Slavery alive in Cameron's "Big Society"
Slavery and exploitation are sadly alive and well in the UK.
That is the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the Guardian’s revelations that the company contracted to provide stewards for the Jubilee events in London bussed unemployed people and apprentices into the city, where they worked without adequate toilet facilities and were instructed to sleep rough under London Bridge.
The essential facts are these: that Close Protection UK, the stewarding provider, transported 30 unemployed jobseekers and 50 apprentices earning a mere £2.80 per hour from Plymouth, Bristol and Bath into London to work; that those working for free were doing so after being informed that this would potentially be a means of gaining further (paid) work at the Olympics; that Close Protection UK required them to work 14 hour long shifts and further breached their obligations as an employer by denying the stewards access to toilet facilities; that Close Protection UK had made no arrangements for providing accommodation and that the company saw fit to instruct its workers to sleep rough in wet conditions.
This should be illegal. In fact, as a former UNISON representative, I think it is.
Other Liberal Democrats have been expressing their disgust, none of them more outraged than the excellent blogger George W Potter. Potter asks pertinent questions about the costs of stewarding and the levels of profiteering from companies such as Close Protection UK who appear to put profit ahead of either quality of service or basic employment rights. He rightly identifies “people [being] duped into working long hours, in rubbish accommodation and without adequate sanitation, without getting paid” as slavery and views it as a by-product of the government’s Welfare to Work programme.
I don’t disagree with him. Furthermore, I think he’s absolutely correct to ask about Liberal Democrat complicity in this. It is completely unacceptable that people should be treated in this way; aside from the unbelievably shoddy way they were treated while “at work”, there is also the uncomfortable fact that unemployed people were essentially coerced into working for free on a public holiday. I can only imagine what Her Majesty might make of this, but personally I am appalled – both by the actions of the company in question and the thinking behind welfare programmes that allow this to happen.
Potter is concerned that as a Lib Dem activist it’s becoming increasingly hard to be “coalition positive”. Well, I learned that lesson as a candidate in the Scottish parliamentary elections last year. All the positive pronouncements from party HQ heralding policy successes in government count for nothing in comparison to experience on the ground. When that experience is one of exploitation and modern-day slavery occurring at the biggest public event of the year, the government stands condemned by either its inaction or the failure to fully appreciate the ramifications its initiatives would have in practice. At the very least I would argue that insufficient measures have been put in place to ensure that private companies using apprentices and long-term unemployed people adhere to very basic employment obligations.
This is Cameron’s Britain, and this particular incident a glimpse into the reality of his much heralded “Big Society”. It might not be the “Big Society” he imagined, with a virtuous willingness to contribute to societal well-being at its core, but it is certainly one he has helped design – one in which exploitative businesses become increasingly reliant on low-paid and unpaid workers. This is not an isolated incident, even if the key details are somewhat shocking. It is a consequence of a broken ideology, one which undermines genuine employment creation through its culture of dependency on (and the exploitation of) the unpaid and one which calls into question Nick Clegg’s commitment to social mobility. If the Deputy Prime Minister is serious about creating a fairer society he would do well to recognise that he must move beyond an emphasis on the importance of early years development, and that he should as a matter of priority be looking to challenge the inequalities that lead to slavery - the kind of thing my party membership card states as our raison d'etre. His current strategy isn’t working and isn’t likely to without an acceptance that children’s life chances and expectations are shaped by parents' experiences, and that social mobility is linked to economic mobility. When those experiences are exploitation, disregard, detachment and poverty what real chances will children of today’s underprivileged families have tomorrow?
Potter is right to use the term "slavery". We cannot afford to be anything other than frank when dealing with exploitation of this kind. However, this is simply a symptom of a wider problem that has been growing for some time, with more and more employers becoming dependent on temporary or unpaid workers. Close to home, within the NHS I have witnessed increased use of such workers (as distinct from employees, and with fewer rights) while it has become practically impossible to secure a substantive post. The picture is predictably grimmer in the private sector. For potentially the first time since the Victorian era, we are seeing the emergence of an underclass of people whose only purpose is to serve their social superiors as their own conditions are progressively eroded or undermined.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with volunteering. I’ve done a fair bit of it in my life, from political activity and charitable work to coaching football teams. It can be a useful way to gain social and employment experience and, if facilitated properly, represents a positive and enriching opportunity. What is patently immoral is for such volunteering to be forcibly required, for volunteers to be bullied and intimidated, for them to be treated as sub-human and expected to work and sleep in unacceptably poor conditions, for them to work excessively long shifts, for them to replace an essential service or for them to exist only to satisfy their employer’s need to keep the wage budget as low as possible.
If those apprentices and volunteers had freely given their time to gain some experience at a big event away from home, where they were shadowing experienced staff and in receipt of some half-decent accommodation (we’re not necessarily talking the Hilton here) then I would be praising Close Protection UK for their willingness to provide opportunity to those most in need of it. As it is, they are guilty of the kind of institutional exploitation so decried by the likes of Dickens and Kingsley - while the government must accept responsibility for shaping the conditions in which slavery not only occurs but has the potential to thrive.
Ultimately responsibility for this lies with Iain Duncan Smith and the Prime Minister. However, Nick Clegg has significant influence and must at the very least express his dismay at these events and the attitudes of companies who interpret the government’s Welfare to Work scheme as a licence to exploit and profiteer. He should also point out that the government's direction is contributing to the problem while also undermining the new employment prospects in the private sector the economy desperately needs. Decency as well as personal credibility requires it.
Slavery should not be tolerated in any form, especially not as a by-product of the Prime Minsiter's vision for a "Big Society" in which corporate greed rules. What is beyond question is that the government's approaches to welfare and job creation are failing and that we're certainly not "all in this together".