COACHLOADS of young unemployed people were brought to London last weekend on a work programme to act as unpaid stewards during the Royal Jubilee Thames pageant.
They had been told that this might lead to some similar work during the Olympics that would be paid.
But when they arrived, late at night and in the pouring rain, they were taken to London Bridge and told their accommodation for the night would be the cold pavement under the bridge.
A report by Shiv Malik in last Monday’s Guardian revealed that up to 30 jobseekers and another 50 people on apprentice wages were taken to London by coach from Bristol, Bath and Plymouth to work for the security firm Close Protection UK.
Two jobseekers, who did not want to be identified in case they lost their benefits, said they had to camp under London Bridge the night before the pageant.
They said they had to change into security gear in public, had no access to toilets for 24 hours, and were later taken to a swampy campsite outside London after working a 14-hour shift in the pouring rain on the banks of the Thames on Sunday.
One young worker said she was on duty between London Bridge and Tower Bridge during the £12 million river spectacle of a 1,000-boat flotilla and members of the Royal family sail-by. She said that the security firm Close Protection UK, which won a stewarding contract for the jubilee events, gave her a plastic see-through poncho and a high-visibility jacket for protection against the rain.
Close Protection UK confirmed that it was using up to 30 unpaid staff and 50 apprentices, who were paid £2.80 an hour, for the three-day event in London.
The woman said that people were picked up at Bristol at 11pm on Saturday and arrived in London at 3am on Sunday. "We all got off the coach and we were stranded on the side of the road for 20 minutes until they came back and told us all to follow them," she said. "We followed them under London Bridge and that's where they told us to camp out for the night … It was raining and freezing."
A 30-year-old steward told the Guardian that the conditions under the bridge were "cold and wet and we were told to get our head down [to sleep]". He said that it was impossible to pitch a tent because of the concrete floor.
The woman said they were woken at 5.30am and supplied with boots, combat trousers and polo shirts. She said: "They had told the ladies we were getting ready in a minibus around the corner and I went to the minibus and they had failed to open it so it was locked. I waited around to find someone to unlock it, and all of the other girls were coming down trying to get ready and no one was bothering to come down to unlock [it], so some of us, including me, were getting undressed in public in the freezing cold and rain." The men are understood to have changed under the bridge.
The female steward said that after the royal pageant, the group travelled by tube to a campsite in Theydon Bois, Essex, where some had to pitch their tents in the dark.
Both stewards said they were originally told they would be paid. But when they got to the coach on Saturday night, they said, they were told that the work would be unpaid and that if they did not accept it they would not be considered for “well-paid” work at the Olympics.
The report has caused general outrage and spurred former Labour Deputy Prime Minister Lord John Prescott to demand and inquiry. He has written to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, saying the contractor owed staff a "duty of care".
He wrote: “If the allegations are true, it is totally unacceptable that young unemployed people were bussed in to London from Bristol, Bath and Plymouth and forced to sleep out in the cold overnight before stewarding a major event with no payment.
"I am deeply concerned that a private security firm is not only providing policing on the cheap but failing to show a duty of care to its staff and threatening to withdraw an opportunity to work at the Olympics as a means to coerce them to work unpaid."