As a previous regular donor to my local British Heart Foundation (BHF) store, I wish to complain about your organisation’s use of ‘workfare’ placements along with the misleading information about the nature of the schemes on BHF’s website.
You state on your website that:
“Our shops rely on the efforts of paid staff, volunteers and people on schemes and placements. Every new person goes through the same process, irrespective of which route they have used to come through our doors. Our shop managers have a discussion with all applicants to ensure that their joining us is appropriate and mutually beneficial. If either side feels that this will not be the case, the applicant will not take up a position with us.” (1)
I believe this statement to be a deliberate misrepresentation of the nature of the Government scheme from which BHF draw many staff. As BHF are doubtless aware, those on Mandatory Work Activity, and some of those on the Work Programme, face having benefits removed should they not attend workfare placements. They are not ‘applicants’ but have been sent, under threat of sanction, to attend BHF. A claimant is therefore unable to say that they do not feel the placement will be “appropriate or mutually beneficial” as this may result on benefits being stopped. Anecdotal evidence is clearly emerging which suggests many workfare staff at BHF do not consider the placement appropriate and beneficial, as an examination of workfare staff in just one BHF store found:
“Before I could even ask a question, the young woman at the desk hearing why I was there, said quietly and emphatically ‘it’s not nice here, it’s not nice here’. She went on to tell me that she had a qualification in retail and so ‘it’s not benefiting me at all’.”
I went over to the three men who were fixing a broken wardrobe. ‘It’s a punishment’ one of the men told me as he hammered a nail into the wardrobe ‘it’s nothing to do with work experience, if you miss a day your benefits are stopped, it’s about stopping people from claiming benefits…Yes, I really appreciate this work experience, the 13 years of work I’ve done managing clubs in London really wasn’t enough’” (2)
Evidence suggests that Mandatory Work Activity (MWA) has no benefit in helping people find work (3). The Social Security Advisory Committee pointed out that this scheme cannot be volunteered for and could be regarded as a punishment. The Committee also warned of the prospect of disabled people being referred to Mandatory Work Activity without “proper safeguards being put in place around unrealistic expectations of what they could do.” It is clear this could also apply to those unwell due to a heart condition. The Committee recommended that “Mandatory Work Activity Does Not Proceed.” (4)
Whilst BHF claim some workfare staff have gone on to work with the charity, it is crucial to note that under current guidelines, workfare placements must not come with a potential job offer attached. (5) In the interests of transparency, are BHF prepared to release details of how many of the 1,600 people on Work Programme or MWA with the BHF have moved into paid work with charity and how many have completed an NVQ in Retail or Customer Services as part of their placement?
Due to the recent re-assessment for health related benefits, hundreds of thousands of claimants have been moved from sickness or disability benefits onto Job Seekers Allowance - including many people suffering from heart conditions. Several people have been found ‘fit for work’ only to die from heart disease days later (6). Many people may be suffering from heart related conditions which limit the amount of work they can do, however they can now be mandated to undertake full time unpaid work, possibly in a BHF shop.
BHF recommend that for those diagnosed with a heart condition: “Your GP or heart specialist will help you decide when you are fit enough to return to work.” Under MWA, claimants could be referred to workfare regardless of the opinion of their GP or other medical specialist.
I therefore wish to make a complaint on the following grounds:
1) Workfare is unethical. Workfare for those with health conditions even more so. Can it really be considered acceptable that somebody with a heart condition could find themselves forced to work without pay in British Heart Foundation’s charity shops? Stress is a well known aggravating factor in heart disease, and the constant threat of benefits sanctions and unpaid labour are hugely stressful for unemployed benefit claimants. BHF themselves recommend that doctors, not jobcentres, are the best guide of whether someone with a heart condition is fit to work.
Even if BHF were able to screen out potential unpaid workers who may face health risks due to MWA, the charity’s involvement in the scheme implies an endorsement. A charity such as BHF should not appear to support a government policy which is potentially detrimental to the health of those unemployed and diagnosed with heart conditions. There is a clear conflict of interest between BHF’s desire to improve the health of those with a heart condition and the charity’s desire to gain free labour from workfare schemes.
I believe BHF’s use of workfare workers who may have diagnosed, or undiagnosed heart conditions, and the apparent endorsement of MWA, breaches Hallmark 1 of the Charity Commission’s Hallmarks of an Effective Charity which states: “An effective charity is clear about its purposes, mission and values and uses them to direct all aspects of its work.”
2) Whether an organisation uses workfare staff has become a major factor in whether people choose to donate to that charity. BHF is evasive about the nature of their involvement. The claim that all those working unpaid with BHF have agreed that their placement is “beneficial and appropriate” cannot be substantiated by facts and is contradicted by anecdotal evidence. Even if the conversation between shop managers and those referred to workfare takes place, the claimant is unable to provide an honest answer. A claimant who tells the manager they don’t want to work in a BHF Shop will have benefits sanctioned. Therefore no potential workfare staff can make the choice to “not take up a position” with BHF.
BHF’s statement gives a false impression of consent on behalf of workfare workers. This Breaches Hallmark 6 of an Effective Charity which states: “An effective charity is accountable to the public and others with an interest in the charity in a way that is transparent and understandable.”
Please treat this letter as a formal complaint. My attempt to speak to somebody on the telephone at BHF on this matter was unsuccessful despite numerous attempts. Therefore should a response not be forthcoming within 28 working days I will refer the complaint to the Charity Commission.