Early March saw protest action across the country against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) workfare schemes, as people became aware of the full scale of the Coalition government’s forced labour programmes, and the Staines area was no exception. On Saturday 3rd March, Egham High Street saw a small, but successful demonstration staged outside Holland & Barretts, one of the companies still using unpaided workers to boost profits. Despite the unusually large and intrusive police presence in Egham on the day, protesters came away in high-spirits: “We spoke to lots of local people today, most of whom were really supportive. People are really angry about this issue, and they are right to be!”
Earlier in the day, leaflets were distributed inside Egham Tesco’s, another company who had been exploiting workfare labourers until two days before. Protesters then staged a peaceful picket outside Holland & Barrett and opposite the British Heart Foundation shop, one of several charities taking on forced labour. Many local people took time out of their Saturday afternoon to discuss the workfare schemes and give protesters their support. The ridiculously heavy police presence was also a source of much bafflement and amusement.
Although billed as a “Work Experience” venture by the government and right-wing press, the reality of the workfare schemes is closer to that of the Victorian workhouses. All the workfare schemes are compulsory and the sanctions for refusal are forfeiture of benefits. The unemployed are given a non-choice: work 30 hours a week for a boss who isn’t prepared to pay you or lose the benefits you need to eat. This is an issue which affects all workers, not just those currently in unemployment. Every unpaid job represents a threat to those who rely on a wage to survive, as employers are encouraged to make use of free labour at the tax-payers’ expense, and the principle of a ‘fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ is trampled into the dust. Quite opposed to the spin of “helping the unemployed back to work”, workfare is actually setting the stage for selling the working classes into forced labour.
Fortunately, working class people are seeing the workfare schemes for what they are, and there has been an exodus of companies who do not want to be associated with what is essentially slave labour after the outcry of disgust from ordinary working people. If the pressure can be kept up over the coming months, then the entire workfare debacle looks ready to collapse.