Outside the jobcentre: talking with jobseekers

Interviews with unemployed and underemployed people reveal the exacting impact of dealing with jobcentres and workfare programmes. The UK government's new 'Help to Work' scheme, with daily jobcentre visits, compulsory workfare and sanctions, looks set to do anything but 'help' jobseekers.

Kate Belgrave
1 May 2014

This week, the government rolled out its ridiculous Help To Work scheme: a punitive, expensive, already-discredited arrangement which will push the long-term unemployed into workfare, and/or daily trips to the jobcentre, and 'intensive support', whatever that is. Looks like the useless G4S will be in the mix, too. “There's no something for nothing any more,” George Osborne informed Daybreak when he revealed his Help To Work plans last year (we can presume he hadn't seen Maria Miller's Wimbledon pile at that point). "This is all activity that is going to help [the unemployed] get ready for the real world of work." Actually, it's not. I've spent several months talking to Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimants. The last thing anyone thinks is that their jobcentre has the staff, resources, systems, or policy inclination to help anyone into work.

Let's begin with an example of the frustration with jobcentres that JSA claimants already feel.

It's around lunchtime on a Monday morning and I'm standing outside the Kilburn jobcentre with Clarence Jackman and Alan Wheatley, two members of the fast-growing, self-organised Kilburn Unemployed Workers' Group (KUWG) for people on benefits. Clarence and Alan are there to hand out leaflets about their group's weekly advice meeting for people who are on JSA and ESA (Employment Support Allowance), and I'm there to interview people about their experiences at jobcentres. I want to hear people's views about signing on as JSA gets tougher to collect, and about sanctions. I want to know what people think.

I don't have to wait long to find out. After barely five minutes the jobcentre doors open and a young man bursts out, raging. He is as furious as hell. He is screaming 'Wankers' and 'Fucking Cunts', and spitting as he shouts. We all stand still and watch him – the KUWG members, me, people walking to and from the jobcentre and people standing at the bus-stop across the road on Cambridge Avenue. We're all half-waiting for a punch-up and for a moment, it seems that we'll get it.

“I've just been sanctioned for 13 fucking weeks!” the young man screams as he stamps down the jobcentre ramp. “Thirteen weeks! I'm going to come back here with a fucking hammer!” I wonder if he will. Thirteen weeks is a very long time to go without any income. I know that I couldn't afford three months without money coming in and I'm not on JSA. Clarence, who has a relaxed manner and an ability to put people at ease, steps forward to say something. The unemployed workers' group helps local people with problems like sanctions. Maybe this guy could come along to the weekly meeting? I step forward and ask the young man if he wants to talk about the sanction. He absolutely does not. A jobcentre adviser has just told him that he'll get no money for three months. “Why the fuck would I want to talk about it?” he shrieks as he disappears towards the high street. "I'm coming back here with a fucking hammer!” He doesn't come back, at least in the hour or so we're there. I look up every time someone comes around the corner from the high road.

Jobcentres: the real experience

So. That's the sort of scene you see. God knows how things will play out when Help To Work is rolled out – especially now that the famously dodgy and inept G4S will have a hand in the shambles. The DWP says that with Help To Work, the long-term unemployed will “take part in community work placements, such as clearing up litter,” attend “daily signings at the jobcentre,” or find themselves in receipt of “intensive support to address their problems.” Right. All that the long-term unemployed will find themselves in receipt of will be more pointless paperwork, hopelessly confused instructions, and sanctions. The system is already in meltdown, at least for the people who must use it.

The experiences of the people we meet outside jobcentres make this clear. People leave jobcentres with problems, not solutions. I don't think I've seen a shambles to beat it, and I've been around. Person after person reels out of these jobcentres, often with folders full of official paper – unsigned letters demanding attendance at we're-not-telling-you-what-this-is-about meetings, sheets instructing people to attend work programme classes in one part of London and to drop jobsearch sheets off in another (it's basically 'taking pieces of paper for an outing', JSA claimant Angela Smith told me just this week), numbers to call to chase sanctioned benefits, or to switch to ESA, numbers to call that are literally never answered (I stood with a young Newham woman recently as the number she called to change a meeting just rang and rang), forms to fill in for emergency loans with no suggestion that they'll be granted, pointless instructions to apply for as many as 20 jobs a week, often using the notoriously useless Universal Jobmatch, and so on. I have yet to meet a single person who has found a job through their jobcentre. Everyone I meet who finds work finds it themselves, through ads and contacts.

Adding Help To Work's daily signings-on and workfare obligations to this mess will be a stretch. I can't imagine that jobcentres will be able to keep on top of it. I wonder if that's the point. I'd argue that with its new “conditions” for jobseekers, government merely aims to introduce more steps for struggling, target-driven jobcentres to fail to administer properly. That would mean more reasons for sanctions. If people's attendance or jobsearch details are lost or confusing, as they were for Andy* here and Ravi here, or they're told to turn up at a jobcentre on a day when they're supposed to be on workfare, they will be sanctioned. That will be especially true if staff are pressured to work towards ever-more stringent sanctions targets and to push people off benefits by whatever means. Those sorts of things already happen. That is why people burst out of jobcentres screaming about fucking hammers.

Or, conversely, why they stand outside jobcentres biting their lips. I think here of Noreen*, who is in her late 40s and signs on at Neasden. Her powerlessness upset her. “You can’t say nothing to them, because if you argue back to them - the Security is there and they will sanction you,” she said. “You have to keep quiet. Sometimes, you don’t want to keep quiet.”

Workfare is not working

As for workfare – forget it. The truth – not a commodity that Osborne or Iain Duncan Smith trades in – is that there’s precious little evidence that workfare leads to ongoing, decently-paid work. Workfare has been used to replace ongoing, decently-paid jobs with unpaid ones. But that is very different, to say the least. Boycott Workfare has a list of councils that have used people on the work programme. The failures of the work programme in the UK have been well-documented. 

Polly Toynbee wrote recently about the rotten results the DWP's own Help To Work pilot delivered.  “Here's what happened: exactly the same number in the control group – 18% – found themselves jobs as those doing the forced community work. Just 1% more found jobs from the group with jobcentre support.”

Workfare's results elsewhere are about as encouraging. A 2008 comparative study of the American, Canadian and Australian workfare experiences by Richard Crisp and Del Roy Fletcher for the DWP found there was “little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work,” and that workfare could “even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers.”

The report authors found that workfare was particularly ineffective for people who had "multiple barriers to work” – like low literacy levels, transport problems, limited access to childcare, or physical and emotional problems. New York's much-discussed Work Experience Programme yielded thin results for the people who were actually on it: “Human Resources Administration records showed that only five percent of WEP participants found jobs.”

Bias towards claimants has also been a serious problem. Several years into Wisconsin's widely-vaunted workfare programme, for example, it emerged that African-American and Hispanic workfare participants were sanctioned more harshly than white participants. Bias already worries people in the UK. In the last year, I've spoken with a number of people who've been unemployed for several years and they talk about the prejudices that they face all the time.

Ageism is an example

Age is an issue that comes up a lot for people who are long-term unemployed – staying relevant in a competitive, highly insecure labour market as people get older is tough. At a Marah Trust drop-in centre in Stroud last year, I talked for hours with John Evans, who was 60. John had always worked as an electrical engineer, but had found getting work a lot harder as he got older. It's hard to see how forcing John to sign on daily would fix this.

“I went into the job centre once,” he told me “and said “I went here [to an interview] for a job and I was told I was too old.” [The man at the jobcentre] said “well – that’s ageist. You can do them for that.” I said “well, it’s not my place to do them. I won’t take it any further because being a smaller town word gets around.” That meant John was on JSA at age 60 and living in a shared house - “eight people live in my house. I share the bathroom and the toilet and the kitchen. I’ve got a microwave in my room.” 

Outside Kilburn jobcentre in February I spoke with Dan*, who was also 60. “What chance do I have,” he said. “You have all these people, aged 22 and 23, and they can’t find a fucking job. They’ve been to college with degrees coming out of their arse. People are saying that there’s benefit fraud and that people are sitting around watching flatscreen TVs. But there’re people who are genuinely trying. I get £142 a fortnight and I have to pay all of my bills out of that. I was a professional musician for all of my life and I was trying to find a way to teach kids music – to get them off the streets. I wanted to do that voluntary, but people don’t fucking care.”

Dan doubted his chances of finding work after attending a work programme course. “I was in a back-to-work thing with a company called Ingeus. There would be 20 people around the computer and they were trying to teach you how to do IT at 90 miles an hour. Waste of fucking time – they’re spending money on the wrong things.”

Just this week, I spoke with Heather at Kilburn. Heather is 55. “I went to this poxy interview with this charity down the road,” she said. “The guy was blatantly ageist. It turned out that he was 49 - only six years younger than me. He said to me that he preferred to employ younger people, because there was heavy lifting [with the job]. He meant bin bags full of clothes. Well - I do gardening for a hobby. I lift heavy things. I'm still strong, but they are telling me that I can't do a job.” She knew about Help To Work and said “I'm not doing it.”

Doing the math

I assume that Osborne has done the maths. Of course, Osborne probably finds the American maths all too thrilling. He couldn't care less about the real fallout. The number of people on US welfare rolls dropped after Bill Clinton brought in the workfare-focused Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996. But analysts will tell you this “success” came at considerable social cost. I've spoken several times in the last few years with John Krinsky, the author of Free Labor: Workfare and the Contested Language of Neoliberalism. Krinsky described PRWORA to me as punitive. The new act brought in time limits for benefit eligibility, strict workfare requirements and heavy sanctions for non-attendance.

The stringent rules forced people into unstable work (casual childcare and care work, waitressing for cash and so on), or into out-and-out poverty. In New York, about four years after the city started “reforming” welfare, “we started to see a spike in the number of homeless people,” Krinsky said. We're seeing a similar spike here

Subsidising precarious labour

I use the word “unemployed.” A lot of the time, I think I mean underemployed. Underemployment is the big problem for most of the people I meet at jobcentres.

This is an important point. Osborne bangs on about “something for nothing,” and all that rot, but neglects to mention that a lot of people attend jobcentres because they can't earn enough to live on. With the unemployed workers' group, I talk to person after person who must collect JSA between low-paid and insecure jobs, or who must collect some JSA to subsidise low-paid work. People get a few months' low-paid work in jobs like care work, kitchen work and retail, and then they are laid off, or they find their hours cut. They sign on while they search for more work.

We can expect to see more people in these situations as Help To Work is rolled out. Krinsky again: “[Workfare] introduces different pressure points in the wage labour system. It gets rid of people who were doing jobs and contributes a larger segmentation of the labour market where you have better and better paid managers who redistribute the work so that a good deal of the labour is done on a part-time basis, on a volunteer basis, or by workfare workers.” Precisely.

I talk about this sort of trend in detail with Andy*, who is in his 50s and signing on at the Kilburn jobcentre. He's worked as a painter and decorator for much of his life, in the UK and in Europe. He signs on when contracts finish and work dries up. When he's signing on, he works his contact book to find new jobs. When we meet, he's waiting for a call about a new job that he is lining up. He's pretty sure he's found something that will start in a fortnight – and not before time, he adds.

“I was sanctioned,” he tells me. He smiles in a rueful way. He doesn't think the sanction was fair. He says that he made a genuine mistake and confused his attendance days. “They had me signing on on the Monday and then coming in on the Tuesday for a review, but they kept changing the days. I got the Monday mixed up with the Tuesday.” He went straight to the jobcentre as soon as he realised, but “they stopped me for four weeks' money” all the same.

He says that the jobcentre knew he would struggle. “They said to me – “have you got friends you can borrow [money] off? Have you got family you can borrow off?” I said – “what’s that got to do with my entitlement for money?” [It shouldn't be about] whether people owe me money, or whether I have friends who can lend me money. [The jobcentre] was not reasonable. I didn’t even get a letter. They said “Oh, [the letter advising him of the sanction] must be late because of Christmas.”

Ravi, 22, tells a similar story. Ravi was on a sanction the day that we spoke at Kilburn. He'd been told that he'd failed to meet his jobsearch requirements, but he disagreed. Ravi must prove he's searched for 20 jobs a week.

“It was 9.15am or something and one of the advisers looked through the [jobsearch] sheet and he said “come back at 11.15am to the third floor.” So I came back at 11.15am, not knowing what I was coming back for. She [another adviser] said “the reason why you’ve been told to come back is that your jobsearch is incorrect.” She actually gave me the chance to do it again in front of her, so I literally done it again in front of her. I spent like 15 or 20 minutes doing it again and I handed it to her and she said “it’s still incorrect” and I said – “I honestly do not know what you want me to do.”

Ravi wanted a permanent job, but was struggling to find one. He last worked in January. “I’ve worked in heaps of jobs. I’ve worked in retail, I’ve working in banking, I’ve worked for the NHS. At the moment, I just want to get back into work. I’m pretty much looking for anything. Contract work – it’s not ideal. Once the contract is over and you haven’t got any backup, then you lose everything that you’ve worked for. You save up and when the contract ends, if you haven’t got another job, everything that you’ve saved up goes onto your bills.”

At Neasden, we talk to Amy*, who is 19. She'd been signed off JSA the morning we met. She lives in supported accommodation where she shares facilities. She is pregnant. She works part-time for a large retail chain. Her wages come in at about £150-£200 a month - “it's about £7 an hour, which isn't bad,” she said. Sometimes, she works eight hours a week and sometimes she works overtime. She was never exactly sure how many hours she'd get each week. She said she had been claiming about £10 a fortnight in JSA, which she spent on food.

Amy was very confused about the reasons she'd been signed off JSA. So were we. They said [at the jobcentre] to do more hours, but my hours vary, because sometimes I do overtime. She [the women at the jobcentre] said to me that I have to do more hours. Then she said to apply for ESA. I’m going to have to call them later on.

“I can’t live on £10. I’m working, but all that money goes on my bills. They’re cutting off the tenner now. And now I can’t get that. I’ve signed off. I need that money because it pays for my food.” Amy said that she'd asked if she could apply for hardship funds, “but they said I can’t get it… But I have nothing to live off now, so I’m living off him (she points to her friend) until I get paid.”

Noreen at Neasden covered the same themes. She'd been out of work for about 18 months - with the exception of a couple of months' work over Christmas. Noreen had worked as a care worker, as a factory worker and in retail, like Amy.

“I think I’ll have to go back into care work,” she said, “but it’s not well paid and you have to walk up and down [all over Neasden] to people’s houses [from one care job to another]. You don’t get paid for travel [travelling between care work jobs at different houses during the day].” It’s about £6.20 an hour that you get paid.”

Noreen said she found work on “lucky days.” She meant that she found work by herself when she managed to talk to the right people - not because there was a system in place to help her.

Lucky days went a bit like this. “Sometimes, [when you take your CV to a major retailer] they say “go online” [to apply] but it can be worth going in [in person], to see if it is your lucky day…they might say – “here’s an application form,” if it is your lucky day. That’s how you get a job if it is temporary. That happened to me [with a major retailer] over the Christmas period. [The woman I met at the store], she said: “since you have come in, you can fill in an application form “and that’s how I got two months’ work over Christmas.” Noreen had been on the work programme. She had to come into the jobcentre to sign on every two weeks. The rest of the time, she was trying to create lucky days.  

Noreen did not expect the jobcentre to find her work. “This place [Neasden jobcentre] is harsh. I wish they could close it down.” Universal Jobmatch was driving her wild. “There’s the computer in there – you punch something into it and you read it and it says “Here’s this job.” You send your CV, but you never get a reply. You will never find any jobs in there. They don’t bother to check the computer to see if the jobs in there are already filled. Every two weeks I go there, the same old jobs are in there. It’s just rubbish.”

Rubbish indeed.

* Names have been changed

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