Arriving at Finsbury Park station I come across a group of men people in high vis vests. Their vests read ‘Business and Community Warden’. I’ve learned to be suspicious of people who claim to be ‘public officers’ or ‘wardens’ so I went up to one to ask what they do. My mistrust quickly melts to sympathy. The man I am speaking to walks with a heavy head, sagging eyes and a narked expression. His colleagues also look seriously bored and disaffected.
He tells me he is on a six month, 30 hour per week Workfare placement. The work is a compulsory condition for receiving his Job Seekers Allowance – a meagre £240 a month to live off. Of this he has to pay his own travel (£88 a month) to get to and from his unpaid work. That leaves him a grand total of £152 a month (or £38 a week) for food, bills, and any other services or contingencies needed to maintain his home and his health. I don’t imagine his weekends are particularly lively.
The frown on his face creeps over my own. He tells me that he is not provide food, so many days he can’t afford to eat at work. One day he was ill with a virus and needed to miss a day. He was told that “that wasn’t good enough” so he worked through his illness. If he misses a day of work he loses 1 month pay. If he misses 3 days he loses months of pay.
I am left wondering how much time he and his fellow unemployed colleagues were able to look for work while they stood motionlessly and reluctantly outside the station waiting for members of the public to ask them directions. They told me that they “have a list of things to do” including patrolling local supermarkets (they have been dealing with shoplifters for both Sainsburys and Tesco) but mostly they have to just stand there. Why do these supermarkets (who have already dodged so much tax) get free forced labour from some of the borough’s most vulnerable involuntarily unemployed? Was it not these same corporations who lobbied so hard against the minimum wage and are now cutting costs on their own security? If they are benefiting from this labour then why don’t they, and not the tax payer, pay the Job Seekers Allowance ?
“How do I complain?” I ask the Warden.
“Phone the number on my vest and speak to Courtney Bailey, he’s the boss”
I get through to The Finsbury Park Business Forum. This is an odd place to be directing a complaint about a body of public wardens. The wardens are regularly briefed by the MET to carry out low level police patrol and ‘counter terrorism’ duties as a kind of forced volunteer unit of para- police. The Business forum’s website says that one of their duties is to ‘lower the perception of crime’ at the station. In helping the police clear the area of ASBOs this can be seen as the civilianisation of social cleansing. Poor people forced to police poor people on behalf of business.
Courtney Bailey meets my complaint by quickly becoming loud, aggressive and insulting. I press him on the scheme and he accuses me of being “wrong in the head”, “full of it” and “one of those anarchists” (he was at least right about that last point).
“Name me one person who is has no choice to work for us?!” he shouted.
“I’m not going to name them because you might report them to the Job Centre and they could lose their benefits” I replied.
He hung up.
Kerry- Anne Mendoza, in her fantastic new book: ‘Austerity: The Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Economy’ points out:
‘Article 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights clearly states: ‘No-one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.’ If the government threatens to withdraw a person’s sole lifeline unless they supply their labour, then it can clearly be argues that this labour has been obtained forcibly. The labour is also clearly compulsory.’
She goes on to point out that benefits such as the JSA are a safety net that help citizens ‘live in dignity’ and are a ‘foundation stone of social democracy’. Why are we now submitting people to compulsory work in order to get it?
I don’t envision Courtney Bailey has much affinity with his unpaid workforce. As well as being the Chair of Finsbury Park Business Forum he is also the chair of an energy company and the executive director of four other companies. On their website I learn that, in collaboration with Job Centre Plus, the Business Forum are providing ‘opportunities for people to gain work experience, educational and police training’. On digging a little deeper I found that the ‘training’ consisted of a one day visit from the Duncan Greenhalgh of the Metropolitan Police in ‘SELF
CONFIDENCE’ (their italics).
The Forum describes the Wardens as ‘volunteers’.
‘This is truly a community coming together as one team for a safer neighbourhoods in Islington…Our aim is to promote community solidarity and encourage neighbourhoods to identify and solve problems and be a trusted friend for Business and the Community.’
The newsletter thanks VIPs in the police, local businesses and stakeholders. Not a word of thanks goes to the Wardens themselves, who will be working without pay outside Finsbury Park station for the next six months. The scheme is soon set to be rolled out to Drayton Park, Arsenal, Highbury & Islington, Holloway Road, Angel, Camden, Kings Cross – tube and train stations.