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Work for free and 'be of benefit' to a multinational like Tesco

A Tesco job advert offering 'JSA plus expenses' reveals the sinister reality of government work experience schemes.

So now we know. Back in August last year, I wrote a comment piece for the Guardian,
focusing on the increasing noise about people being forced to work in
return for their jobseeker's allowance – an idea whose roots extend well
into Labour's time in government. It focused on two things: so-called
mandatory work activity (MWA), whereby people are forced – via the
threat of their jobseeker's allowance being suspended – to put in 30
hours a week doing work "of benefit to the community"; and other "work
experience" schemes, in which people do up to eight weeks of unpaid
labour, with one proviso: they can refuse to take part or pull out
during the first seven days, but thereafter the work becomes compulsory,
under pain of their benefit being withdrawn.

Yesterday, my colleague Shiv Malik pointed to the numbers of people involved
in the scheme between May and November last year; 24,010 had done MWA,
while 34,200 had participated in the second kind of work experience. The
key revelation, though, was that in the last month for which there were
figures, MWA numbers were outstripping those for non-compulsory(ish)
work experience by 8,100 to 6,600. In other words, MWA seems to be
mushrooming, along with its hardline sanctions regime: the first time
you refuse to take part, you lose your benefit for 13 weeks; the second,
for six months. Subject to the passing of the current welfare reform
bill, rejecting MWA for a third time will mean no benefit for three
years – and, one assumes, destitution.At which point, it's worth
pausing to reflect on what all this actually entails.

Thanks to
referrals by both jobcentres and private-sector Work Programme
providers, it's about people effectively working for nothing, not only
in charities and the public sector, but in huge retail chains. Thanks to
the legal action launched by Cait Reilly,
we all know about Poundland. Asda, Boots, Argos and TK Maxx, and the
Arcadia group (including Topshop and Burton) are also involved. Hats
off, perhaps, to Sainsbury's and Waterstones for announcing that they
have ended their involvement with this kind of work experience, but if
you want an indication that workfare may be turning into an immovable
part of the private-sector economy, consider last night and today's
blizzard of outrage about a Tesco ad
placed on the Jobcentre Plus website. It's for nightshift workers in
East Anglia, who will be paid "JSA plus expenses". In response, Tesco's
Facebook page has been transformed into a glorious example of an online
demo, brimming with anger. "I'll be boycotting your stores with
immediate effect until you stop this exploitation – I will also be
urging all my friends and family and contacts to do the same," goes one
post. "No more Tesco for me until you withdraw from this government
workfare scheme … It is compulsory forced labour," says another.

company are trying to keep a lid on it all, with little success: "You
can delete as much as you like but this will now go viral," offers one
poster.On Twitter, Shiv Malik revealed other adverts for similar roles at Tesco, and Tesco's explanation shifted. As Left Foot Forward reported this morning,
their initial line was that they "are taking part in a government-led
work experience scheme to help young people" which "has already led to
300 permanent jobs". They then put the advert down to "an error made by
Jobcentre Plus" and claimed that it should have been "for work
experience with a guaranteed interview at the end". As far as I can
tell, they still want to employ nightshift workers for nothing.

Whatever the answer, the crucial point is that unpaid work – bad enough when it
applied to supposed "interns", but grim beyond belief when used on the
unemployed – is now being built into what some people call The New
Normal. Given the thousands involved, it clearly represents a boon to
the kind of multinational giants whose profit margins must be creeping
upwards thanks to the plentiful supply of people – and please, all you
free-marketeers, read this bit slowly – effectively paid a pittance to
work for them by the taxpayer. Note also the way that even more sinister
aspects of all this are pointed up by the breakdown of people who've
done work experience, as opposed to MWA: 13% of work experience
"participants" are from ethnic minorities, but when hardened compulsion
is used via MWA, that number rises to 24%.

Last year, a Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson told me the "community benefit"
meant that MWA would be kept out of the private sector – but on the
ground, that doesn't seem to be working, at all. Now the DWP claim only
that they "expect that every placement will offer people the opportunity
to gain fundamental work disciplines, as well as being of benefit to
local communities". Also, if you still think that all this denotes only
short-term arrangements that aren't an offence to public morals and
shouldn't be too onerous for anyone, consider one of the more overlooked
aspects of current welfare-to-work practice: something called the community action programme,
under which people are mandated to work for their benefit for up to 26
weeks. That's six months, to you and me. Such outrages continue to be
rolled out at speed; the horror is only compounded by how little
attention mainstream politics continues to give them.

Added: Feb-16-2012 Occurred On: Feb-16-2012
By: allyssa
Tags: Tesco, exploitation, slave labour, boycott, UK government policy
Location: United Kingdom (UK/GB) (load item map)
Views: 2315 | Comments: 24 | Votes: 4 | Favorites: 0 | Shared: 0 | Updates: 0 | Times used in channels: 2
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