Forget second hand furniture – the British Heart Foundation is the place to go if you want to understand the reality of workfare. I popped along to my local store this afternoon in the hope of speaking with someone about their experience of workfare. The policy director of the BHF had announced that every store had people on work placements from the government’s various schemes and so this seemed like a good place to start. Speaking with the manager, she looked around the room and counted those on Mandatory Work Activity, ‘1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 today’ she informed me, adding ‘we do have pure volunteers as well’. I certainly had come to the right place to witness workfare at work. Three men were at the back of the room hammering at a wardrobe, a young woman was answering the phone and arranging for donations to be collected by the van, another woman was sticking price tags on sofas – all of these people were here because, as one of them put it, ‘there is no choice’, if they refused they would lose their benefits.
Before I could even ask a question, the young woman at the desk hearing why I was there, said quietly and emphatically ‘it’s not nice here, it’s not nice here’. She went on to tell me that she had a qualification in retail and so ‘it’s not benefiting me at all’. She wanted to work with animals but had been told by her job centre advisor that they would not help her in pursing this interest, instead she’s found herself stuck here for a month. I mentioned to her that Boycott Workfare were protesting against BHF’s involvement in workfare this weekend and she became very excited ‘come here and protest when we’re here! That would be so fun!’
I went over to the three men who were fixing a broken wardrobe. ‘It’s a punishment’ one of the men told me as he hammered a nail into the wardrobe ‘it’s nothing to do with work experience, if you miss a day your benefits are stopped, it’s about stopping people from claiming benefits…Yes, I really appreciate this work experience, the 13 years of work I’ve done managing clubs in London really wasn’t enough’ he says good naturedly. ‘It’s a punishment because you are in the same boat as a probation person’, he turns to the man who is hammering the wardrobe with him who is there on probation ‘no offence’ he says. ‘I’m unemployed and he’s a criminal’.
I speak with a black woman who tells me workfare makes her feel ‘mad…it’s absolutely slave labour – absolutely – it’s the 21st century. They took me out of slavery and put me back in slavery.’
Charities are the new face of workfare with politicians stressing the words ‘community benefit’ in order to make workfare seem more acceptable and friendly as they attempt to expand it on an incredible scale. But as is clear from the people I spoke with whoever workfare is for, it is a punitive, degrading, and exploitative practice.
This Saturday join Boycott Workfare’s UK-wide day of action against charity involvement in workfare. The London action will be meeting at 11.30am outside Nat West which is opposite Camden town station and will take a tour taking in the charities involved in workfare on the high street.