Back to the Kilburn jobcentre with the Kilburn Unemployed Workers’ Group. Have been doing this for a month or two now (links to earlier posts at the end of this one). We’ve been to Kilburn, Neasden and Marylebone. The sessions involve me talking with people on JSA about sanctions, jobcentres, the work programme and the whole dysfunctional Jobcentre Plus system, and the Kilburn Unemployed Workers’ Group talking with people about all those things and handing out leaflets about the group’s weekly support meeting.
That weekly support meeting is growing in size. This is definitely worth a mention. The group is made up of people who are either affected by the government’s so-called “welfare reforms”, or have been affected by those reforms and/or who know a great deal about benefit forms, jobsearch and benefits. They also know a lot about the way that bureaucrats on power trips can operate. The group’s catchphrase, if you like, is “Never Attend Anywhere Official Alone” – wise advice that is catching on if recent meeting numbers are anything to go by. More and more of the people who the group talks to at the jobcentre leafleting sessions turn up to the weekly meeting for advice, and to find someone to accompany them to meetings with jobcentre staff and a wide range of advisers and officials. As far as I can see, self-organised groups like this one are taking on the work that jobcentres should be doing, rather than creating – they’re solving people’s problems, explaining appeals processes, helping people make some sort of sense of the nonsensical paperwork and instructions they’re given and so on. Accompanying people to their benefits interviews and meetings is an important part of making sure that officialdom stays in line.
God only knows I wouldn’t go to a jobcentre meeting alone. The more time I spend talking to people about their jobcentre experiences, the more I see how completely screwed the whole thing is. And okay, we all knew that – but seeing it in action, if action is the word, is still something else. I stand outside of these places and watch person after person reel out – they’re baffled by sanctions, confused by letters which call them to meetings with no explanation, bewildered by extreme jobsearch requirements, frustrated by a (hopefully doomed) Jobmatch “technology” which serves up the same jobs week after week, not at all sure of their benefit entitlements generally, and wondering why being unemployed deserves such punishment. I suppose we all know that is the point of the exercise – to reduce jobcentres to the point of non-function and/or to a stage where a political “justification” can be made for outsourcing. Part of that plan is also to make the thought of unemployment and signing on utterly terrifying to everyone else. The interesting thing is that the majority of people I’ve spoken to are actually employed a lot of the time. They’re just employed in low-paid, insecure jobs which end as suddenly as they start and pay so badly that people can’t save for lean times. Or for anything, for that matter.
Anyway. Here are some of the people I’ve spoken with at the last two sessions.
Ravi, aged 22. Trying to sort out a sanction.
Ravi said he last worked in January. He works in sectors like retail and banking. He wants something permanent, but is struggling to find permanent work. As of Monday, he was still trying to sort out a sanction – he was waiting to go into the jobcentre for a meeting where he hoped things would be worked out.
“I have to come here every week. One week is to just sign on and one week is to speak to an advisor – but it’s not really to speak to an advisor. It’s just to sit in front of them and they are just going to say “there’s nothing to really match your criteria here – retail – so see you next week.” It is a system set up for you to fail. If you don’t turn up for an appointment – because [for example] you have got to come in every morning and they say, well, you didn’t turn up, so you’re suspended.
How I got sanctioned
“They suspended my benefit. Apparently, the reason was that my jobsearch wasn’t correct. Apparently, you can’t hand out CVs any more. They go – “95% of your jobs are online” and they [said to me] “a few of your jobsearches say that you handed out CVs and these places don’t accept CVs. Therefore, you’ve been suspended.”
“I was sanctioned, yeah. I think I still am. I’ve got to come back to talk to someone at 3.15pm and they are going to explain it. It’s a bit difficult. My adviser [that I’m talking to today] – out of all of them, he’s okay. He’s more understanding, unlike the rest of them. I think they’re fed up with their own jobs to be honest. He’s quite good. He’s really understanding. He would actually advise me, unlike the rest of them.
“I asked them – what was the reason for the sanction? I asked them like three times and they kept diverting the conversation. So I honestly didn’t know. [It came about this way]. Basically, I came in on time and it was 9.15am or something, and then 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 said “the reason why you’ve been told to come back is that your jobsearch is incorrect.” I asked her “Why? What’s wrong with it?” and she was like “some dates are missing,” and I was like “it’s all there. Maybe I’ve just made a few mistakes on it.” 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 to to her and she said “it’s still incorrect” and I said – “I honestly do not know what you want me to do. I’ve done it again.” I don’t like arguing and things like that – some people there really argue and shout – but I’m not like that. I was like, “Okay, fair enough.” It’s their decision, so I just left them and I’ve been told to come back today to sort it out.
“This is my first time of being sanctioned, so it was pretty confusing. This is my second time at the jobcentre since I’ve been 16. I’ve always been working, so I’m not used to the system. I’m not sure what it’s all about to be honest. So it’s changed. It’s more confusing. They were telling me that there’s like a million people from age 18 to 24 on benefits, so obviously they’re probably frustrated behind the scenes and all, but I think that the way they take it out on us is not right. I’ve seen the way that they treat people upstairs myself and I don’t say anything, but I think it’s not right.
“The way that they treat people – just because they’re sitting behind the desk and they’ve got the job, they don’t know what is going on in the lives [of people claiming JSA]. You know, maybe they had to leave work for a personal reason. It’s not because they’re lazy, or they don’t want to work – but they [jobcentre staff] actually think that everybody is like that. They just don’t understand that. The day I got sanctioned – I went in and I gave my book to a man… I was told to give it to him, because the person who asked for it wasn’t there on a Monday morning. They hadn’t turned up. [The person] wasn’t in the office and they [the other staff] were all getting a bit anxious – like, “where is she?” and “we’ve got to do her work now?” and they were all in a panic up there and I think that sometimes they take out their personal anger on us. There’s nothing we can do really.”
“Work – I don’t mind [what work I get]. I’ve worked in heaps of jobs. I’ve worked in retail, I’ve working in banking, I’ve worked for the NHS. I’ve had loads of different jobs, so at the moment, I just want to get back into work. I’m pretty much looking for anything – maybe back in banking, or retail. I worked until January this year. It was contract stuff and that is the problem. I get the work myself. I have never had a job through the jobcentre. I always get the jobs myself. If I’m honest, there’s a few people I know who have [got a job through the jobcentre], but it’s very few out of all of them. Maybe one or two.
“Contract work – it’s not ideal. Once the contract is over and you haven’t got any backup, then yeah, 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 and stuff like that and you’ve got to start again. I’m more stressed out coming here once every week [than when I’m working] because it’s really stressful. You don’t know what they’re going to say.
“I have to do 20 jobsearches a week. Twenty a week is [difficult], especially if you have to go out places and if you’re sanctioned as well – you haven’t got the money to go out. I had to explain that to them. They booked me a place to go [on a course about apprenticeships] after they sanctioned me. I called up and I said – “I’m not going to make it, because I haven’t got the travel money,” and they said – “Well, you’ve got to make it. You’ve got to find a way to get there,” and I said “look, I’m just looking for a full time job to be honest,” but she said “you’ve still got to go.”
Next up – Mark* (name changed). Mark was a one-time umployed workers’ group member who we saw at a bus-stop just up from the jobcentre. Mark was on the work programme and had been fighting the jobcentre for fare money to get to it. He said he’d tried to make a complaint about that and had asked for a complaint form at his jobcentre. An argument followed which led to the police being called on Mark (he says that was completely ridiculous) and a court date set in several months’ time. I’ll be speaking to Mark again, so there should be more to come on this. I would say that the more of this sort of thing I hear, the more I think jobcentres should open their doors to journalists, campaigners and anyone else claimants want along. Seriously. There has to be some sort of transparency around all of this. I’m kind of hoping that some of these and other people’s reports will force the issue.
Here’s the story Mark told us:
It was like they were trying to get me sanctioned
“I couldn’t get the fares to get to the work programme in Tottenham. It was going to cost about £38 a week. So, I went back to the jobcentre for two things – to get the induction fee [for the work programme] and to get travel money. I’m in Tottenham for the mandatory [work programme]. It is costing me £38 a week [to get there]. I can’t afford it. [They said] I got to pay it out of my JSA – they said that’s what your JSA is for. I said No it is not. It is to help me look for work. So I went back to the jobcentre to get my induction money for the one day induction and to get my fares to go for four weeks – both of which they refused. They said it was not their problem. [There were] two managers on the floor and both of them refusing to deal with me.
“I went to see my adviser. She, as usual, said go and see a manager. Two managers on the floor and I went to see one of them first. She said that she can’t help me and so she sent me to the other one. As soon as she saw me, I tell you, she was running. She sees me coming and both of them are refusing to deal with me. So if I don’t get the money, I don’t start by Monday and if I don’t start by Monday, I’m going to get sanctioned. I said – “you’re helping me to get sanctioned. You are saying that if I don’t go [to the work programme course], I’m going to get sanctioned and here I am asking you for the money to get there and stop me getting sanctioned. And you are both saying you can’t help me, so I’m going to get sanctioned.
“So far, the providers have done it [paid the fare]. [First] They did it once. They said it was a one- off. So I wrote them a letter and said “I’m not going to be here unless you give me the money” and so the second time they said “we’re going to do it again for the second time, but that’s it.” The third time, I went back – so what I’m finding is that each time I’m going back, they’re doing the same. I’m on the third week now and next week I’m just going to show up and do it again…so it’s quite clear that they are supposed to do it somehow.”
Gio, 19. At the jobcentre to get forms to apply for a hardship loan
“My rent is £1250 a month. I’m working part-time in a supermarket as a manager and I’m getting about £655 a month. They’re giving me about £192 a week [in housing benefit] – so that about £450 off my wages going on the rent. There’s £78 council tax and I also have to pay the bills – gas, electricity and stuff like that. There’s the baby’s milk and the baby’s nappies – stuff like that. So I just came for a crisis [sic] loan form, because I can’t afford it. It has just shattered me this month.
“I’m a manager and I’m still getting the minimum wage – £655 a month working about 25 hours. I showed them [the jobcentre] my payslips and I got a letter from my manager saying look, I need more help. I’m young and I got a kid and I don’t want to be on the streets drug dealing and stuff to earn the money, because I’ve been through that stage. The lady turns around and says “that is all we can do,” and I said “okay, well if that’s all you can do, I’m going to sort it out somehow.” I don’t want to go back to my old life. My mum and my dad – they don’t want nothing to do with me. I work about 25 hours a week. It’s hard to work more [at the moment] because my wife is very ill. She’s had a cesarean. It will take her a couple of months. I just hope they help me.”
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