In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been attending leafleting sessions outside jobcentres with the Kilburn Unemployed Workers’ Group and talking to people on JSA about their experiences as they sign on. We’ve been talking to people about sanctions, about being spoken down to by staff and having to walk on eggshells or risk being sanctioned, about relying on the jobcentre for JSA payments between short-term, low-paid jobs and about pointless work programme courses. I’ve posted some transcripts from today’s discussions below.
This morning, we were outside the Neasden jobcentre. It was freezing cold and there was a nasty, biting wind and a number of people we spoke to looked cold and shaky because they were not dressed warmly enough for the weather. I know we hear a great deal about life on JSA being a rort and people on benefits enjoying TV and cigarettes and long days lying around in the sun and all the rest of it, but it never looks that great when I see it. People talk about having to go weeks without money and being forced to grovel and fawn to staff to avoid being sanctioned, and about the terror of putting the card into the cash machine and finding that no money comes out because you’ve been sanctioned after all. And in this rubbish weather, they look cold.
This is the punishment you get these days for the crime of being unemployed and not rich. You are utterly powerless. You’re on the receiving end of everything. You have to put up with everyone’s crap. Of course – things are very different if you’re rich and connected. Life generally is very different if you’re rich and connected. Very different. If you’re Chris Huhne, for example, you get your media-class buddies to give you a column at the Guardian when you leave prison. If you’re Maria Miller, you help yourself to £90k from the taxpayer and claim that little earner was totally above board. If you’re Nadhim Zahawi, you charge the taxpayer to heat your horses’ stables. These people genuinely believe that it’s the rest of us who are out of line. That’s the part that really gets me.
Most of the people we spoke to this morning were forced to collect JSA between low-paid and insecure jobs, or to subsidise low-paid and insecure jobs – something that ought to concern everyone who relies on a wage to pay the bills. One of the women, Noreen, talked about finding work on “lucky days.” She meant that she found work by herself on days when her luck was in and she managed to talk to the right people, not because there was any system in place to help her. Pity she doesn’t have as many lucky days as Chris Huhne.
I’ve been speaking to people for a couple of weeks now and have yet to find anyone who has found work through their jobcentre. Everyone talks about finding work themselves. These jobcentres are an exercise in degradation and futility. People don’t go to their jobcentre because they believe that someone will help them find a job. They go there to present meaningless “evidence” of a fortnight’s jobsearch activity and to sit very still and silently during interviews with jobcentre staff in the hope that they’ll avoid a sanction. “They’re about stressing people out and raising your blood pressure and they are there to give you a heart attack,” Noreen told us this morning. Can’t help thinking that is the point of the exercise as far as Iain Duncan Smith is concerned.
Anyway – here are a couple of people who sign on at Neasden jobcentre. I’m changing the names for these, because I don’t want jobcentres getting fancy ideas about sanctioning people who dare to share their views in public. I won’t respond well if I hear that is happening. People who are on JSA have every right to share their views and I’ll keep posting their views because of that.
Noreen, in her late 40s. Has been out of work for about 18 months, with a spell of short-term work over Christmas.
“I’ve been on the work programme for two weeks – it was writing your CV, learning how to attach your CV to an email. But I can do that. It was to build your confidence. But what I need to do is find a job. I want just a job, any job. Any job that means I don’t have to come here [to the jobcentre].
“I have to come every two weeks to sign on. They are a bit stroppy. You can’t say nothing to them, because if you argue back to them, the security is there and they will sanction you. I’ve seen people there arguing… you have to keep quiet, sometimes you don’t want to keep quiet. The best [thing you can do] is to get a job and then you don’t have to come here, innit. You can get your own money and then you can pay your own bills and you don’t have to come here. You come here like you’re some bloody scrounger. I have been looking for work for 18 months. I used to work at McVitie’s for 22 years – you know, the factory. They gave us redundancy. Since then, I have done carework and I’ve worked in supermarkets. I think I’ll have to go back into carework, 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]. If you drive, you don’t get paid for petrol, so it’s best if you can find something where you can walk it. It’s about £6.20 an hour that you get paid. You can’t pay your bills on that.
“Sometimes,with care work, the hours are zero hours, so you don’t know this week if you would get 16 hours [the number of hours you must work under to claim JSA]. You may get ten or 11 hours and then you have to come here and sign on to make it up to the 16 hours. It’s impossible. You’re trapped and there’s no way out.
“This place [Neasden jobcentre] is harsh. I wish they could close it down. They don’t find you a job in there. There’s the computer in there – you punch something into it and you read it and it says “Here’s this job.” You bring the job information up and you ring the number – but the job is gone. You send your CV, but you never get a reply. You will never find any jobs in there. No.
“It’s just a waste of time. Most of the 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.
“I will find myself a job. Sometimes, [when you take your CV to a major retailer] they say “go online” [to apply] but it can be worth going in, to see if it is your lucky day. You can go into Ikea and they might say “go online” but 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 “go online” but then 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.”
So. That was Noreen. Like I say – Noreen’s lucky days are a bit different from Chris Huhne’s. Or even Nadhim Zahawi’s horses’.
Next, we spoke to Amy, who is 19 and had just been signed off JSA. She lives in supported accommodation where she shares facilities. She is pregnant. She works part time in a large retail chain. Her wages come in at about £150-£200 a month. Sometimes, she works eight hours a week and sometimes she works overtime. She worked overtime during the Christmas rush. She said she had been claiming about £10 a fortnight in JSA which she spent on food.
She was very confused about the information that she’d been given by the jobcentre and the reasons for her own signing off from JSA, as you’ll see below. People raise this issue a lot when we speak. They sometimes find their entitlements and JSA search requirements difficult to understand when they work and when they work different hours each week. That is often because they’re told very confusing things. I’m posting this discussion as an example. When confronted with this sort of confusing information, people sometimes just find it easier to sign off – and that isn’t fair. Amy left us her contact details, so if anyone can shed any light on the situation outlined below and Amy’s entitlements, please get in contact or leave a comment. We will get back to her.
Amy: 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.
“They tell me they are going to pay me £10 a fortnight [in JSA], but 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.
“I have to give them proof of looking for another job… I didn’t think they were going to hound me [for that ten pounds]. If you’re on JSA, you have to look for work, but I’ve already got work. But it’s not enough hours for tax credits. Then I have to go off on maternity in two months. I get £7.50 an hour [at my job], which is not bad.
“I asked for the hardship fund, 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. They said go off JSA and go onto ESA. I have a GP letter which says I can’t work more hours.
“I’m working eight hours a week and they want me to go up to 16, or to get another job as well. They signed me off, because I couldn’t look for more hours. I was getting £20 a month from them. I’m living in supported accommodation. I pay rent for the house, bills, TV licence. My pay from work goes all to my bills. I get about £150-200 a month. Roughly. They made us work extra hours over Christmas, so I had more then.”
So. That was Amy. Wonder if Maria Miller found it that difficult to claim £90k in expenses.