In a bungled response to this week’s workfare ruling, broken toy retailers Poundland have attempted to brush off criticism of their use of forced labour, by admitting to employing a huge number of unpaid workers!
Poundland (@poundland) claim to have unpaid staff members at 71 of their stores in a revealing admission which is only like to re-invigorate the campaign by Solidarity Federation and others against their exploitative practices. Until now campaigners have been unsure about the true extent of workfare at the company.
In a major embarrassment for the DWP, the company are quick to distance themselves from any involvement with the current government workfare programmes stating: “This programme replaces any involvement with the Department of Work and Pensions prime providers and their work experience schemes.”
Sol Fed point out that their scheme sounds very similar to the Work Experience programme – the scheme that first hit the headlines early last year. This programme is at least notionally now voluntary after several major retailers including Waterstones and TX Maxx pulled out due to public outrage at the use of benefit sanctions to force people to work unpaid.
However – and this is key – with the ever increasing use of sanctions by Jobcentres, and both claimants and Jobcentre staff unsure about the rules due to endless DWP meddling, almost nothing can be said to be a ‘voluntary’ programme anymore. Claimants who refuse workfare at Poundland could just be sent on Mandatory Work Activity on one of the other schemes. Until benefit sanctions are removed completely as an attempt to police the benefits system, then all welfare to work schemes can be considered mandatory, in practice if not necessarily officially.
And even without sanctions, mutli-million pound companies thinking they can get away with employing young people for free should be fiercely resisted. How long before young people are expected to slave away for six months before they see a penny of wages, or a year? And what happens to existing workers when private companies start taking on hordes of unpaid staff with no workplace rights and use them to drive down wages and working conditions for everyone?
Poundland are not a charity. In no sense of the word can their participants be considered volunteers. Every worker deserves a wage – and if they don’t get one, it’s workfare.
It is unclear however what exactly Poundland’s involvement with the DWP is under this new contrived arrangement. If this is not a formal government scheme, then by the DWP’s own admission, it may be illegal.
The Work Programme provider guidelines clearly state: “As a general rule, persons participating in a relevant Government Scheme – which includes the Work Programme – designed to provide training, work experience or temporary work, or to assist in seeking or obtaining work, do not qualify for the National Minimum Wage (NMW) in respect of work done for an employer as part of that scheme.”
Helped by campaigns from the NUJ and Internaware, many interns have won backdated wages after being expected to work for free. If Poundland are not part of a formal Government scheme then they may be in for a shock as a wage bill lands on their doorstep, along with a bill from the tax office for backdated National Insurance payments.
If the DWP are correct (and even they don’t seem sure whether workfare workers should be paid the minimum wage or not), then even if Poundland’s scheme has some official status it could still be illegal.
Poundland boast on their website that a meagre 20% of unpaid workers are offered a job at the end of their provision. This appears to be a confirmation that for some candidate, successful completion of workfare at their stores could lead to employment. According to the DWP:
“Even if they are not paid by the employer, participants will qualify for the NMW (National Minimum Wage) if they are regarded as employees of the employer AND are participating in a trial period of work with that employer, in which the employer has agreed to offer a job to the participant if they successfully complete the trial, in cases where the trial is in excess of six weeks.”
If Poundland intend to offer 20% of workfare participants a job, then it sounds an awful lot like a trial period of employment. In any future workfare case brought under minimum wage regulations, it will be employers who could face a huge bill, not the DWP. Workfare could prove to be an expensive mistake for the cheap bastards at Poundland.
Join Sol Fed in South London for anti-workfare action tomorrow (Saturday 16th February) . Meet at the Poundland branch of the Aylesham Centre, Rye Lane, from noon, full details at: https://www.facebook.com/events/398008846962583/
Join the Week of Action Against Workfare beginning from March 18th – 24th: http://www.boycottworkfare.org/?p=1996
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