There is a big difference between volunteering and being volunteered.
The UK is a world leader when it comes to volunteering. School governing bodies, sports and community clubs, hospital visiting and even blood donations thrive on the effort of volunteers.
Being ‘volunteered’ to travel from Bath, Bristol and Plymouth and dumped at 3am in central London with no shelter, food or supervision is another matter entirely.
Over 200 ‘volunteers’ were deployed to do a 14 hour Diamond Jubilee shift at London’s riverside by the security company Close Protection UK. In fact the majority were jobseekers and the deal was turn up, work for free and you may be considered for paid stewarding at the Olympics.
Failure to comply with the conditions of this government work programme can jeopardise benefit entitlement. Substituting unpaid labour for paid labour is exploitation. Worse still in this instance was the blatant disregard for the ‘volunteers’ health and wellbeing.
Forced to shelter under London Bridge in the middle of the night was passed off by Close Protection UK as a “logistical mistake”. It’s not surprising that unions and former deputy prime minister, Lord Prescott, have demanded an inquiry.
Downing Street described this neglect as an “isolated incident” but what do they base this claim on, how do they know that similarly unacceptable practices aren't happening elsewhere?
The head of Close Protection UK said the reports were “exaggerated” and whilst not denying any of the facts – she carped that only two or three of the 220 ‘volunteers’ complained.
To recap, get bussed to London, work 14 hours for free in the pouring rain or lose your benefit and any hope of being properly employed to do similar work at the Olympics. We should all be grateful that some had the courage to blow the whistle but that only a few did reinforce the probability that exploitation can easily go unreported.
There was no toilet provided or proper changing facilities, in this case people had to change in the street but Close Protection UK say normally workers change on the bus – that’s okay then?
Close Protection UK haven’t clarified whether they intend to use unpaid ‘volunteers’ to bulk out numbers to fulfil their Olympic contract.
With one in five young people not in employment, education or training I can see why government might want to massage the statistics by passing off such schemes as work experience.
Dragging Britain back to the Victorian era would be offensive at any time but the contrast between public expenditure on the Diamond Jubilee and forthcoming Olympics and this exploitation could not be greater.
Genuine Olympic volunteers have been provided with training, proper uniforms and have structured supervision and support.
Crowd control and security on the cheap is unacceptable exploitation and downright irresponsible. That’s why there must be an inquiry and government procurement based on decent work, training and a living wage.