Protesters have voiced anger over an under-fire UK Government work experience programme aimed at getting people off benefits and into jobs.
The scheme has triggered claims that it exploits young people who risk losing out on benefits if they do not complete unpaid work placements.
High street businesses Waterstone’s, Poundland and Burger King have now withdrawn from the scheme.
Protest group Youth Fight For Jobs is starting a ‘name and shame’ tour on Saturday in which it will campaign outside Northern Ireland premises of firms involved in the UK programme.
There is no mandatory work experience programme in Northern Ireland — though a scheme to gradually introduce the unemployed to the world of work, known as Steps To Work, can include work experience. It pays an extra £15.38 per week on top of benefit entitlement as well as transport costs.
McDonald’s, whose restaurant at Donegall Place in Belfast was the scene of yesterday’s protest, said it continued to support the work experience programme. But it could not say if anyone in Northern Ireland had been involved in placements.
“In the last 12 months, close to 200 people have had a work placement and approximately one in four have gone on to a permanent job with McDonald’s,” a spokeswoman said.
Some protesters yesterday were critical of Steps To Work. Kevin Henry (24), a history graduate from Omagh and a member of Youth Fight for Jobs NI, has been unemployed for six months since his temporary contract at a call centre ended.
“These work schemes don’t create jobs,” Mr Henry said. “They put young people into work for a few weeks and then they are not being hired.
“This is not only an attack on the unemployed, but it undermines conditions for the workers at these companies.”
Hospitality student Neil Moore (18), from Carryduff, said some of his friends “essentially got nothing” from taking part in Steps To Work.
He said: “The Workfare and Steps To Work schemes are bad for young people. David Cameron has said these schemes are worthwhile, but they are not.”
A spokesman for the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) said Northern Ireland did not yet have a similar scheme to the Work Programme, which introduced the controversial placements, although there are programmes to improve employability and skills.
It said it would soon “complement” those with voluntary work experience.
But officials could not say when the placements would be introduced.
A DEL spokesman said: “Short periods of work experience (of between two to eight weeks) while on benefit are for many the first step on the path to more sustainable employment.”
Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ann McGregor said job placements were “absolutely critical” in getting young people into jobs.
Susan Russam, chief executive of charity Gems NI, which aims to help get young people into work, said: “We have an opportunity here in Northern Ireland to learn from the mistakes of the Work Programme that are currently making the headlines.”
Protests will take place on Saturday outside Tesco, Primark and other stores.