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A board of union and religious leaders and community advocates held a public hearing last week featuring testimony by city workfare participants–and charged that Mayor Giuliani’s new Work Experience Program (WEP) for people on public assistance violates workers rights.

Most of the WEP workers who testified likened the workfare to slavery, and said they are forced to work under unsafe and dehumanizing conditions in exchange for their welfare checks. “It’s an experience alright, but it won’t give us jobs,” added Sandra White, a WEP worker who cleans streets for the Department of Sanitation.

Workfare participants are not allowed sick leave and other benefits that their paid coworkers have, she and other WEP’ers explained. However the city’s Human Resource Administration said its workfare program complies with all federal workplace regulations.

Labor leaders argue WEP undermines the bargaining power of unions. “Why pay $12.32 an hour [for a full-time worker] when you can get the same work done by a [20-hour-a-week] WEP worker who costs the city only $1.80 an hour?” asked Ken Peres of Communications Workers of America.

Speakers say that the tension between WEP workers and the paid workforce could increase as workfare expands. But union and WEP workers at the hearing declared an alliance. “Now all we got to do is organize, organize and organize,” said former CUNY Chancellor Joseph Murphy.

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