UK Politics

Lord Prescott: Cheap labour could be used at Olympics

Crowds at the Thames Royal Pageant
Image caption Sunday's royal flotilla was watched by more than a million people

Cheap labour could be used to undercut better paid security workers at the Olympics, Lord Prescott has said.

It follows reports that volunteers from the government's work programme spent part of the night under London Bridge before Sunday's Thames pageant.

The firm involved, Close Protection UK, said it was a "logistics error".

But the firm in charge of the work programme in south-west England has launched an investigation and said those affected could be compensated.

Close Prospects said it would consider "the management of the project, supervision arrangements over the weekend, the working conditions, health and safety issues and the quality of the work experience provided to the apprentices involved".

'Lessons sought'

"The intention is that, after ascertaining the facts, restitution may be made to affected clients if appropriate and lessons learned for the future," it added.

Volunteers bussed in from Bristol, Plymouth and Bath were reported to have spent part of Sunday night under London Bridge in cold and inhospitable conditions.

One of the volunteers - who did not want to give his name - told the BBC that he had only been informed he would not be paid for the work when he arrived at Bristol station but went ahead anyway because he was so keen to find a permanent job.

"Our initial thoughts were we were going to a campsite, pitch our tents, go to sleep, get up in the morning and go to work," he told BBC Radio 4's World At One.

"I was prepared to sleep in a campsite but being told you are going to sleep under a bridge when you are prepared to go to a campsite, that's outrageous."

Former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott said Home Secretary Theresa May should hold an inquiry into the conditions of employment by companies like Close Protection UK, who provided stewards during the weekend Jubilee celebrations and are bidding for contracts during the Olympics.

'Logistics error'

Close Protection UK said staff should not have been dropped off at 0300 BST with nowhere to stay, but confusion had arisen because the coach driver was two hours ahead of schedule.

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4's Today programme, managing director of the company Molly Prince said it was a "logistics error" and the situation had been "exaggerated".

However she confirmed there was an employee of the firm on the coach and said she did not "agree with his decision to allow the deployment of these people into the bridge area".

"They should have been left on the coach until this director arrived on the site with the other staff members," she added.

"It was badly handled and for that we've extensively apologised. We're not in the business of exploiting free labour," she said.

But Lord Prescott has questioned whether there are wider implications for the treatment of workers during the Olympics.

'Appalling treatment'

"My main concern is what we're witnessing here is the development of cheap labour in a model to be used for the Olympics," he told the BBC News Channel.

He said he feared that security workers on "proper pay and conditions" were being replaced in favour of "cheap labour companies" to work at the games.

He also raised concerns about the accommodation that could be provided for staff working at the Olympics suggesting "labour camps" were being developed outside of London to house the workers.

Unions said the case had drawn attention to the poor conditions in many workplaces and the number of involuntary temporary workers in the economy.

"The appalling treatment of staff working for free over the Diamond Jubilee weekend highlights the damage that unpaid work experience risks causing people who are desperate to get back into proper employment, as well as the exploitative treatment that they can face," said TUC general secretary Brendan Barber.

Olympic trial

Close Protection said the unpaid roles at the Jubilee were a trial for paid positions at the 2012 Games, for which it also has a contract to provide stewarding.

The company, which is based in Wigan, said it paid for meals for all the Jubilee volunteers, accommodation on the night after the event as well as supplying their clothing, equipment and licences to undertake the work.

Ms Prince said steps had been taken "to ensure that better logistics planning will be in place for the Olympics".

The prime minister's official spokesman welcomed the company's apology and defended the government's work programme, which he said gave out-of-work people the chance to develop skills to get a job.