The dirty underbelly of the Jubilee pageant

Published on Labour List, by Kerry McCarthy, June 6, 2012.

So we now know that some of the rain-sodden stewards shivering as they surveyed the crowds gathered to watch the splendour of the Jubilee pageantry were ‘volunteers’ on the Government’s Work Programme. They’d been bussed to London from Bristol, Bath and Plymouth: some under the impression they were getting paid; others hopeful it would lead to lucrative paid employment stewarding at the Olympics; others fearful that they’d be sanctioned and lose their benefits if they didn’t take part.  

They arrived in London at 3am and were eventually shown to an area under London Bridge, where they were told they’d be camping for the night or, rather, for the next two hours until their shift started. The director of the company who’d hired them, Mary Prince of Close Protection UK, later said that the ‘London Bridge incident’ was a mistake. The coaches shouldn’t have driven off and left them. They’d arrived much earlier than expected. And so on. But I’ve been told they were asked to bring tents and sleeping bags with them, which rather puts paid to that defence.

People’s attention has been captured by the sleeping under the bridge element of this story (I’ve been told they couldn’t pitch their tents on the concrete and it was too cold and wet to sleep). They’ve been rightly appalled that despite all the money being spent on the pageantry and the £1.5 million allocated for the security, no-one could find a few quid to pay these stewards at least the minimum wage and put them up in a hostel for the night.

And there are questions to be asked about how and why this happened. About the quality of Work Programme ‘training’, and the NVQ Level 2 in stewarding that these stewards were studying for, and when is work experience really work experience and when is it using unpaid labour – some would say, slave labour – to do a job that a company could and should be paying someone to do? … //

… There are also questions to be answered about who benefitted financially from this, and who knew unpaid labour was being used. How much was the contract worth to Close Protection UK? Were they awarded the contract on the basis that they’d use unpaid labour and if so, were the organisers happy with this? Or did the organisers believe – or maybe just assume – that the stewards would be paid? If it was the latter, did Close Protection pocket a tidy sum at the stewards’ expense?

John Prescott has also started to ask questions about the security implications of hiring unqualified, inexperienced and unpaid staff for such an important occasion, as has my Labour colleague Bill Esterson, and both are questioning whether Close Protection should be allowed to keep its Olympics contract.

For the Labour Party, I think we also need to debate the parameters around the Work Programme, workfare – and now, the prison labour – debate. There is a Boycott Workfare campaign, and some companies have already pulled out of the scheme in the face of public disapproval. I certainly don’t believe profitable high street companies should be able to use a regular supply of unpaid labour as a substitute for giving people proper paid work. Today, however, I visited a charity, the Secret World of Wildlife Rescue. It looks after wounded or abandoned wildlife – badger cubs, hedgehogs, foxes – and relies on volunteers. They can’t afford to pay people, but wouldn’t be exploiting anyone. So maybe it then becomes an issue of whether it’s genuinely voluntary and geared towards the unemployed person’s interests and aspirations? Or should people on benefits be made to work for their keep, regardless?

As I said, this is a debate we need to have, but let’s not let it take the spotlight away from what has been exposed of the dirty underbelly of the jubilee pageant this weekend. We need to get to the bottom of why this happened, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. (full text).

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