It was a busy weekend in London, what with the diamond jubilee going on. Thousands of royalists turned out to celebrate the Queen's big weekend of pomp, pageantry and patriotism despite the downfall. The weather offered an appropriate metaphor for what the events were all about, marking 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II's reign; a time of unparalleled social change.
Anyone that witnessed the 1,000-strong flotilla could have been forgiven for not realising, though.
David Cameron's "we're all in this together" mantra rings hollow at the best of times, but it's made to sound particularly insincere when unpaid jobseekers are shepherded into London overnight without properly-organised sleeping provisions and made to kip under a bridge before stewarding the royal pageant to ensure the Queen's jubilee celebrations go off without a hitch.
The jobseekers involved had volunteered their services under the government's own Work Programme, which arranges for companies and charities to take on unemployed workers without paying them. The incentive for large private companies is clear: why employ people on the minimum wage when you can get them to work for free?
It's been reported that the company hired to steward the event, Close Protection UK (CPUK), hired 50 "apprentices" who were paid £2.80 an hour (around half the minimum wage), and 30 unemployed jobseekers who were not paid at all.
Molly Prince, the managing director of the CPUK, the private security firm that used the unpaid jobseekers, said: "The only ones that won't be paid are because they don't want to be paid. They want to do this voluntarily, [to] get the work experience."
Prince's assertion, "they don't want to be paid", implies that the volunteers waltzed into London on a wave of jubilation befitting of the celebrations for Queen and country, ready to offer their services charitably, free of charge, because they're so bloody nice; blatantly disregarding the fact that jobseekers joined the scheme in order improve their chances of finding work and to avoid being stripped of their benefits. Ultimately, they do wish to earn money and escape the horrors long-term unemployment yields, like afternoons in front of the television watching Bargain Hunt.
Whilst it would be churlish to suggest that the organisational failings of CPUK are akin to the brutalities of slavery, Molly Prince shares her surname with an 18th century slave - who's autobiography, The History of Mary Prince, is said to have had a galvanising effect on the anti-slavery movement; which adds an ironic footnote to this sorry charade.
Assuming this affair will come to be referred to in a way that is customary to all post-Watergate scandals, 'Jubileegate' smacks of a lack of accountability from all involved. Downing Street has brushed off the incident was a 'one-off', whilst CPUK has suggested the coach drivers that they sub-contracted insisted on leaving following a timing mix-up, when none of their representatives could be reached.
I've been on many a coach trip in the past. On some of these occasions the driver has reacted unkindly to lateness, vociferously grumbling if people return to the coach later than the scheduled meeting time. This is not unreasonable. Coach driving is a profession that requires levels of patience and tolerance that the Dalai Lama would deem excessive. But the CPUK is surely culpable for failing to ensure all the volunteers were picked up; with those left behind forced to camp under a sodden London Bridge and change into uniforms in broad daylight.
The government's Work Programme is theoretically a good idea. Encouraging unemployed people to gain suitable skills and experience in preparation for full time work will put some of their free time to good use. However, when people are made to nap for two hours under a bridge before embarking on a 14-hour shift for no pay just to keep the £12m, 1,000-boat show on the, ahem, river; it could be considered that some form of exploitation is at work, and that the government's scheme needs greater regulation.
It appears that minimum wage jobs are being displaced by the Work Programme to create cheap labour. The Queen is financially supported to the tune of £30m annually via the sovereign grant, funded by British taxpayers. Perhaps the unpaid volunteers who braved hours of rainfall without shelter or toilet facilities - let alone a ceremonial barge from which to wave to the Union Jack-clad masses - could benefit from some of that money instead?
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