It was a week of small victories for the Right to Work campaign, starting last weekend with the temporary closure of a small Tesco store in Westminster that had been encircled by its protestors, continuing with the supermarket chain's subsequent decision to pay people on the government's controversial (as it must now seemingly always be prefixed) Get Britain Working programme, and ending with Burger King deciding to pull out of the scheme altogether.
Tesco, for the record, insists Right to Work's placard-wielding supporters had nothing to do with its offer to pay people on the scheme, but said it was instead about "doing the right thing and making it clearer, making it a scheme that's going to help people to get back into work."
And here's the point: if anyone is going to take the programme seriously, which I don't doubt was created with the very best intentions, it has truly and honestly got to be about helping people to get back into work, not about cheap labour and not passing off the idea of stacking shelves as the first step on the ladder to career fulfilment.
Not of course that there's anything wrong with stacking shelves. I've done it, in-between serving cheese and sitting behind the tills at the local Sainsbury's near where I grew up. The amount of shelf stacking I did being in direct proportion to how much trouble I was in for talking too much to the customers on the deli counter. (Or if I'd really been talking too much, banished to stock-check duty, which is essentially un-stacking shelves and then re-stacking them again, the hell of which could render me mute for up to three weekend shifts.)
Did it prepare me for a future career in journalism? Not unless I'd chosen to become a food writer with a specialty in cheese, but I needed the money and I was at least being paid money, rather than being threatened without it if I didn't turn up.
Of course the issue at stake here doesn't have anything to do with shelf stacking and it's also not really about over-qualified individuals doing jobs they consider menial. It's about getting those who've been claiming benefits for long periods of time getting back into a work habit. How you do that without big companies exploiting those same people is the question at the heart of what is now an embarrassing mess for the government.
Burger King hasn't pulled out because its head honchos looked at the details and decided the scheme was a bad one. They've turned tail and run, one would assume, because someone said 'slave labour' and they didn't want to be associated with the negative headlines. In fact, like all the other big businesses who suddenly released hyperbolic press releases damming the whole idea of Get Britain Working, they saw an opportunity for some positive press if they shouted loudly about how terrible it was. What would be even better is if they just started hiring more people.
For the record, I also don't think it's a bad idea to expect those on JSA to do some sort of work, even if it isn't the work of their dreams, if they're to continue claiming their benefits. When they do that work, however, it must be paid at a fair wage, and they shouldn't be penalised for making that effort. If we lived in a decade and a country where jobs were going spare, it would of course make that whole idea far easier to instigate.
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