The day began with UK Uncut activists occupying the Colmore Row Starbucks by going to sleep in sleeping bags in protest at rising homelessness in Birmingham because of housing benefit cuts – a situation that is expected to get worse with the introduction of Universal Credit next year. Around the UK, over 40 towns and cities saw demonstrations focusing on the effect of cuts on women, including a creche setup to highlight cuts to children’s services like sure start, and a women’s refuge as funding cuts and benefit reforms threaten to close every refuge in the UK. Free coffee and tea was given away outside to people who stopped to talk and express their anger that Starbucks didn’t pay any tax. More than a few stopped to join in chanting before heading off to continue shopping.
Starbucks have not paid any corporation tax in the past 3 years, and only £8.6m in the 14 years they’ve been trading in this country. Costa Coffee, whose turnover last year was £377m, just £21m less than Starbucks paid £15m in corporation tax. Starbucks uses tax avoidance schemes to shift its profits into tax havens – they pay royalties for the use of the name to a company in Luxembourg, and they buy their coffee from a company in the well known coffee growing country of Switzerland. Surprisingly, the royalty fees and overpriced coffee beans means they don’t make a profit in the UK, instead it shows up in other countries. This government could close loopholes and force companies like Starbucks to pay the tax it owes, and this would raise as much as £25bn in revenue, allowing the government to cut less and still reduce the deficit. In what seems like a bit of a joke, Starbucks have decided that the tax system is voluntary and they can choose to pay what they like, offering £10m in each of the next two years whether they make a profit or not.
After exiting the Colmore Row store, some of the group decided to head down to the New Street Starbucks store, which closed its doors before they arrived, and held a second demonstration there.
People then proceeded to the Boycott Workfare demonstration, which started at Poundland. Poundland were involved in a judicial review this year when a Birmingham woman, Cait Reilly, was forced to leave her voluntary position at the Birmingham Pen Museum to work unpaid in Poundland. Following demonstrations, Poundland withdrew from the schemes, but after the judicial review ruled the Work Experience Scheme to be legal (a decision that is bieng appealed), Poundland returned to the scheme. The rules for the Work Experience Scheme were changed in March to make it voluntary, but it has been made clear that if you say no, then you will be sent on Mandatory Work Activity instead, making its voluntary status somewhat uncertain. The structure of scheme is such that companies like Poundland can still use it to get free labour – particularly useful at this time of year instead of Christmas temps.
After gathering at Poundland, the demonstration moved to inside Argos on Union Street. In Wolverhampton, we have been told by someone sent to Argos on workfare that they were doing more hours than the paid staff. Last year, we were informed of someone who applied for a Christmas temp job with Argos, didn’t get it then got sent there on workfare, to find there were no paid temps, just workfare people. During the demonstration inside the store nearly 1,000 leaflets were distributed to customers and the queue for the tills disappeared. People were generally appalled to find out that there were government schemes forcing unemployed and disabled people to work unpaid, and saw the obvious risk to paid work and decided to look elsewhere for their Christmas gifts.
From Argos we went to Superdrug on the corner of Union Street and Corporation street, where the manager assured us that she did not use any workfare people at that particular store, but in Brighton, Superdrug have said they will not be taking any paid christmas temps on this year whilst they continue to get free workfare labour straight from the job centre.
The demonstration finished at McDonalds, who use workfare and made £10m from a government work scheme without creating a single job, where free veggie burgers were given out to the public in a mirror of the earlier Starbucks action. Over a dozen demonstrations were held against workfare around the UK, with more to come this week.
Since 3rd December, disabled people have been able to be sent on time unlimited workfare placements. If they say no, their benefits will be cut to £28/week indefinitely. Unemployed people can have their job seekers allowance cut for up to 3 years.
Workfare schemes do not work. The Work Programme actually reduces your chances of finding a job, whilst Mandatory Work Activity has no effect on unemployment levels but does increase the number of people claiming disability benefit, suggesting that it may worsen health conditions.
Workfare also threatens paid jobs. At Christmas time it is particularly apparent how companies can use this in direct replacement to paid temps, but the threat exists all year round, and not just at Argos and Superdrug. Many other workers from companies including Asda and Shoezone have complained at losing hours as workfare staff are brought in.
This was an excellent day of action from two campaigns that have really had an effect in their campaigning. It was fantastic to see people from so many different Birmingham and West Midlands groups come together to oppose this government and austerity.
In the past couple of years, UK Uncut have totally changed the narrative around tax avoidance, and whilst we still wait for the government to take proper action, the fact that Starbucks tried to buy us off with their weird voluntary tax plan shows that companies are worried about how people perceive their use of tax schemes. Boycott Workfare have had similar success with companies and charities pulling out of workfare schemes in response to demonstrations and discussion. These groups show that we can win. The campaign against workfare continues this week, with demonstrations in London and online actions. Anon West Midlands are also holding a flashmob on the 5th January outside the Starbucks in the Bull Ring to protest at their tax avoidance.