Over the last few weeks, I’ve spent time outside jobcentres with the Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group talking with people who are on JSA about their experiences. We’ve been talking about sanctions, about the realities of trying to find work with jobcentres (a month in and I have yet to speak to anyone who has) and about having to fall into line on all fronts or risk having your benefits cut. Am posting transcripts from those discussions here as I work on a bigger project.
Last week, we went to the Lisson Grove jobcentre at Marylebone – a jobcentre that quite a few people we’ve spoken to seem to dislike intensely. Once again, we talked to people who were tired, angry and sick of the whole JSA regime. Don’t forget that the only crime people have committed here is being unemployed. Anyone could end up in that situation.
This is what happens if you do:
We began by speaking at length with one man who had been sanctioned for some months. He really wasn’t sure why this had happened. English wasn’t his first language and he was struggling to understand the story that he’d been told, or the steps he should take to get his sanction lifted. He said that the jobcentre said that something had happened to his records when he moved from one part of London to another. He showed us payslips from his most recent job – he seemed to have been working on and off in light industry. Now without income, he was relying on family to survive.
“It’s embarrassing to me,” he kept saying. “I have to go to my sister-in-law for food and for somewhere to sleep. I have no food, no light, no electricity. I don’t like that I have to rely on her.” He stayed and talked with us for quite a while. People offered to go back into the jobcentre with him, to try and find out more about his situation. He seemed completely stuck. A lot of people we talk to outside jobcentres seem completely stuck. They say their problems aren’t being resolved at all.
We’ve talked to plenty of people who are furious about that. At Lisson Grove, I talked to Penny*, aged 62. She was angry all right. She said that she’d worked in the voluntary sector until August last year, when she was made redundant, because of budget cuts. She was particularly angry about being told by the jobcentre that she wasn’t trying hard enough to find work.
“Some of us in our previous lives actually taught jobsearch. We actually took people through to the point of appointment, so [it’s very hard] to come here and be told “why are you late, you’re not doing proper jobsearch, that’s why you haven’t got a job,” when you’re 62 years of age. I’m being told this by people who are half my age. I’m being told that if ever I arrive late, they are going to cut the whole of my benefits.
“They have threatened me [with sanctions]. Next January, I can retire. Right now, I must come here every week and I’m on JSA – fair enough. But to tell me at 62…. Really, what I would like to do is discuss what my options are at my age.
“I’d love them to find me a job – but what are the options at my age other than voluntary work without pay, or going to do a job in Tesco for about eight or nine months? My point is that I think the jobcentre advisers ought to be given better training than they are – to be more sensitive and more alert to the job needs of the people that they are getting to sign on the dotted line. Because that’s all they’re doing.
“They can make you come in every day if they want. I’ve actually come in today to tell them that I can’t come in on Friday, because I’ve got a discussion [about a job] through my own network, possibly about doing some job share. I’ve just had to walk here to tell them that I can’t come for the Friday interview. I don’t come, they’ll sanction me. It’s just policing really.”
Next, we spoke to a younger man who said he’d just been told to apply for 25 jobs a week. He also seemed very unsure about the information he’d been given and how he was supposed to go about meeting his signing-on requirements. Like a lot of people we’ve spoken with, he usually found his own work – he’d never been placed in work by a jobcentre. He used the jobcentre and signed on between short-term call centre contract jobs that he found himself. We’ve spoken to person after person in this sort of situation – people who are in low paid, insecure jobs and must sign on and off when those jobs start and end. We’re seeing major failings of the labour market here. I haven’t met very many people who have been on JSA for the longer term. The majority of people so far have been on JSA because they’re between short-term, low-paid, insecure jobs.
He told us:
“They said you have to apply for 25 jobs a week. But really, it should depend on the person. It should be all about customising [jobsearch] for people, rather than just saying a generic 25 for everyone. They might get people who might be mentally unwell, or who are caring for people, so they might not have the time [to look for 25 jobs]. The reality is that the jobcentre needs to be a bit more compassionate to people and really look at their situation – rather than just saying a blanket [number of job applications] for everyone, regardless.
“For me, the new system of Universal Jobmatch [is time-consuming]. When I signed on a few months ago for a few weeks, I was told – “you’re going to get a [sanctions] warning.” When I said to them – “look, you can look at my inbox. I’ve got like 30 applications.” They won’t accept that. I feel that they are making it more difficult for people. “I said – I’ll bring you a printout.” They won’t see it. They want to see Jobmatch.
“I’ve been working in call centre management for the last ten years. At the moment, it’s quite difficult. I just went through a whole month-long process [to apply for a job]. You go through one first stage interview, then a second stage interview and in the end, there was two of us and the other person got the role. Then for me, it’s a case of [telling the jobcentre] that I’ve tried all this and you’ve got the evidence – but no. You’ve still got to apply for 25 jobs. I think the advisers themselves need to be trained better…there’s not support from the jobcentre. Hopefully, it’s [nearly] over. I’ve got another job offer hopefully on the table today, so for me, it’s not a big issue. I have the ability to go out there and get my own work, but it’s more the people who don’t have the skills to find their own work, specially when it comes to interview skills. There’s no support in that way.
“I pay my taxes. I’ve been working for 15 years. In the industry I work in, it’s varied. At the moment, because [the workplace] is so saturated, the difficulty is getting to the interview stage. Once you get there, it’s all about personality. You have to shine through on the phone, or in a face to face conversation, or they are not going to take you on.”
*Name changed. I’m not putting names up at the moment in case people are sanctioned.