love nor money: unpaid work at tesco

Sharon Borthwick looks at the absurd ideology behind last month’s row over workfare schemes

What a joke to have a national minimum wage if you are then allowed to pay your employees nothing at all. “Stacking supermarket shelves is better than dreaming of stardom via TV’s the X Factor”, smarms Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. For a quiet man he doesn’t half come out with a lot of shit. What of young persons more pragmatic dreams, to gain paid employment after education?


“The idea that we should allow a bunch of extremists to get in the way of providing genuine, voluntary help for young people is just crazy” says the indignant Chris Grayling referring to the successes of left groups including Boycott Workfare and Right To Work in either getting firms to withdraw from or postpone their involvement with the government’s workfare programmes, including Mandatory Work Activity whereby claimants can have their benefits withdrawn for thirteen weeks for not working for zero wages  for eight weeks.

“Genuine, voluntary help for young people”: who are the volunteers in this scenario, the gross profiting companies who would so generously have people work for them without pay, or the claimants who are threatened with the withdrawal of their benefits?

The right-wing press are, of course, making desperate attempts to smooth the way for the government’s slave labour details. The Mail waxes lyrical that out of 1,400 people who did work experience in Tescos, 300 gained permanent jobs. Lo, a mere 1,100 then, worked at the supermarket chain either at stacking shelves or other glamorous tasks for nothing. Moreover, as Britain’s biggest private employer, Tesco would have offered those 300 jobs up anyway, so those who did gain employment permanently were also done up like a kipper.

The term “job snobs” has also been bandied about. You are a total snob, apparently, for coveting a week’s wages for a week’s work. And actually, is it such a bad thing if you do not want to work in retail: does that make you so deeply ungrateful? Cait Reilly, who wasted two weeks of her life stacking shelves and mopping floors in Poundland is setting about taking legal action against the government. Cait, who has a degree in geology, had already found herself voluntary work in a museum, work she had to give up when told by Jobcentre staff that she would have her benefits stopped if she did not comply.

Article 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which was incorporated into the Human Rights Act in 1998 states, “1. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude. 2. No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.” Excluded from the term “forced or compulsory labour” is, “any work or service which forms part of normal civic obligations”. I think we might be able to rule out burger frying and mopping floors for extremely profitable corporations as part of our civic duty. And on that, note isn’t it a perfect insult to injury that many of these are the same duplicitous companies immersed in scheming to avoid paying billions in taxes?

Tory governments have a record of picking on the unemployed and particularly singling out the young. In the 1980s there was the dastardly Youth Unemployment Scheme, where youngsters were forced into full time work for £29 a week. And this was for two years! When they left the schemes they found themselves still untrained and uneducated and still unable to find employment; so much for training.

That same Thatcher government had destroyed real training opportunities, two million manufacturing jobs lost between the years 1979 and 1981. It was estimated that five million ended unemployed under that government, though they had various methods of fiddling the figures then to suggest it was less. There are other echoes of those times under our coalition rulers. It was after the riots of 1981 that Norman Tebbit, the then Employment Secretary, made plans for the Youth Training Scheme. Tebbit and Duncan Smith: what a shower.

Being a skivvy on a shop floor isn’t the sole type of unpaid work for the young. Last year the Conservative Party banned the press from their fundraising ball, but to no avail. We found out anyway that they were making money thanks to companies such as banks and hedge funds auctioning internships. This is a completely different kettle of fish. A foot in one of these doors and you can expect to rip off millions in a few years, no doubt. Meanwhile attacks are made on the ordinary working person. From 6 April 2012 the government has increased the qualifying period for bringing a case of unfair dismissal from one year to two. There are new threats being made on the right to strike and plans to charge workers for using tribunals, £250 to lodge the initial complaint and £1,250 if the case goes to a tribunal hearing, while the employer can write off the costs via compensation awarded against their tax.

There is something seriously wrong with a world in which the biggest employer is the US Department of Defense at 3.2 million, The next being the Chinese army at 2.3 million. After that it is Walmart and McDonalds, 2.1 million and 1.7 million respectively. Where do you register as a conscientious objector?

2 thoughts on “love nor money: unpaid work at tesco

  1. While this is a very good article, I did see opposition to workfare in the right-wing press: there was a prominent article in the Mail, and also a short piece on a Spectator (!) blog. While this appears welcome (ie workfare is so bad even the right wing press is dissenting), their general tone was extremely problematic. It was that ‘workfare was a nice idea regarding work experience, but it has failed’ – ie that the government initially intended to produce a genuine work experience scheme as opposed to giving free labour to their millionaire friends (the latter what they always intended to do).


  2. I thought that right wingers would oppose workfare as it is what they call socialism! (Government intervention in the market).

    Although the movement against workfare has obviousy been good in many respects, I thought it was weird to see people with red and black flags holding banners saying ‘a fair days work for a fair day’s pay’…. what ever happened to ‘abolition of the wages system’?!

    On a more down to earth note, the anti-workfare movement needed to be broadened out to show how casualised agency workers on low pay are sometimes earning less than those on benefits.


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