Ministers have been urged to investigate claims by unemployed people from Bristol and Bath that they were bussed to London to work as unpaid stewards at the Diamond Jubilee river pageant, forced to sleep under London Bridge and left with no access to toilets for 24 hours.
As many as 30 job seekers and another 50 people on “apprentice wages” of £2.80 an hour were taken from the West to London for three days over the Jubilee weekend as part of a trial for paid roles stewarding at the Olympics.
The jobless were warned they would lose the chance for jobs at the Olympics if they did not take on the Jubilee duties for nothing, but several of those involved said the conditions they were left in were appalling.
Former deputy prime minister John Prescott yesterday wrote to Home Secretary Theresa May demanding an investigation into the conduct of security firm Close Protection UK, which won a multi-million pound contract to provide stewarding and security for both the Jubilee and the Olympics.
Two jobseekers spoke out anonymously about what happened after they boarded buses at 11pm in Bristol and Bath the night before Sunday’s Thames River Pageant, and arrived in London at 3am on the Sunday. They were left on the side of the road for 20 minutes, one woman said, and then instructed to spend the rest of the night camped on the concrete embankment under London Bridge.
“It was cold and wet and we were told to get our head down,” one steward said.
They were woken at 5.30am and supplied with boots, combat trousers and polo shirts. “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,” one woman said.
“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,” she added.
After the pageant, the West volunteers were told to travel by tube to Essex and pitch tents in the dark.
“No one is supposed to be treated like that, [working] for free. I don’t want to be treated where I have to sleep under a bridge and wait for food,” she said, adding that those working for nothing had originally been told they would be paid, but were told when they boarded the coach that they wouldn’t be paid and that the two days would be a trial for the Olympics.
Yesterday, John Prescott demanded an investigation. “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,” he wrote.
“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.
“It also raises very serious questions about the suitability of using private security contractors to do frontline policing instead of trained police officers,” he added.
The boss of Close Protection UK said stewarding big events was a tough job. “We take the welfare of our staff and apprentices very seriously indeed,” said Molly Prince.
“The nature of festival and event work is such that we often travel sleeping on coaches through the night with an early morning pre-event start – it is the nature of the business.”