Article published: Tuesday, June 30th 2015
A group of protestors held a picket outside the Chorlton branch of B&M on Saturday as part of a national day of action called by Boycott Workfare. Gathering at the entrance of the store, campaigners held banners, handed out leaflets and expressed their opposition to the company’s participation in the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) controversial workfare scheme.
Boycott Workfare is a nationwide campaign fighting to end workfare, a system which forces benefit claimants to take unwaged work or face being sanctioned and having their payments stopped for between four weeks and three years. The campaign seeks to put pressure on specific companies and organisations that profit from workfare, with the aim of forcing them to pull out of the scheme.
“B&M is a notorious user of workfare”, said Liam O’Hanrahan, one of the organisers of the demonstration, explaining why they chose to target the company. “They have many unpaid placements.”
The picket caught the attention of the public, with many passers-by echoing the outrage of the protestors. “It’s surprising that people aren’t aware of it”, said Sean, a demonstrator handing out leaflets on the street, “but when I’ve talked to people, that’s their first reaction, because it’s about people working unpaid and that seems fundamentally wrong.”
After enquiring about the protest and scanning a leaflet, Amir, a local business-owner, called B&M “disgraceful”, and made it clear that he would never use unpaid labour at his own store.
But as well as highlighting the exploitative nature of the scheme, anti-workfare campaigners are also arguing that the system is ineffective, even on the government’s own terms. A 2008 study commissioned by the DWP found that there was “little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work” and that “it can even reduce employment chances.” These findings didn’t surprise O’Hanrahan: “You’re supposed to still look for jobs after working a 35-hour week. That obviously makes it harder.” While the DWP has claimed that 50 per cent of people on workfare schemes have stopped claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) within 6 months, campaigners argue that this figure is misleading as it reveals only the amount of people that have left JSA, not the number that have found meaningful, long-term employment.
With the efficacy of the scheme in doubt, campaigners are arguing that the system is not designed to assist benefit claimants at all, but to punish them. In the first three years of the Work Programme, one of the workfare schemes, five times as many people were sanctioned as found long-term employment. Given the seeming inadequacy of the scheme, the stories of demeaning treatment for those on work placements and the soaring rate of sanctions, it’s not hard to see why campaigners see the system as being primarily punitive.
The fight against sanctions has been at the centre of the anti-workfare campaign, with activists warning of the grave consequences they can have. “If you lose that £72 a week that you need for food, for heating, for clothes”, said O’Hanrahan, “then that means you could end up starving.”
Such extreme hardship, he argued, is being enabled by the widespread vilification of benefit claimants: “There’s definitely an attitude which is being created within government and mainstream media, trying to push the agenda that unemployment is the fault of the unemployed.”
In response to Saturday’s protest, a B&M spokesperson said: “B&M currently employs 19,000 colleagues across the UK. Of these, 300 colleagues are on the government’s Work Experience Programmes through the relevant job centre schemes. Typically 70 per cent of these colleagues go on to take up permanent employment with us.”
“We respect the right of members of the public to political protest. However, B&M takes great care to ensure all our employment practices are legally compliant and we are proud of our job creation record.”
Having successfully forced a number of companies, including Sainsbury’s and Waterstones, into ending their use of compulsory unpaid placements, Boycott Workfare are planning to keep up the pressure on B&M. “The immediate aim is to push as many businesses as possible to pull out of workfare”, said O’Hanrahan, “because if there are no companies to take workfare placements, the whole scheme collapses.”
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