Congratulations to the Guardian for exposing the workfare scandal that took place during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations — and, specifically, the £12m river pageant that took place on Sunday, when, in torrential rain, a flotilla of boats, including one carrying the Queen and other members of the Royal Family, travelled along the River Thames from Hammersmith to Tower Bridge. For my previous take on workfare, see The Tories’ Vile Workfare Project, and How It Has Now Infiltrated the NHS.
I was alerted to the Guardian's article yesterday evening, by a friend on Facebook, and, before I report on it and analyse it, I’m posting below the first three paragraphs of the article, as they perfectly capture the spirit of self-righteous exploitation that typifies the current government, and that stands in such stark contrast to the supposed celebration of the Jubilee, in which — as with the artificial age of austerity implemented by the Tories for ideological reasons, to destroy the state and privatise the whole of the UK — we are all supposed to be in it together:
A group of long-term unemployed jobseekers were bussed into London to work as unpaid stewards during the diamond jubilee celebrations and told to sleep under London Bridge before working on the river pageant.
Up to 30 jobseekers and another 50 people on apprentice wages were taken to London by coach from Bristol, Bath and Plymouth as part of the government’s Work Programme.
Two jobseekers, who did not want to be identified in case they lost their benefits, said they had to camp under London Bridge the night before the pageant. They told the Guardian they had to change into security gear in public, had no access to toilets for 24 hours, and were taken to a swampy campsite outside London after working a 14-hour shift in the pouring rain on the banks of the Thames on Sunday.
A private security firm, Close Protection UK, was responsible for stewarding at the Jubilee events, and a spokesman told the Guardian that they were "using up to 30 unpaid staff and 50 apprentices, who were paid £2.80 an hour, for the three-day event in London," and that "[u]npaid staff were expected to work two days out of the three-day holiday." The spokesman added that "the unpaid work was a trial for paid roles at the Olympics, which it had also won a contract to staff."
Close Protection UK is part of Colossus Security, who describe themselves as "Security in London specialists in all disciplines of security sector services, from manned guarding and door supervision, to close protection UK, Event Security service and residential security services." They add, "We provide security operatives across a variety of industries, ranging from corporate, commercial and residential security guarding, to executive protection, event security management, construction site security and show security services."
A woman who was one of the unpaid workers for the river pageant,told the Guardian that "people were picked up at Bristol at 11pm on Saturday and arrived in London at 3am on Sunday," as the Guardian put it. She explained, "We all got off the coach and we were stranded on the side of the road for 20 minutes until they came back and told us all to follow them. We followed them under London Bridge and that’s where they told us to camp out for the night … It was raining and freezing."
Another worker, described by the Guardian as a "30-year-old steward," said that the conditions under the bridge were "cold and wet and we were told to get our head down [to sleep]," and added that it was "impossible to pitch a tent because of the concrete floor."
The woman also explained that all the workers "were woken at 5.30am and supplied with boots, combat trousers and polo shirts." She said, "They had told the ladies we were getting ready in a minibus around the corner and I went to the minibus and they had failed to open it so it was locked. I waited around to find someone to unlock it, and all of the other girls were coming down trying to get ready and no one was bothering to come down to unlock [it], so some of us, including me, were getting undressed in public in the freezing cold and rain." The male workers, the Guardian noted, "are understood to have changed under the bridge."
The female steward also said that, after the pageant was over, the workers took the Tube to a campsite in Theydon Bois, in Essex, where some of them "had to pitch their tents in the dark." As she explained, "London was supposed to be a nice experience, but they left us in the rain. They couldn’t give a crap … No one is supposed to be treated like that, [working] for free. I don’t want to be treated where I have to sleep under a bridge and wait for food." The other steward — a man — added, "It was the worst experience I’ve ever had. I’ve had many a job, and many a bad job, but this one was the worst."
The Guardian also noted that both of the stewards "said they were originally told they would be paid," but that, when they got to the coach on Saturday night, before the journey to London, they "were told that the work would be unpaid and that if they did not accept it they would not be considered for well-paid work at the Olympics."
When the Guardian asked Close Protection UK for a comment, the company claimed to have "spent considerable resources on training and equipment that stewards could keep" (also claiming that they had spent "up to £220 on sponsoring security training licences for each participant and that boots and combat trousers cost more than £100″), and added that "the experience was voluntary and did not affect jobseekers keeping their benefits." Molly Prince, CPUK’s managing director, issued a statement, in which she claimed, "We take the welfare of our staff and apprentices very seriously indeed." She also claimed that the work was part of the training of many of those involved, and pointed out that "festival and event work" was "hard work and not for the faint-hearted."
Also involved in the work programme was the charity Tomorrow’s People, which set up the placements at Close Protection UK. Although the charity was one of eight youth charities supported in the Guardian and Observer's Christmas appeal last year, and describes itself as "an innovative national employment charity that is changing the lives of some of society’s most excluded and marginalised people through work," it was officially censured in August 2010 by the Charity Commission after its chief executive Debbie Scott appeared in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto, in a full-page picture. The Commission noted that this "amounted to giving the charity’s support to the Tories," even though "charities must not support or oppose political parties or candidates, but can campaign on a policy that coincides with that of a political party.
The Guardian noted that Abi Levitt, the director of development services at Tomorrow’s People, promised to "undertake a review of the situation as a matter of urgency," but made a point of stating that "Tomorrow’s People believes strongly in the value of work experience in helping people to build the skills, confidence and CV they need to get and keep a job and we have an exemplary record going back nearly 30 years for our work with the long-term unemployed."
Today, responding swiftly to the outrage that greeted the story, with over 37,000 people having shared the Guardian's story on Facebook, the former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott wrote to Theresa May, the home secretary, stating that he was "deeply concerned" by the Guardian's revelations, and noting that the situation raised "very serious questions" about the "suitability of using private security contractors to do frontline policing instead of trained police officers." He added that CPUK had shown a "blatant disregard for the care of its workers."
"It is totally unacceptable that young unemployed people were bussed in to London from Bristol, Bath and Plymouth and forced to sleep out in the cold overnight before stewarding a major event with no payment," he wrote. "I am deeply concerned that a private security firm is not only providing policing on the cheap but failing to show a duty of care to its staff and threatening to withdraw an opportunity to work at the Olympics as a means to coerce them to work unpaid."
He added, "I call on you to immediately investigate this matter and alert the Security Industry Authority to see if CPUK has breached its SIA approved contractor status. I believe that this could be a breach of 2.3.1(f) of the SIA approved contractor status terms and conditions of approval, which states a contractor can have approved status removed if it is 'found no longer to meet the fit and proper person criteria applied by the SIA.’"
As the Guardian put it, he "ended the letter by calling for an investigation into the matter and calling for CPUK’s contract for the Olympics to be urgently reviewed."
The Guardian also explained that CPUK has now issued "sincere apologies" for what it is calling the "London Bridge incident." In a statement, Molly Prince claimed, "The London Bridge incident should never have happened but was to some extent outside our control, the coach drivers insisted on leaving. For this we sincerely apologise, on investigation this morning the majority of the team were happy, fed and looked after as best possible under the circumstances." The statement added, "We are not in the business of exploiting anyone."
Mentioning the unpaid workers, Prince’s statement claimed, "The only ones that won’t be paid are because they don’t want to be paid. They want to do this voluntarily, [to] get the work experience." She added, as the Guardian put it, "This was because they would no longer be able to claim jobseeker benefits if they accepted a wage for the work."
Molly Prince’s Twitter and Facebook accounts have been disabled since the story broke, presumably because of the volume of complaints she received from those who had read the Guardian's article, and who were unimpressed that people were working for no money — whether treated abusively or not — at a £12m event that was designed not only to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, but also to celebrate the UK.
In Britain today, there are those — in the government, and in parasitical companies that have arisen to take taxpayers’ money in exchange for providing training for jobs that don’t exist — who believe that it is appropriate that people were working for nothing at the Jubilee, just as they are enthusiastic that similar schemes will facilitate the deployment of slave labour at the Olympics as well.
I dislike intently having to share my country with these devious and unprincipled opportunists, who are diverting attention from the real problems — that there are five times as many unemployed people as there are jobs, and that the government has no credible plans for job creation — by blaming the unemployed (and, it should be noted, the disabled) for being unemployed in the first place.
This is immoral, unethical and thoroughly disgraceful, although it is clearly part of the government’s "survival of the fittest" plan to dissolve the state, to destroy the public sector, and to make everyone totally self-sufficient — consigning them to squalor and misery if they are unemployed or disabled, or if they have made it to old age without being rich. I cannot accept that the staging of the Jubilee events — like the imminent staging of the insanely expensive Olympics — can legitimately involve any unpaid work whatsoever, given the amount of money swilling around at a corporate level — most of which is coming straight out of taxpayers’ wallets.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, "The Complete Guantánamo Files," a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new "Close Guantánamo campaign," and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.