved in Work Experience were still fair game. We passed out maps of the area which had helpfully marked all these companies and encouraged people to decide where we wanted to go next. The flags were raised and we were off. The police joining in too trying to get to the stores before us but not knowing which one it would be. Everywhere we looked seemed to be a company involved in workfare.
All of a sudden I was in McDonalds – looking behind me I could see police blocking the doors and pushing protesters away, in front of me were surprised looking customers and staff. I explained we were there because of workfare that was forcing people to work unpaid and was undermining people’s jobs before being bundled out by the police. It was a shame that the encounter in McDonalds was so short as we were unable to have meaningful discussions about why we were there and to hand out leaflets.
Another splinter group had managed to get into Pizza Hut but were quickly removed. The action was so fast paced and fluid. It was very effective as we were able to target stores and get into them to effectively shut them down. Perhaps it sounds a little silly – dodging the police, getting into stores, getting chucked out. But I genuinely believe that this sort of direct action is one of few effective actions that we can take. Ideally we would stay in one store and shut it down for a couple of hours, using it to hold discussions on workfare. But the police were under strict orders to not let this happen – and also we wouldn’t want all the other workfare stores to get let off.
We were off again – this time rushing along the back streets of Oxford Street. People had got into the Holiday Inn, which is involved in the Work Programme, and also, one woman informed us, used to employ illegal immigrants for very very low wages, before this new flow of free labour from the Job Centre. The police removed the protesters and lined the steps of the Holiday Inn looking like a rather strange football team photo.
Our tour came to an end here as we were exhausted from all the running. But we reminded the Holiday Inn that we would be back until workfare was scrapped. Workfare is a punitive policy which exacerbates issues of unemployment and poverty – there is strong public feeling against it and yet the government are still trying to roll it out. However, yesterday, actions took place all over the country against workfare. And will continue to do so until it is ended with living wages and welfare rights secured for all.
Be sure to check out other reports, tweets etc. from other actions across the country. The media have done an appalling job on reporting workfare (just watch Jeremy Paxman’s inept chairing of a workfare debate on Newsnight) and particularly the National Day of Action. It’s up to us to report the news ourselves.