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“Whiplash” Wilko

Mark Barnsley reports on the high-street hardware store growing fat on the profits of prison slavery

September 1, 2004
4 min read

To the unsuspecting shopper, the high-street chain Wilkinson, or “Wilko”, as it likes to be known, is a welcome brand of good-value, no-frills hardware. Since the family-owned company began in 1930, it has opened more than 200 stores, making chairman Tony Wilkinson a personal fortune of around £300m. As well as providing “low, low prices, every time”, the company strives to present itself as philanthropic and caring, a “partner in the community” and a “rewarding place to work” for its employees.

Beneath the facade of corporate social responsibility, however, lies the grim reality of modern British capitalism. What Wilko presents as charitable acts are in fact a clever and tax-deductible form of marketing, which involve little more than giving away store vouchers. The Wilko website boasts of a number of charities supported by the company, but a closer look reveals that far from helping the poor and needy, Wilko is actually supporting the exploitative and greedy.

For example, Students in Free Enterprise is a kind of capitalist missionary organisation that includes in its “Dream Team” (board of directors) senior representatives of Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Nestlé, pharmaceutical firm Pfizer, fag company Philip Morris, Shell and Aramark.

While the crimes of Coke, Nestlé and Shell are common knowledge, the lesser-known Aramark is a US company reaping rich profits from the misery of human incarceration, both in the US and here in the UK, where it has an almost complete monopoly over the lucrative prison “canteen” system.

Prison profitability is something Wilko knows all about. It is currently the number-one corporate target of the British-based Campaign Against Prison Slavery (Caps). In Britain prisoners are forced to work. If they refuse, they are placed in segregation, lose family visits, and even have their sentences extended. With no pension or trade union rights, no minimum wage, no holidays and no sick pay, they represent an ideal workforce for greedy and ruthless companies like Wilkinson, which uses them to do its packing work, paying them around £1 per day.

Wilko is not alone. The use of prison labour by private companies has soared in direct proportion to savage cuts in prison education and training during the past 10 years; companies are using it as a third option to paying the minimum wage or going overseas. Perversely, the profits from this slavery are actually being subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of at least £7m per year. And the Prison Service admits that some of the private companies exploiting prison slave labour are even ripping it off, with firms systematically failing to pay for work. Even the TUC now recognises this is undermining the pay and conditions of workers generally.

To fill this void of representation and action and to fight this 21st-century system of slavery, Caps was established 18 months ago. Since then, more than 100 pickets of Wilkinson stores have taken place around the country, as well as other actions aimed at the company. Wilkinson’s initial response to the campaign was to deny using prison labour. When that was exposed as being untrue, it changed its position (though that’s not stopped it from occasionally reverting to its original story when dealing with the press). The company now claims it is helping to “rehabilitate prisoners and increase their employability”. The reality is, of course, somewhat different.

Wilkinson’s commitment to employing offenders soon evaporates once they are released; no doubt because they’d then be entitled to proper wages and employment conditions. And as a recent internal Prison Service report on prison industries admitted, the “noddy shop” work, as the service calls it, is “mundane and repetitive” with “little value apart from keeping prisoners occupied”.

Tony “Whiplash” Wilkinson presents himself as a benevolent employer doling out jobs and cheap goods to a grateful public; but now we know different. His company refers to its 18,000 non-prison employees as “team members”. The workers themselves, however, talk of a ruthless anti-union company that underpays and under-employs. There is every reason for Red Pepper readers to boycott Wilkinson, and to support the Campaign Against Prison Slavery.

The Campaign Against Prison Slavery is urgently in need of funds. Cheques should be made out to CAPS and sent to Brighton ABC, PO Box 74, Brighton BN1 4ZQ

www.againstprisonslavery.org

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