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Protest at workfare with a Workfare Walk of Shame on your High Street

Crossposted from Boycott Workfare.

A couple of weeks ago, Kings Heath Against Workfare, a group campaigning to end workfare on their local high street in a Birmingham suburb, took their first action – a Workfare Walk of Shame.

This action was very successful and is something they felt should be repeated in other places.

There will be two more walks of shame in Birmingham in April – on Easter Monday in the city centre, and on Saturday 28 April in Acocks Green

Here is a guide to repeating the action on your high street from Tom, who led the walk in the video above:

The walk of shame works really well because you are visible up and down the high street for a good hour and as shoppers move from shop to shop, they see you time and again outside different places. This helps people to realise how widespread workfare is and to understand that this isn’t a little problem, or an isolated example.

The first time they walk past you, they might not take a leaflet, but the second or third time, they will.

As you move from shop to charity shop, you can explain the workfare schemes and problems with workfare, which gives the people who come along a much greater knowledge of the subject. 

Choose what you will talk about outside each shop and relate it directly to that place.

The step by step guide to running a workfare walk of shame (pun most definitely intended!):

Planning the route:

Plan out the route. Kings Heath High Street is pretty much one street with a few side streets, which makes it fairly easy to do.

Birmingham City Centre is more complicated. Plan this in advance, go around the city centre or high street and note down every shop or charity that you know or think is involved with workfare nationally.

If you know that a local shop uses workfare, note that down too. When you are on the walk, be clear if you know they are using people at that particular location or not.  In Kings Heath, we found that some charity shops were refusing to take workfare people, even though the charity is involved nationally.

Check your facts. Make sure the shop has not pulled out and that it is listed here. If you are not sure, leave it, or be clear on the walk that it is unclear. 

Target the big offenders for longer stops – ASDA, Holland and Barrett and Sue Ryder were the longest stops on our walk.  Most shops took 2-5 minutes. These were 10-15 minutes.

Make sure you stop outside places that have left the workfare schemes and highlight these. For those who have suspended their involvement, make it clear that until they’ve said they are leaving, it is best assumed they haven’t – after all, no company is about to put out a press release saying that they’ve gone back into a forced labour scheme.

When you’ve got a route planned, build the narrative around the locations to explain the different workfare schemes and highlight the problems with them.
For instance, in Kings Heath, I used Mind to talk about how some organisations take confusing positions on workfare and British Red Cross (which is one of the shops that does not use workfare in Kings Heath, but we know they do in Acocks Green because someone who came along is currently on a workfare placement there) to explain about the role that charities play in workfare schemes.

Poundland – who have pulled out of the mandatory schemes but continue to take part in the theoretically voluntary Work Experience Scheme – was used to explain the different schemes and why the dropping of sanctions on the Work Experience Scheme is a cheap trick, since anyone refusing to volunteer will get sent on a mandatory scheme instead.

The Job Centre stop was used to talk about unemployment, the failure of workfare to solve this problem and why the 50% success rate touted is fake.

Sue Ryder was planned to be talking about the introduction of ESA claimants to workfare. This was chosen because Sue Ryder is a cancer charity and terminal cancer patients with more than six months to live will be getting sent on the Work Programme in future. 

Following the intervention of the shop manager (see the video at the top of the post), it became an opportunity to talk about the difference between volunteering (which we support – as long as it is genuinely voluntary) and forced labour... a difference that the manager and two volunteers seemed unable to comprehend.

Other stops gave the opportunity to talk in more detail about other aspects of workfare – about the fraud and corruption at A4e, about the failure to secure worthwhile jobs for most participants, about the arbitrary nature of the scheme that sees everyone put onto them whether the work experience and help they should get could help them or not.

Planning and publicising the day

Have people prepared for different roles. Someone will need to guide the walk. They should have as much information as possible about workfare and about the involvement of different shops and organisations. 

You will also need people with leaflets and placards who can talk to the public on the day. If you are guiding the walk, be observant as you will find you need to wait for conversations to finish before moving on.

If possible, get someone to film and take photos of the event.

Once you’ve got a route planned, make accessibility information available. With people with disabilities being forced onto workfare programmes, it is vital that we make sure everyone knows that events are accessible. I would argue that you should avoid a route with steps, but this may not be possible. 

Make sure you provide the following information:

Whether it is a step free route

Length of route, in both distance and approximate time taken – make sure to mention that there will be regular stopoffs along the way

If you feel happy to, provide a map of the route beforehand using google maps, or in written directions. If your high street is a single street, this probably isn’t needed, but if it’s a city centre, it will be good for people who come late.

Provide information about the locations of accessible toilets and baby changing facilites along the route

Give distances and if needed, a map showing step free routes, from train stations and bus stops to the meeting point.

Specify whether the event is indoors or outdoors

If you are able to provide interpretation services into BSL or another language, or support like a creche facility, then tell people you can do this.

Even if something seems obvious to you, it may not be to someone else – especially if they are travelling from outside your town or city.  Providing this information allows people to judge whether an event is suitable for them and helps to make them feel welcomed. It could be the difference between someone with mobility issues attending or not attending.

On the day

Make sure you are prepared.  Notes on workfare, megaphone, banner/placards/leaflets.

Let other people speak – and tell them at the start that if they want to talk, they should just let you know.  People who attend may well have workfare stories they want to tell. They may even have been on a placement at one of the stores you are stopping at.

Make sure people know they can ask you questions.

Have someone go into the store, especially charity shops, and ask the manager if they want to come and make a statement or talk to the demonstrators. You will probably get told no at most places… but you might find some interesting reactions.

Remember that what you are doing is absolutely legal. You do not need permission from the police (unless you are holding the walk near parliament) or the council (unless you want road closures). If you find that a shop manager thinks they can get the police to move you on, don’t worry – unless you are blocking the pavement, the police powers are very limited. They can use section 12 powers, but only if they judge there is the threat of serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of a community.

I hope you find this guide useful. We were so happy with the results of the action that we are planning to repeat it around Birmingham in the city centre and major suburbs. As a form of demonstration, it works really well and we’d encourage other people to think about holding a walk of shame on their high street. 

Do comment with any questions or suggestions you have.


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