“Karina” is 24 years old and lives in East London. She is a British citizen, originally from Bangladesh. She was told she had to “volunteer” in a Primark store for nearly six months or she would lose her unemployment benefit.
How long were you claiming unemployment benefit before you had to volunteer at Primark?
Not long. March 2009 was my first claim. The placement was seven months after. [Before that] I was going to college [to learn English]. I paid £50 for it. Then when I went to the job centre they told me: “Now it’s the New Deal. You’re going to a placement”. I told them my English was not good but they said: “It doesn’t matter, you have to go. If you’re not going, we’ll stop your money.” They told me they would stop my JSA [Job Seekers’ Allowance] so I stopped my English course.
The first [placement] was with the British Heart Foundation. I worked from 9 or 9.30am to 4.30pm with a half hour break. I did everything. I went for one week and the manager was so rude. One day she ate something and left so much mess in the kitchen. Then she says to me: “Karina, you wash up.” The first time I didn’t say anything. I was scared they would stop my money.
When I went to [the New Deal provider company] I told the woman but she didn’t believe it. The clothes were dusty and I have an allergic problem so I went to the doctor and he wrote a letter. I gave the letters to [the New Deal provider] woman and she told me she found another placement for me at Primark.
The Jobcentre paid travel money but no lunch. I worked three days a week, 10am to 4.30pm or 5pm with one half hour break. [Primark] don’t pay any money. It was nearly six months, from January to June. When I finished the placement I took my CV and I asked the managers if they had any vacancies. They said: “Not yet – we’ll call you when we do.” I haven’t had a call.
What work did you do at Primark?
If some clothes were on the floor, I’d pick them up. In the children’s section I’d fold clothes, and [arrange] shoes and sandals sometimes. Sometimes I’d bring new clothes downstairs from the storeroom.
Is this the same kind of work that some paid staff do?
Yes, the same.
Were there other people volunteering too?
At Primark I knew one Pakistani woman and one Somali woman also on three days a week. When the placement finished other people came. Now I am looking for a job, but there are no jobs.
What do you think about these placements?
One thing is good and one thing is bad. Before, I had no experience and when I went there I learnt lots of things. Now, when I send my CV or get calls I have experience. But I was a volunteer for six months and wasn’t given a job or paid any money. They don’t pay lunch money, nothing.
What do you think should happen instead?
Pay money. Lunchtime money and money for work. When volunteer is finished, they should give the job.
Have you been sent on an unpaid work placement and want to tell people about it? Contact Corporate Watch on 02074260005 or contact[at]corporatewatch.org