A distressing morning at the Job Centre – witnessing the Work Programme

13 Jan

Brixton Job Centre has a ridiculous amount of security guards – they are standing all around the building as if we are some high security prison. When I last visited they confiscated my bike helmet without giving a reason. Perhaps they thought I might throw it at someone in anger. It’s a shame really that I didn’t have my bike helmet this morning (although I believe in non-violent direct action most of the time!)  I walked my way past these guys to the bit where we all sit around waiting to be called to sign on. The sofas are placed in an awkward square shape so we all sit inwards avoiding each others eyes, whilst around this square of sofas the advisors sit around at their desks – it as if we job seekers are in a panopticon – our every move being watched, lest we deviate from the dejected figures that we are – and this set up does hinder conversation between us. Despite this awkward set up, I have been trying to strike up conversation with my fellow job seekers, with varying success due to my shyness. Today, I’d come armed with Boycott Workfare leaflets ready to hand out and discuss our situation and to warn people to reject any work experience offered. I sat down on one of the sofas and looked across at the woman on the sofa opposite me. She was a small white woman with dreads. She sat there looking despondent and exhausted – she kept on closing her eyes, perhaps sleeping, and would occasionally open her heavy eyelids. She looked in a bad way.  She looked really familiar to me. I kept on staring at her wondering where I knew her from. And then I got it. She’d body searched me at Brixton Academy back when I was a teenager. I had struggled to remember her, back then, about 6 years ago, she had been lively and funny and friendly, making jokes as she patted me down. She was utterly transformed now. I sat there watching her, absorbing all of this and desperately wanting to talk with her. I was angry that we live in such a society – where people are struggling. To see the transformation in someone in such a drastic way really brought it home to me – how can we allow this to happen? How can we tolerate people living in poverty? To clearly feel absolutely terrible without offering any support?

I wanted to talk with her, I really did. I kept on hoping to catch her eye, and then I’d break the awkward silence in the stuffy and stale air. But she closed her eyes, and when she did open them she only scanned the ground. I couldn’t meet her eyes, and she clearly did not look in the mood for conversation, and so I just sat there. I placed a stack of leaflets on the space next to me for people to pick up. She was called to see an advisor and they were sitting just behind me so I listened in. Her advisor had a squeaky, grating voice, and seemed to be telling my dreaded friend off. Not telling off exactly, just stating things but in quite an annoying way that did not recognise the difficulty the woman was in. The woman responded saying that she felt very unwell. The woman went on at her – you haven’t filled this out right, we’re going to send for an interview, you need to take these jobs. The woman responded that she couldn’t take those jobs because they only paid six pounds an hour and that wouldn’t cover her rent. She explained that she was really struggling to pay her rent. The woman then said ‘we’re going to put you on the Work Programme’ – alarm bells went off in my head. This was bad. But I couldn’t remember what the Work Programme entailed – the government are very good at making everything to do with JSA very unclear so you don’t know where you stand. Maybe the Work Programme was apprenticeships or extra jobs? Should I intervene? I quickly googled Work Programme on my phone and scanned a Guardian article. But this didn’t explain what it meant for the job seeker, it was just from the point of view of charities. (you’re probably crying out – read the leaflets that you took with you, and I did eventually, and it informed me that Work Programme does indeed = workfare) I wanted to step in and say, don’t go on the Work Programme, it’s forced labour. But I felt I didn’t know enough about it. I also felt wary that my friend clearly wanted this meeting over with and I didn’t want to prolong it or cause trouble for her. And so I sat there helpless. I heard the woman say ‘can you work in a charity shop? Or a boutique shop’ what the fuck is a boutique shop?? Their meeting went on, I was called to the desk next to them, so I carried on trying to listen, horrified at what was unfolding. After my meeting, I rushed out, sick of the place. I couldn’t see the woman to see if she was OK. As I left, I noticed two people were reading the leaflets I’d left out. That felt like a small victory. But it was horrifying to see how the Work Programme is being rolled out – when these people need support, not demoralising, degrading, tedious, no waged work.

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