Earlier this week, I spent a morning outside the Kilburn jobcentre with the Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group. The group regularly leaflets at the jobcentre, to let people know that there is help and support available for people who are struggling.
We talked to person after person who was on JSA and signing on. And being sanctioned. The first person we saw was a young man who came out of the jobcentre yelling that he’d just been sanctioned for 13 weeks. He was furious, as well he might be. Thirteen weeks is a hell of a long time to go without money.
He was too angry to talk about that with us in any detail, but we did speak to a lot of other people who had similar experiences. I recorded those discussions and have posted transcripts of those recordings below. I’ll be doing a lot more of this. People need to hear the sorts of things that people on JSA are saying. And I don’t think it will do jobcentres any harm to know that there are journalists out the front of their places asking people what things are like inside.
Because things don’t seem too good at all inside. Just about everyone we spoke with talked about sanctions and appointment mixups and confusing instructions and paperwork, and having to “walk on eggshells” in case anything happened that might lead to a sanction. This part really gets on my nerves. If you’re on JSA, you’re at the mercy of everyone. You’re on the receiving end of everything. People can treat you however they like. And all because you’re unemployed. It’s as though being unemployed has become a hanging offence.
“It’s degrading the way they treat you,” an older guy called Andy told us. He was a painter and decorator who had been in and out of work in recent times. “Every time you do something wrong, it is like there’s a threat. You’re going to lose your money for four weeks and then you’re worried. It’s like treading on eggshells.”
Andy was fairly confident that he’d managed to organise a job for himself, which he hoped would start in about a fortnight’s time. Like a number of people we spoke to, his problem was finding work that lasted. He’d work for a while, then a job would end and he wouldn’t find another one immediately. He’d need to go back to the jobcentre for a time. Which is a key point to remember if you’re thinking about all of this. For all the “People Choose Benefits Because It’s Easy” bollocks you hear, you don’t find too many people at the jobcentre who are getting easy money and having a fun day out. You find people who wish they were anywhere else. They’re often people who must use the jobcentre between low-paid and insecure jobs. We talked to two people in that category in an hour. Or they’re older people who have health problems and who know they haven’t got a hope in hell of finding work, particularly through the jobcentre. They do not strike me as people who are having a great time. We all need to keep shining a light on this aspect of things: the fact that these places are an exercise in degradation and futility.
Let’s not forget either that all this goes on while Barclays pays out huge bonuses for rubbish results and MPs charge the taxpayer to heat stables for their horses. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – everyone is on a hiding to nothing with this kind of inequality. It won’t end well. People on the ground are perfectly aware of this, too. You get all kinds of officials watching you and asking what you’re doing if you hang around a jobcentre for any length of time. At this week’s leafleting session, jobcentre security guys poked their heads out the door and told people off for pointing their megaphone at the building. Apparently, the police had been called to these leafleting sessions in the past – to stop union members handing out information about getting help with benefit problems.
Anyway. Let’s hear from some of the people who were at the jobcentre on Monday:
“I am 60. What chance do I have. 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. What’s happening now is that the Pound Shop and all that – they’re employing people, but it’s the modern version of slavery [taking people on workfare placements]. They’re getting away with it. It’s the fucking bankers that ought to be done for it.
“People are saying that there’s benefit fraud and that people are sitting around watching flatscreen TVs. But there’s people who are genuinely trying. I get £142 a fortnight and I have to pay all of my bills out of that. That’s three or four pounds a day. I got a job myself. 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. They’re pointing the fingers in the wrong direction.
“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. I can’t work that way. I would be better learning how to do it myself. Waste of fucking time – they’re spending money on the wrong things. But nobody’s saying that, so I keep coming in here. People haven’t woken up. You won’t hear this conversation on the five o’clock news. I was a professional drummer and I went all over the world – Germany, the States, all over. But the money in it has gone.
“I have to come in here [to the jobcentre] once a fortnight. Last year for a time, they had us coming in here four days a week. To sign on. That lasted for about two and a half or three weeks.
“I hate the place. They aren’t going to find me a job in there. Not a hope in hell. It’s my age as well. They’re not interested. There’s millions of youth unemployed. Nobody is going to look at me. If everyone was on the same wave and making good money, the jobcentres would be gone for a start. People like us are screwed to the ground. They’ve legalised bullying. They wear suits.
“I haven’t been sanctioned. I do what they tell me to do.”
Here is Davy, who is in his 30s and a commis chef:
“They sanctioned me. It was meant to be for a month, but it was only for two weeks, because my MP got involved. [They should not be able] to just sanction someone. You’ve got to tell people [that they’re going to be sanctioned] first, because otherwise, they’re not going to expect it. They just cut the whole lot and they don’t even tell you. The first thing you know is that you go into the store, get all your shopping up in the bag, put your card in and then [there’s no money]. All your shopping is left there.
“They told me, apparently, it was because I wasn’t doing enough to find work. But there is no work at the moment. When there’s work, I’ll find it. Last year, I was working for ten months, but I got laid off again. I’m a commis chef. So, I worked for ten months and then they laid me straight off. So, I have to look for more work. I look on the internet, but there isn’t much there. I send in my CV and I’m waiting for two or three weeks to hear a reply back. If it is way out in Surrey, you can’t take your CV there [in person], so you have to send it. Once you’ve sent it, you’re waiting two or three weeks for a reply. Then – what is the reply?
“The jobcentre is total crap. They aren’t going to find me a job. You find yourself a job and I’d rather find myself a job. Then they can’t turn around and say “Sanctioned” and I can turn around and say “I found my own job.”
“They pick on anyone – because they’ve got a job [as jobcentre workers]. They can sit on their backsides and they get paid for it. They think that they’re higher than everyone else. They’re just as low as anyone else. Just because they work behind a counter, they look down on you.”
Here’s Maheesh, who is 56. He was a cook, then worked in a food factory before he was laid off. He looked tired and unwell on Monday. It was noticeable.
“I was on ESA, because I had a problem with my heart. My jobcentre was in Marylebone, but they moved me here. In December, I had a problem in my heart and yesterday, that started again. I went to my GP and he gave me a medical certificate. The doctor said bring this to the jobcentre and they said ring this number (he shows me an 0800 number). But they already have my medical reports.
“They said to ring this  number and to tell them that I want to move again to ESA from JSA. They told me I was not allowed to ring the 0800 number from the jobcentre. You have to ring from the outside. They haven’t found me a job. Now, I just go and ask my friends if they can give me a job. To them, I’m nothing really.
“In March, I will be 57. I lost my job in 2009. Now, it’s like this. I’m older, I’ve gone a long time with no job and I have a health problem.”
Andy, in his 50s. Works as a painter and decorator. Worked a lot around Europe. Has to sign on when work dries up.
“I was sanctioned. They stopped my money [because I got an attendance day wrong]. They had me signing on on the Monday and then coming in on the Tuesday for a review and then the following Monday to sign on again, but they kept changing the days and I got the Monday mixed up with the Tuesday. I was meant to go on the Monday and it was usually a Monday, but they put Tuesday down. I didn’t get it. I genuinely made a mistake. I realised and went in the next morning – and they stopped me for four weeks money. I just got my first payment [after that sanction] last week. I signed on again last Monday. By Thursday, it had been six weeks since I had any money. But on Thursday, I didn’t receive anything in my bank account. I was furious. I came here and [found out that] they hadn’t released my money.
“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?” They said – “are you owed money? Can you get it?” Well – it’s nothing to do with that. [It shouldn’t be about] whether people owe me money, or whether I have friends here who can lend me money. I did get some money from friends where I used to work, because I couldn’t survive, but it’s not their business whether I get help from a friend. If it wasn’t for that friend that sent me money across, I’d have had very little. They don’t have a lot of money but they helped me out with the basics.”
“After stopping my money, I didn’t get any money for almost six weeks. I had to ring up, because what happens is that they lock your account. If there’s a sanction against you, they lock your account. [Last week] they hadn’t unlocked my account, so I rang them again, because I had no money last Thursday, even though I wasn’t on the sanction. I did get the money, but I had to go through a lot of hoops. It was on locked and she had to release it.
“I have two grownup children here and that’s why I came back here to England, but things went wrong. I couldn’t do this [stay with the jobcentre] forever. This would drive me…I would rather be working. It’s degrading the way they treat you. Every time you do something wrong, it is like there’s a threat. You’re going to lose your money for four weeks and then you’re worried. It’s like treading on eggshells. [For me, my mistake was] just a pure timing issue. They were not reasonable. They wouldn’t hear it. They didn’t give me a chance. I didn’t even get a letter. They said “Oh, it must be late because of Christmas.” I couldn’t believe they stopped me for four weeks for being a day late. They should say “Okay, because it hasn’t happened before, [we’ll let it go]. If you make a habit of it, I could understand, but I’m never late.”
“This lady here at the jobcentre, she is always difficult. Now, she says I’ve got to go back on Friday. Normally, my day is every week on Monday for a signon and then it can be Monday or Tuesday for a kind of review of what you’re doing.
“With Universal Jobmatch – she always keeps on at me [to use it]. I’m not on it. It was useless. I didn’t tick the box which gives them the right to look at it. I knew I had the law on my side, because I knew it was not mandatory, but every time I see her, she’s always [on about it]. She threatened to go to management about it and I said, “look – you go. As far as I know the law is on my side and I’m under no obligation.” This issue is going to come up again on Friday.”