22 February 2012

Evans, Workfare and fatshion boycotts

Arcadia, which owns Evans, has been named as a participant in the UK government's Workfare programme.

Workfare is a generic term for programmes which force people to work for benefits. The fantasy is that a placement will lead to a job, but the reality is that corporations are now being propped up with free labour from people who will lose benefits if they do not comply. In theory, volunteering somewhere where you will make contacts and develop skills is a good idea. In practise people on Workfare placements find themselves forced to do the work that nobody else wants to do. When the placement ends, there is no guarantee of paid work, the company can simply 'employ' someone else, and the government picks up the bill. Workfare people are likely to be people who are already marginalised in terms of education or prospects, the scheme ensures that they will stay that way.

Evans is the UK's most visible plus-size clothing brand. Like most high street retailers in the West, Evans' company's clothes are produced cheaply in developing countries. The conditions in Arcadia's factories are unlikely to be swanky, and although the company has an ethical standard of allowing unions, many of its clothes are produced in places where there are no unions, as well as in China where independent trades unions are illegal. Evans' ethical trading standards look good on their corporate website, but reading between the lines shows that the company is anything but ethical.

Maybe this is not so surprising when you take a look at the boss of the company. Evans is owned by Sir Philip Green, a man so rich that he has someone follow him around holding his wine glass at a party so that he doesn't have to tire his own delicate hands. Green does not pay income tax on his £1.2bn salary. Nevertheless, he has been employed by the government to support its destruction of services which ensure, for example, that the very poorest people can survive.

I know that Evans' use of exploited labour in the UK and the rest of the world is unlikely to stop fatshionistas from promoting the company's products. It is galling that the original Fatshionista LiveJournal community was intended to be a place where companies like Evans could be interrogated, but that fatshionista has often come to mean a kind of vacuous and pathetically grateful consumerism that ignores the ethical implications of fat fashion. This is not to say that there are no excellent and critical fatshion resources out there, I only wish there were more. Evans' use of Workfare, the latest in a line of appalling business practises, should be a call for a boycott. This could be an amazing opportunity to flex some consumer power to force the company to behave differently. Other companies have dropped Workfare following vociferous public criticism. But the question is, do fatshionistas have it in them?


Edited to add: I can't believe I neglected to mention the gorgeous Make It Work zine by Kirsty. It's just been published and is everything Evans isn't. Snaffle a copy today.


TraceyB said...

Thank you for drawing my attention to Evans involvement in this. As a plus-size I have so many gripes about Evans being over-priced, dated and out of touch but nothing compares to the treatment of some of these unemployed people forced to work with no hope of a job at the end of a placement. I worked as an Entry to Employment trainer for 8 months and I found it the most depressing job ever - target and money driven all the way with no regard for the individual.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Tracey.

microbat said...

Eeehehehe!!! You wrote "pathetically grateful", that is sooooo good and hits the nail right on the head! Well, we talked about it, so you know how much I'm annoyed with the consumerism in the fatshion world, I'm so glad you wrote this post. :)
To fellow fatties (especially those on a budget) I recommend charity shops, clothes swaps and DIY.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Rock on Microbat xx x

Blacey said...

"This could be an amazing opportunity to flex some consumer power to force the company to behave differently."

If only. I know how I want to respond to your article: as someone who consciously tries to be a socially responsible citizen, I want to be with you on this boycott. I really really do. But I'm in a bind. The Evans store in my town is literally the only brick and mortar place I can find workwear in my size and that I can afford. Since I'm about to enter the job market, I need to stock my wardrobe with interview and work appropriate clothing. Sure I could order from online, but I have to find a job FAST or risk having to rely on benefits myself - which means I won't necessarily have time to go through the ordering, shipping (and inevitable returning) process. Thrifting is sort-of an option, but it can be so hit and miss where I live, and again, it's difficult to find stuff in my size ( I think the fat people in my town hold on to all their clothes, as we don't have very many options for plus size shopping here).
So although I want to agree with you, and I want to boycott the Arcadia group, I feel like they have me over a barrel. I would flex my consumer power and shop elsewhere if I could, but the reality of my location, purchasing power and immediate clothing requirements. This makes me feel sad, angry, guilty, but I don't know what else I can do here.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Blacey, I think there must be a way around this.

Blacey said...

"There must be a way round this."

I sincerely hope I can find one. My immediate need for work and interview appropriate clothing is not an excuse I want to use to prop up a company involved in workfare. But the fact remains, that unless I travel to another city (a cost I can't afford) I literally don't have any other options. I wish it wasn't this way, but having a larger body size means I am very restricted in my clothing options, particularly if I want to actually try on the clothes. By larger, I mean sizes 28-30(UK). A lot of the high-street stores that cater to plus sizes stop short of my actual size.

Of course this is part of the bigger problem, if you pardon the pun, of the clothing industry not catering equally to people of various sizes. A straight size person, or even a plus size person on the smaller end of the size range, a person with a bigger budget, a person with the means and time to travel to another city, a person living in a location with good thrift stores - has more options than I do.
As I've been finishing my dissertation, I've been thinking about and planning for my first real forays into the job market, and figuring out what to wear has been part of that preparation. All this thinking and planning and preparing has led me to conclude that I am pretty much stuck with only one option for work/interview clothing - Evans.

I'm not criticising the plan to boycott the Arcadia group: in fact I agree with it. My response here is of course limited to my own particular set of circumstances. I am just lamenting the fact that my only real, feasible and affordable option is engaged in shitty practises, and expressing anger that I have such limited options, compared to most other people, when it comes to clothing myself appropriately. Body size is a major factor, but so are geography and socio-economic issues. Obviously, I will continue to look for other options, but this issue issue is double edged(is that the right expression?) for me:
a. one of my main source of clothing is basically unethical
b. I have very, very, very limited alternatives, mainly due to society (and the clothing industry) not catering to my body size/shape.

dee.calarco said...

It's my understanding that this program is voluntary - so it seems like nobody is being forced to work (?)

Anyway, I live in the UK and have been unemployed for a year (No, I don't receive benefits. As an immigrant, I'm not entitled to them - and my husband makes enough to support us, but not particularly comfortably, and we have no financial security).

All my life, I've worked full time, sometimes while in school and sometimes with an extra part time job. It has been HORRIBLE not having anything to do and not earning any money. I've been taking on volunteer work because working for free (and contributing to the community) is better than sitting on my ass at home all the time.

When you don't have a job, you start to lose your edge. Your confidence deteriorates and if you're alone a lot, it gets more and more difficult to deal with people. You start to feel like you're useless and don't have any value, you project that, and it gets harder and harder to get hired.

If the UK government was willing to give me benefits in exchange for doing some shit retail job, I'd consider myself lucky to have it. I'm vastly overqualified, but I'd take it if I were eligible. At least I'd have an opportunity to get some local references - and I'd meet people and might find a more appropriate job through the contacts I'd make.

Again, it's my understanding that this program is voluntary, and I'm having trouble figuring out what it is that people are objecting to. Is there some aspect of it that I don't know about? It seems to me that companies are benefiting, unemployed people are benefiting (if only by being kept engaged and occupied), and the people (if anyone) who should be complaining are the taxpayers - and the people who do the same jobs that the companies can now get people to do for free. This would obviously put them at a disadvantage.

Again, I'm not an expert on the program, but what I do know about it doesn't seem that bad; certainly not from the point of view of the people who volunteer for it. What's everyone up in arms about?

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for your post Dee, I'm sorry things are tough for you. I too have had periods of long-tem unemployment and I understand some of the frustrations you describe. It is likely that I will need to sign on after my PhD funding runs out in September.

I understand that the UK Workfare programme is not voluntary and that people will lose benefits if they don't comply. I know someone who was threatened in this way and had to leave her voluntary work in her field in order to do Workfare at somewhere crap. If you are willing to do this work, that is all well and good, me, I don't want to be forced into it and I don't think others should be forced either.

Anonymous said...

This is a horrible, exploitative program. It takes people who are unemployed and pretty much presses them into indentured servitude. You have university graduates - people who went into debt to get the education they were told they needed to have - stacking shelves at Tescos. Who wins from this? Not the graduate, who is never going to be stocking shelves long term. Such experience is of absolutely no benefit to them.

Making people do shelf-stacking also keeps them away from something that might be genuinely useful to them, such as intensive job seeking or learning new skills, or volunteering for something that might benefit them.

Plus the unemployed person who might have welcomed earning a quid is now being denied a job opportunity, because somebody's doing it for free.

The tax payer isn't benefiting, because the labour is being used for a private good, rather than a public good, and the job seeker isn't earning anything they can pay tax on.

The only beneficiary economically is the company using them. And who are these companies? People like Tesco, a multi-billion pound company with high profit margins. This is shameful. Just shameful.

If the government was serious about the scheme, it would structure internships, like Germany does. In Germany, students are given an apprenticeship year in a company, on apprenticeship wages. They rotate through the company, and while they are given dogsbody jobs to do, they learn skills throughout the year. Companies are not allowed to employ interns unless they have a properly structured program for them.

So it's win/win/win. The graduate gets a real start and real skills. The company gets cheap labour in return for training. The tax payer gets some tax revenue from the graduate. Plus the internship often leads to a job.

Whereas forcing people to work for free, for profit-making private companies is a complete abuse of government power.

dee.calarco said...

Anon, I have three university degrees from top North American schools, yet I'd rather be stocking shelves at Tesco rather than unemployed. I can assure you that my qualifications are more impressive than any new graduate's. I completely disagree with you when you say that being underemployed is worse than being unemployed. In my opinion, if someone is able to work and ANY job they are capable of doing is available to them, then taking benefits is unethical. It is simply not right to spend other people's money when you can earn your own.

dee.calarco said...

Most of the schemes that people group under "workfare" are voluntary; particularly the one that's under fire right now. There's more specific information here, in an article in the Guardian.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Dee, I think you've articulated an important difference between us, which is that I do want the state to support me. I pay tax and I think of the state's money as my money.

I think the voluntary nature of workfare is moot at the moment.

dee.calarco said...

It's very possibly a cultural difference between the UK and the US. Half my family thinks I'm a communist because I'm in favour of government funded, single payer health care.

However, I don't think that having a good education entitles me to live off current taxpayers rather than taking whatever type of job I can get. If anything, I should be held more responsible for supporting myself than someone who's less skilled. A university diploma, unfortunately, does not entitle anyone to a perfect job.

For those of us who need to earn a living, pursuing higher education is a calculated risk. It doesn't always pay off, especially in bad economies. I graduated into the recession of the early 90s with my first degree, and although my career path has been unusual, I've never been without a job (or two) for longer than a few months before. I also paid for my own education.

Since I've paid taxes all my adult life, I would feel comfortable taking unemployment benefits - but only until I found another job. Any job.

A lot of people in the UK have a sense of entitlement that I think is really misguided. Adults pay their way. Children need to be supported. If enough people are willing to take on the role of children, then the government will feel justified in treating them like children; interfering in their lives in ways that that should be completely unacceptable. That's the danger.

Kerri said...

We (in Australia) have a similar scheme to your Workfare that is colloquially known as 'work for the dole'. We also have other schemes whereby the person works for a set period of time, say six months for example, on below minimum award wages only to be assessed for suitability at the end of this term. No surprises to learn that in some firms few of these trial employees are deemed satisfactory. The employer is subsidised by the taxpayer to pay these unworthy unfortunates their pittance. Talk about corporate welfare!

These 'work for the dole' schemes not only ensure the transfer of public monies upwards into the hands of the few, they play an important role in covering the true rates of unemployment. Those who work in these slave labour schemes are not included in unemployment figures as they are 'training, nor are the underemployed. In Australia if you are employed for two hours or more per week you are not included in unemployed figures. Two hours work may not even be enough to cover the cost of fares to your place of work let alone anything else.

Why corporate welfare (taxpayer money) is seen by some workers as being acceptable while the impovershed are begrudged every lousy crumb has long escaped me - I think I've lived too long.

Class consciousness where art thou?

Jennifer said...

This might be useful:

Lauren said...

If multi billion pound corporations need labour, they can afford to pay workers a minimum wage. They should not be subsidised by the tax payer. It isn't about graduates having to do jobs that are beneath them, or people being workshy. How can people not see that the likes of Tesco will slowly repeal jobs already available in favour of the free labour they can get from the state? Meanwhile people are forced (yes,technically it's voluntary but when the choice is do this work or have your pay withdrawn, it's more like blackmail) to do a full working week, working hard (my stepdad stacks shelves at Sainsbury's on night shift, it is a hard, hard slog) for an amount that keeps them below the poverty line. THAT is why people are up in arms. No one is saying they don't want to work, or work in roles they don't deem appropriate. They're saying they want to work for at least the legal minimum wage.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks all for your thoughtful comments.

Pyx said...

I stopped shopping in Evans for the most part as the clothes are expensive, cheap fabric and not designed for my shape, add in that most of the range wont fit me as I'm short and you have a shop where I can maybe buy a t-shirt and that's it most of the time.

I currently get most of my clothes at fashion world a catalogue company, they do different sizes, style and give advice for different body shapes. They are also cheaper and have a decent returns policy.

As for the work trial being voluntary, it kinda is, but the staff have quotas to get people on, I got myself retrained in office work through voluntary positions with charities, they had me doing 4 weeks shelf stacking and bag packing in a shop that was due to close a couple of months after I finished. I did get a little money to cover bus travel, but anyone with kids will end up paying for the privilege of shelf stacking.

I have no problem if the placements are with charities, esp. if there is the chance of a job after, but they had a scheme, work trial, where you applied for the job and if you got it the job centre would still pay your benefits and the company would top them up to a wage while you did the month long trial, gave companies a chance to take on people that might not be perfect on paper without risk and it was an actual job. I'm sure that scheme had problems too, but I can't imagine it was as open to abuse by the corporations as the work fare scheme.

The current scheme is touted as voluntary, but to me that should mean you are made aware of it and if you'd like to join you ask, not pushed into a corner by someone who has the power to stop your money if you appear to be uncooperative.

Evans said...

Hi everyone.

We appreciate the feedback in the post and from your comments, but we would like to make our customers aware that Evans does not participate in the Government's Workfare Scheme for unemployed people.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Evans, this blog is not a free market research tool for you. Please refrain from corporate posting.