Waterstones, Sainsbury’s, TK Maxx, Superdrug – the workfare roll of shame

By Will Heaven Politics Last updated: February 22nd, 2012

I’ve done time behind the till at Waterstones, and wouldn’t wish it on anyone. For every pointy-headed customer asking, “Why would you run out of copies of The Waste Land?”, you have to deal with five who are buying the third instalment of Jordan’s autobiography (it’s called Jordan: Pushed to the limit). Throw into the mix a few shoplifting Manga addicts, and that’s your average Waterstones shift. It’s better than flipping burgers – but not by much.

A serious question, though: is it wrong for a company like Waterstones to give work to a jobless 16 to 24 year-old without paying them? Perhaps in those stark terms, the answer would be yes.

OK, how about if the youngster in question was on jobseeker’s allowance (and had been for 3 months) and only had to work voluntarily for 25-30 hours a week.

Those – and the fact that quitters have their benefits stopped for two weeks – are the terms of the government’s Work Experience scheme, based on a similar US scheme started by Bill Clinton. By November last year, 34,200 people had agreed to them in Britain. So why is the UK Uncut crowd hot under the collar?

The answer is because of people like James Moorehead, a 24-year-old “computer games programming graduate” who, according to a story in the Guardian, “resented the idea of stacking shelves, taking deliveries and doing stock-taking for no wage”. He was made to work at Maplin, the electronics retailer, for a whole eight weeks (and got paid work with them at the end of it).

It breaks your heart, doesn’t it? The Boycott Workfare campaign is outraged – the scheme “profits the rich by providing free labour, whilst threatening the poor by taking away welfare rights”, they say.

The argument doesn’t really work with companies like Waterstones and Maplin, who both made comparably little profit in 2011. But even with other “offenders” like Tesco, the argument boils down to this idea: welfare claimants shouldn’t have to work at all for their benefits, because that’s their “right”.

Which is why I think the companies who’ve pulled out of the scheme have shown such contemptible cowardice. The roll of shame is getting longer: Sainsbury’s, Waterstones, Shelter, Marie Curie, 99p stores, Mind and Disability Works group… Others, who’ve suspended their involvement, include Scope, Matalan, Argos and Superdrug.

These organisations have pulled out of a scheme that, in the words of Nick Clegg, “helps people into work at a time of high unemployment” – and all because of a few articles on Comment is Free, small scale street protests, and a hounding from the Twitterati. Shame on them. Must 2012 be the year of mob rule?

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