As a gloomy year comes to an end, we’re glad we can offer a ray of seasonal cheer with this tale of holiday workfare averted at the Colchester branch of Debenhams.
At the beginning of October we received tip-offs that eight-week workfare placements were under consideration at the Debenhams Colchester branch, organised with the local job centre. These would take place over the Christmas peak period as job centre ‘work experience’.
The store’s usual practice was to hire temps, pay the minimum wage and keep some on after January. This year – according to our tip-offs – the Colchester store manager has noted that Debenhams was struggling to recruit against other local department stores and it also had to cut payroll before the holiday season.
The solution? An alliance between Debenhams and Colchester Job Centre to exploit unemployed people during the Christmas rush. All staff in the store received a brief that cited partnering with the Job Centre. A manager was reported to say: “Job Centre pays them so we don’t touch them and if they’re rubbish we can send them away.” It was also reported that the head of human resources had given these placements the go-ahead.
We tweeted: “Looking for Xtra work before Xmas? You won’t find it @Debenhams Colchester. They’re using 8-week workfare placements instead.”
The response? Many tweeted they didn’t intend to shop at Debenhams, and a #boycottDebenhams hashtag began to take off. Under pressure from a groundswell of boycott sentiment, Debenhams soon responded on Twitter: “Debenhams Colchester has recruited 50 Christmas temporary staff to serve customers over peak with further interviews for additional roles planned. The store does not have a work experience programme in place or any work experience trainees in store…”
Clearly, this leaves quite a lot of questions unanswered, and we asked for clarification. Do these temporary recruits actually get paid? Does Debenhams have any other arrangement with the job centre to recruit benefit claimants as unpaid workers, or have they in the past? We queried Debenhams by email, but outside of the standard statement circulated on Twitter we didn’t receive replies to these questions. This wasn’t a surprise.
However, a Freedom of Information request later revealed that Colchester Job Centre was not involved with any unpaid placements at the local Debenhams. With the results of this FOI, it’s safe to conclude that the flurry on social media succeeded in cancelling any workfare arrangements that had been in the pipeline. Claimants were saved an eight-week term of unpaid labour, and indeed a number of temporary paid jobs were also saved.
This goes to show how important sharing information about workfare exploiters can be – shining the spotlight of publicity and action on them achieves results. The same tactics worked back in 2013 when we exposed the number of UK councils that were using workfare: Scarborough Borough Council – an especially intensive workfare exploiter – cancelled its Mandatory Work Activity placements almost overnight. Homebase, Homes for Haringey and others all pulled out when faced with negative publicity due to exploiting people on workfare. Earlier this year, the homeless charity Mustard Tree pulled out of workfare after a sustained campaign by Boycott Workfare Greater Manchester – which advised high-profile supporters of the charity what was going on and raised awareness of Mustard Tree’s involvement in workfare through pickets and distributing information. In 2015, Glasgow homeless charity Starter Packs pulled out because of adverse publicity. Likewise, North London Hospice stopped using conscripts on Community Work Placements in 2015 because after a publicity and action campaign by Haringey Solidarity Group. The list goes on. The negative publicity attached to workfare is the reason more than 650 charities have committed to have nothing to do with government workfare schemes.
Have a happy holiday!