Co-operating with the council

Cover of STIR Summer 2016Local councils across the UK are recognising the benefits of workers’ co-operatives for the local economy and community. But is this just an excuse for pushing through more privatisation? How can co-ops work with councils for their benefit?

This is the focus of my article in the Summer issue of STIR magazine, out now. The issue’s focus is ‘the future of work’ covering topics such as mutual aid networks, the music sharing industry and what internet culture can learn from co-ops.

Find out more about the issue here at the STIR website.

 

 

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No such thing as a free ride

First appeared on the alt.cardiff website on Thursday 14 December.

People on controversial work placements in Wales are working unpaid while unemployed. Critics see this as unfair but supporters argue getting experience is vital

Person working in Primark

In the ‘big society’ there is no place for those who don’t pull their weight, but in Wales there are now 137,000 people unemployed, a record amount.

Jobcentres arrange a variety of work experience to get people back into employment. One of these schemes is Mandatory Work Activity (MWA), where people undertake compulsory unpaid placements, or lose their benefits.

People can be referred to MWA at any time but they have usually been receiving jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) for at least 13 weeks. Placements are up to 30 hours a week, for four weeks.

Specialist providers such as A4e and Rehab JobFit are contracted to deliver placements through a variety of businesses and organisations. Since June 2011 Rehab JobFit has provided placements for 349 people in Wales. Over two thirds of these are in South East Wales, for organisations including YMCA and Wales Air Ambulance.

While some see MWA as work people should do for benefits, others see it as slave labour. Public Interest Lawyers have begun legal action against MWAdescribing it as “unlawful forced labour”.

Wasted skills?

It has been reported people doing MWA are forced to work in shops like Poundland and Primark, despite any other skills or experience. But some have managed to get placements suited to them.

Katie Simpson, 23 and living in Cardiff, has done two unpaid work placements during two years of unemployment. She said the first, compulsory and arranged through A4e, was for 13 weeks. She was expected to do 20 hours of work a week and five hours job hunting, but says she did get an extra £15 in JSA. She was also able to work for the Youth Offending Service where she already volunteered.

Bronwen Davis, also living in Cardiff, had been unemployed for 18 months when the jobcentre told her she had to do a work placement. She arranged her own with a music studio. “I don’t think a lot of people realise you can do that, but it can be a good opportunity to go and try something you’re interested in,” she said.

She said through running drumming workshops she learned more about working freelance and became more confident about self employment, which is her aim. “I did feel exploited though,” she said. “The company was getting hundreds of pounds a day and I wasn’t getting paid.”

Learning on the job

Katie’s second placement was with a claims management company and although it wasn’t compulsory she was told she had a strong chance of a job if she took it. “I was pretty reluctant to the idea, the placement was full-time. If I worked there I’d struggle to find any time to search for other positions,” she said.

It went well initially and Katie began to apply for jobs at the company but, “By week six the pressure of the job, with an income of £53 a week, started to take its toll and I took a couple of days off sick,” said Katie, who suffers from depression. When she returned she says she was given a disciplinary.

Katie was given the opportunity to sit on the team she had recently applied for a job with but the manager questioned her on her absences. “I knew this wasn’t strictly legal,” said Katie.

After three months another manager confessed to her that she had no chance of a job. “She said that for every application I had applied for there were more experienced individuals applying,” said Katie.

Katie doesn’t feel the placement was worth the work experience. “I had been talked down to nothing,” she said. “I felt incredibly depressed about my abilities. It’s an experience I would rather forget.”

Katie McCrory, media relations manager for A4e, said, “Lack of experience is one of the main reasons why people get turned down for jobs they apply for.”

Rob Fitt from Rehab JobFit, another provider, said MWA helps people, “establish the discipline and habits of working life, such as attending on time or regularly.” But many people have had previous employment.

Boycott Workfare campaign against compulsory, unpaid work experience. A spokesperson said MWA does not tackle unemployment successfully. “We haven’t received any news of people being offered full time paid positions,” he said.

He says they have no evidence people are being matched with relevant skills. “It seems where retail companies are concerned, people are being mandated to stack shelves,” said the spokesperson.

MWA can be seen as a way for businesses to get free labour at the expense of the state, and taking on paid staff, but some argue it is fair that people should have to work for their benefits. Employment minister, Chris Grayling,has said about work programmes: “No one should expect to be able to sit at home doing nothing.”

But with employment levels at a record high in Wales, and austerity measures taking hold, there is increased frustration that in the ‘big society’ hard work counts for nothing.

Dust From A Distant Sun: Cambodia’s Garment Workers

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on 4 February 2011

Over 300 garment workers in Cambodia have lost their jobs after striking for a ‘living wage’ in the latest dispute between workers and bosses for better pay and conditions.

So why should you care? Well, next time you’re choosing your out-of-office / weekend attire, remember that certain high street brands such as Gap, Zara and H&M, get some of their clothes from many of the factories involved (according to Labour Behind The Label).

Before my own trip to Cambodia – alongside a reporting crew in December 2010 –  we had been briefed on the country: the cultural dos and don’ts, the weather, and what issues the country faced. One of the things that interested me particularly was that some freedom of speech was slowly being eroded in Cambodian society, and there were people who were becoming more reluctant to take part in strikes or protests.

While doing further research for the trip, a story about Cambodian garment workers clashing with police caught my eye . The workers had gone on strike after the suspension of a union official. I was curious after what we had been told so tried to find out more on my trip…

In Cambodia I had a chat with a local development worker Simorn, who works for DCA/CA’s Joint  Programme* (a partnership between Danish Church Aid and Christian Aid). Simorn said often the companies say no to things like higher wages because they have to pay out money for things like electricity, as Cambodia’s garment industry wasbadly hit by the recession.

Simorn also explained how some garment workers suffer abuse at the hands of management in the factories. Some union workers have tried to negotiate for better conditions but have had little success, and unrest among workers had been worsened by the assassination of one of the most popular and outspoken union leaders,Chea Vichea in 2004.

According to the president of the Cambodian Labour Federation, Ath Thom, the latest dispute over unfair dismissals involves 379 workers from 18 factories. But Ken Loo, the secretary general of Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said he thought these figures were inflated and that most of the suspended workers had been reinstated.

Ath Thom has appealed to the Prime Minister and sent a letter to the Ministry of Labour about the situation. According to Labour Behind The Label, the government has called on employers to reinstate workers, and the charity says the actions of employers are in contravention of the Cambodian Constitution and Labour Laws.

Now various NGOs and organisations, led by Clean Clothes, are calling for people to contact H&M, Gap and Zara to increase pressure on their suppliers and show their customers that they are committed to ‘freedom of association’ in Cambodia.

It’s your choice how you take action – but do acknowledge that our Cambodian brothers and sisters need our support; support that is warranted, as we, as the consumers of the products they make, play a part in this equation.