Although media attention has recently quietened down, the campaign against workfare continues. Following on from the hugely successful actions on March 3rd, today marked another National Day of Action Against Workfare, with protests up and down the country.
The target of the largest number of these protests was Holland & Barrett. Anti-workfare campaigners have consistently pointed out that unpaid labour schemes allow bosses to engage in job substitution. What company would want to hire people they have to pay wages and provide benefits like sick pay and holidays, when they can get the unemployed to do the same thing for free?
Holland & Barrett have provided the most flagrant example of this job substitution, by announcing their plans to exploit 1000 young people in the next year through workfare schemes. To put this into context, Holland & Barrett’s entire paid workforce is around 3600. This brazen use of the unemployed to bolster their workforce by over 25% clearly shows as nonsense any claim that workfare is a way to help people get work, and reveals it for what it is – a massive handout to bosses and a massive transfer of public money into private profits.
The impetus for today’s demonstrations came from the Solidarity Federation, who first called for another National Day of Action. Brighton Benefits Campaign has always worked very closely with Brighton SolFed, so we were only too happy to support them in the same way they have always supported us. As previous actions have shown the strength of the anti-workfare movement in Brighton, it was decided that we would hold two pickets, one outside the Holland & Barrett store in North Street, and the other at their smaller shop in London Road.
The North Street picket took up position with banners and leaflets shortly after 11am, and almost immediately we were confronted by the manager, who demanded to know what we were doing and insisted that the store was not involved in taking unemployed people on work experience (showing how successfully media reporting has confused people into thinking that work experience is the only workfare scheme, without mentioning that this is only one of five schemes).
It may be the case that this specific store did not use workfare – although we subsequently learned that they had previously taken one person on work experience and interviewed others, so they clearly have no objections to workfare nor commitment to the idea that people should be paid for their work. But Holland & Barrett is a national chain, and local branches cannot simply wash their hands of what the company is doing at a national level. All Holland & Barrett branches, for example, benefit from advertising – which will, if the company’s plans go ahead, be funded with profits made through large-scale exploitation of the unemployed. We urged the manager to write to their head office to express opposition to what the company is doing nationally, but he was having none of this and stomped back inside.
Shortly afterwards security guards employed by local retailers – now known by the ludicrous misnomer of “City Centre Ambassadors” – arrived and began to harass us as we handed out leaflets to shoppers and passersby. Claiming that we were blocking the entrance and that our standing in front of the store’s window was somehow a violation of private property despite the fact that we were on the public pavement, those of us holding the BBC banner were told we would need to move forward, away from the shop.
When we stood our ground and challenged them to point out exactly where the private property began, one of these heavies reached into his handbook of threatening clichés and informed us that we could do things “the easy way or the hard way”. A potentially interesting incident was then cut tragically short by the arrival of two police officers, who had apparently been informed we were harassing customers. They quickly established we were not doing this, however, so they pulled the “Ambassadors” aside for a discussion, then confirmed to us that there was nothing wrong with where we were standing before departing. Deprived of an opportunity to assault people, the Ambassadors went to sulk on the street corner and watched us in silence for the rest of the demonstration.
We distributed leaflets with great speed, with some pedestrians stopping to ask for leaflets even before we could offer them one. Many were clearly aware of what workfare was and why it should be opposed, but were unaware of the scale of the exploitation that Holland & Barrett proposed.
During lulls when not many people were going into the store, the manager came out to entertain us. The company’s liberal, hippy image notwithstanding, the manager was keen to inform us of his deeply reactionary opinions. These included such considered insights as that the unemployed are simply lazy and that, if they don’t want to be exploited as unpaid labour, they should go and get jobs (of which there is apparently a plentiful supply), and that he was not going to criticise the company for using workfare as he simply felt lucky to have a job in a time when many businesses are going under. A more perceptive person might have realised that these views are totally contradictory, one suggesting a booming labour market and another, more accurately, reflecting the ongoing job insecurity brought about by the economic crisis, however this did not occur to him.
As we began to run low on leaflets, some SolFed members brought out instruments and livened things up with old labour and protest songs like Solidarity Forever and the Diggers Song. The spirit of the songs, expressing the determination of working class people to stick up for each other, was a welcome relief from the purely self-centred viewpoint of the manager, who then made a last play for attention by making himself a sign suggesting that no one is made to work for free, coming out to argue with us again and ironically blocking the entrance to his own store with his placard.
Giving up on this he decided to put it in the window instead. If the sign had acknowledged this was only applicable to this one branch and that the company the branch was a part of was actually planning an enormous use of unpaid labour, we might have let that pass, but as it didn’t we simply held up our banner to block the sign.
Altogether the day was a great success. BBC supporters at the picket in London Road reported a similarly good response from the public, though less in the way of levity. We went away determined to continue the campaign against workfare and to keep bringing the fight to those who exploit unpaid labour with further actions to come.