YMCA England (the Young Men's Christian Association) has faced a protest at its London offices over its continued participation in 'workfare' schemes that force unemployed people to work without pay or lose benefits.
A number of charities and faith groups, as well as private businesses, have refused to take on people who are sent on the schemes.
YMCA, along with the Salvation Army, remains one of the largest Christian charities to continue to be involved.
The protest launched a week of action called by Boycott Workfare, ahead of the introduction of 'Community Work Placements', an extreme form of workfare that will require people to work full-time for free for six months for charities, faith groups or other voluntary organisations.
The scheme is a flagship policy of Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, which he announced at the last Conservative Party conference.
Anti-workfare campaigners paid a surprise visit on Monday (31 March) to the headquarters of YMCA England on Farringdon Road, London. They occupied it with a flashmob singing the song YMCA with the lyrics changed: “Forced to work at the Y-M-C-A”.
Boycott Workfare say they will make the new scheme unworkable and will “stop workfare in its tracks”.
The group has been joined by Christianity Uncut in calling on Christian groups to resist workfare. Christianity Uncut is an informal network of Christians opposed to the UK government's austerity agenda.
YMCA's use of workfare seems to be at odds with its own public statements and research findings. The organisation published research in March showing that benefit sanctions are forcing young people to cut back on essential items including food, housing costs and toiletries.
But Boycott Workfare says that at least 10 per cent of participants are sanctioned under workfare schemes.
Denise Hatton, chief executive of YMCA England, has described the impact of sanctions on young people as “disastrous”. Archbishop of York and President of the YMCA Dr John Sentamu has publicly criticised workfare.
Campaigners hope that their pressure will persuade YMCA to join the growing list of charities including Oxfam, Marie Curie, the Children's Society and the Red Cross, who say they will have nothing to do with these schemes that, according to Boycott Workfare, can push people into absolute poverty.
“The brutal impact of the sanctions regime is clear for all to see as the use of foodbanks and loan sharks soars,” said Jim McLaughlin of Boycott Workfare. “Charities should play no part in punitive forced work schemes: being unemployed is not a crime and workfare does not help people find jobs.”
The 'Community Work Placements' are due to launch on 24 April. These will rely heavily on the voluntary and public sector to deliver mandatory placements for unemployed people, of more than twice the maximum community service sentence.
However, the success of the scheme looks far from certain as even major workfare-user the Salvation Army has said it will not take part. The Army's decision is likely to be at least in part due to both internal and external criticism.
McLaughlin added, “Six months' forced unpaid work seems to be too much even for some of the biggest workfare exploiters to stomach. As more and more charities refuse to take part, we can stop workfare in its tracks and undermine another devastating 'flagship' government policy.”
The week of action is expected to bring protests to Brighton, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Swansea and Weston-Super-Mare.