Becoming Green, a company which markets environmentally-sustainable energy to homeowners, has been exposed using prison labour on slave wages in its Cardiff call centre.
Almost 20% of the call centre’s staff in July and August were inmates from Prescoed prison in Monmouthshire, around 21 miles away from the centre. The prison workers were paid just £3 per day for their work.
Becoming Green had been employing the prisoners for 40-day periods, but as there is no centralised regulation on how long external employers can employ prison labour on “training contracts”, Becoming Green could keep employing prisoners on similar wage levels for much longer.
Although the Ministry of Justice claims it sought assurances from Becoming Green that prison workers would only be used to fill “genuine vacancies”, there is substantial evidence to suggest that the company has been exploiting prison labour in order to allow them to sack existing workers. A former Becoming Green worker told The Guardian that staff were informed in November 2011 that the company planned to begin taking on prison labour. Shortly afterwards, 17 workers were dismissed.
The former employee said: “As they started bringing more and more [prisoners] in, they started firing people … They would have kept their jobs if it wasn’t for the prison thing. They’d passed their probation period, they’d been there for several months. They’d maintained the level they were — that had been perfectly acceptable at that point. Then they [got] these people in for nearly free.
“Everyone was pretty miffed because at the end of the day there’s no way you can compete [with £3 a day].”
Andy Richards, Welsh secretary of the Unite union, said: “This looks likes a disgraceful and worrying development which follows the UK government’s already discredited Workfare scheme.
“It is nothing short of Dickensian to exploit prisoners by paying them just £3 a day while Cardiff call centre workers lose their jobs.”
The levels of exploitation in this case are manifold. Prisoners, forced to work for illegally low wages, are victims. Even within the framework of retributive models of “justice”, their prison sentences constitute their “punishment”; there is nothing in British law that says prisoners must become slaves as well. And Becoming Green’s full-time staff are victims too, as their bosses use the opportunity to hire nearly-free labour as a means of undercutting them.
Activists shame “workfare” employers
“Workfare” — forced unpaid work for people who need social security — can now be found on every high street.
Charities — which really should know the difference between forced labour and volunteering — are helping the government roll out workfare on a massive scale: British Heart Foundation’s policy director has stated for the record that every one of their 700 stores has Work Programme placements. To their shame, many other charities are also involved.
In August, a new workfare scheme was announced which will compel people to work without pay for so-called “community benefit”. In other words, community service-style sentences are being meted out for the crime of being unemployed. This comes on top of the plan to put 1.06 million people onto six months’ workfare, mainly in charity and public sector organisations.
Our actions have pushed back the spread of workfare on the high street, now it’s time that charities respond to the call.
Plans for a national day of action against charity involvement in workfare are brewing. Already, Liverpool has announced an action with others in the pipeline in Edinburgh and Brighton. London also has plans for the day. The London action will take place from 11.30am on Saturday 8 September, meeting outside the Nat West opposite Camden Town station.
Come along to this walk of shame to learn who’s in and who’s out and to step up the pressure on the charities which claim to help people but are pushing the unemployed into further poverty and exploitation.
27-31 August: join the ATOS games!
Atos is the company hired by the government to help them throw disabled people off benefits. Disgracefully, they are also a prominent sponsor of the Paralympic Games.
The Disabled People’s Action Coalition is organising a week of action against Atos across the country, and calling for the support and involvement of the whole anti-cuts movement. For information on how to get involved, see here.