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Adventures at A4e

13 Apr

Adventures at A4e

‘Izzy, nothing is impossible…’ he tells me reassuringly, he starts to read one of the many motivational quotations that are stuck all over the walls and on the desk around which the group is seated. I stare back at him blankly, horrified. Then the man next to me starts reading out loud the Oprah Winfrey that is in front of him.

This was one of many surreal moments of an A4e training course ‘finding and getting a job’ that I was coerced into attending by my job centre advisor. She had told me that it would help me with my CV, however, it seemed that the trainer of the course had much grander ideas – he was determined to change my ‘being’ which was apparently what is preventing me from getting a job – rather than, say, an economy that is heading back into recession and a saturated job market. And so, for two days I sat with ten other unemployed people being told that we needed to ‘talk, breath, eat, shit belief in yourself’ and being compared to iPhones. The experience was like being in some sort of strange comedy sketch that just went on and on and at times bordered on feeling like a cult. Even the toilet signs were plain weird – the sign for disabled has a man with a broken leg that appears to be bandaged up with toilet roll.

Barbara Ehrenreich charts the rise of positive thinking in the US in her book Smile and Die – it seems that this is yet another US import, like workfare, that is being used to punish the poor. Does the government honestly think that sending unemployed people to these courses, where we are bombarded with pseudo psychology about positive thinking, will actually make any difference at all to unemployment? I would argue that they are actively harmful to unemployed people who spend the time being blamed for the situation that we find ourselves in and being offered ‘solutions’ that will make no difference whatsoever, and may even reduce one’s job prospects – for example we were told ‘no need to be nice and fluffy about it, tell them straight up. ‘I am the one you’re looking for.’ Like the Matrix – ‘I am the one’ – it was only when he believed he was the one that he became the one’. As well as being at best a waste of our time and at worst mentally distressing and incredibly manipulative, is this really good use of tax payers’ money who are paying A4e for this nonsense?

The entire course was simply one long motivational talk with very little actual real content. (Of course, even if it had been a course that was well structured with decent advice, this will make no difference when the problem is lack of jobs). The main point which was hammered home time and again was that if we believed we could get a job, then it would happen. It was simply our mindset that was the barrier and he seemed intent on us all having mini epiphanies there and then.

James had found himself unemployed for the first time in his life at the age of 60. He had worked in retail but despite his experience he could not find work now because of his age. The employers only want young people. His agent had confirmed to him that it was his age that meant he wasn’t getting past an interview and had suggested to him that he start lying about his age. But our trainer did not accept that it was age discrimination and a saturated job market that were the issues here, rather it was the barrier that James had created in his mind about his age. ‘We are a product…if we’re not talking and bigging up that product, then we can’t expect anyone to buy that product.’ ‘Age is not a barrier, the only barrier is here [pointing to his head] we create it’. He kept on ‘working’ on James as he said it ‘takes a bit of breaking down’ to create an ‘opening’.

I was getting really frustrated by this point with this focus on the individual so I said that it wasn’t James that was the problem, it was age discrimination, and that there was very little he could do about it, that it was an issue that we needed to address as a society. That young black men have an unemployment rate that is 50% so the issues here were discrimination and that however positively they thought, this would not change the reality. That we need to look at the bigger picture and not focus on the individual. He laughed at my idea that we should deal with this issue as a society and then he turned it all back onto me – ‘you’ve got all these hooks on you…it’s your way of being…you need to shift the way you look at it. You’ve got all this anger and frustration and that’s stopping you from getting a job. It comes across in your CV’. I’d just like to point out that he has never seen my CV. He later told me, in a personality assessment that he did for all of us at the end, that he liked my fire and passion and that he wanted to help me channel my fire so that it could shine brightly.

His attempts to modify our individual ‘beings’ in order for us to ‘create’ jobs through our new attitudes bordered on ludicrous at times. He picked up a pen and asked ‘what is this?’ ‘a pen’ I responded rather stonily. He then went around the class – whilst a couple of others stated that it was a pen, others caught on that maybe it wasn’t a pen… ‘it’s a tool’, ‘a writing implement’. He put us out of our misery ‘it’s a long piece of plastic with a small bit of plastic on top, and when you open it up, it’s a pen’. I honestly missed the point of this. He then stated a little later – ‘a pen is a pen, a cup is a cup’ much to my confusion and bemusement.

In an attempt to show us how it’s really done, he told us of his own experience getting his job at A4e. ‘When they said, ‘why do you want to work here?’ I said [pause for dramatic effect] Because I believe in human beings’’ There was genuinely a hushed silence. That explains why I don’t have a job yet, because at my last interview I told them I believed in unicorns. And he continued, ‘because I am part of the human race’. The man next to me was so impressed – ‘you out-foxed them there’.

Whilst at times, there were very funny moments, which I was able to tweet about which helped pass the time, the seriousness of what we were sitting through was brought home to me when he told us of another course that he had just started running called ‘Launch Pad’ for single parents, mostly mothers. The course involves 4 weeks in the classroom, 4 weeks in the workplace. In his first group of 7 – all of them got a job apparently. In the second group of 7 he said that they all went onto work placements. I am greatly concerned that the work placements sound like workfare. And I am horrified at the idea of this man ‘training’ single parents for 4 weeks. My mother was a single parent when she brought me up – she received pitiful benefits for the incredible amount of work that looking after me involved. She suffered from severe depression as well. The idea that she would be told the mantra of choice and responsibility and forced into work terrifies me.

Disabled people too may be forced onto these training courses. Will they be told that their disability is in their head and can be overcome by changing their attitude?

I spent two days being told to sell myself like an iPhone. I tried to point out that however many apps I had, or however many megapixels the inbuilt camera had, the market wasn’t interested. Instead of blaming the individual we must look at the wider picture at the structural causes that have caused unemployment, and act collectively to bring about real change. These programmes are incredibly manipulative and judgemental and a distraction from the real problems. They could cause real harm to vulnerable people. The trainer told me that anger was not productive, but we have every right to be furious at our treatment by this government and A4e.

 

 

 

Thanks to everyone on Twitter who gave me messages of support – it made the whole experience so much more bearable. I would really encourage others who find themselves sent on one of these courses to tweet and write about their experiences so that we can challenge this crap together.

I took notes so that job seekers could perhaps skip the course and get the main points here – maybe the government could just give us the money that would have been spent on the course.

‘I call it – what we know what we know (sic) – we’re just taught what we know’. To try and explain this a little more, basically, we are told these things, such as you’re too old, and then we believe them and don’t challenge them and that explains our position in life, rather than there being any systemic inequalities…I think that’s what he was saying.

‘but if you believe in yourself and believe in what you have to offer…then you create it’

‘you have to change the programme a bit…the way we talk about the product is the way we should be talking about ourselves…there’s nothing broken, there’s nothing to fix’.

Responding to my pleas to look at the reality of the situation using job statistics – ‘all those things in the way – they’re real, if we’re going out there to get a job, then we need to be the best…you have to think the best’.

His impersonation of an unemployed person’s day ‘You wake up, maybe a bit late, you have some breakfast, a cigarette, by the time you get round to job searching, it’s 11 o’clock, you do half an hour, then you think, oooh, I’ll make lunch and do it in the afternoon.’

‘one of our biggest enemies is ourselves’

To one member of the class ‘stop wasting your life…for you its responsibility…you’re lacking responsibility. Your life right now is a choice. You choose it to be that way, you can make it another way.’

‘how we use our words, how we language it, really matters’.

‘Each of you are professionals in your own domain. If you speak of yourself as a professional, your attitude changes…why not be a professional all of the time –it resonates…’

‘body language is real – it’s part of communication – it’s key’

‘The whole game is a conversation, [say to an employer] ‘this is who I am…If you want to be with the best, I’m the best’

how many of you guys look at a woman and think ‘ooooohhhh’ and then when they open their mouths and speak to you, you’re completely put off’.

On your CV ‘instead of writing excellent communication skills, write ability to communicate at all levels’.

‘you are the product – you either believe it or you don’t’.

Don’t use boxes on your CV ‘If I took you and put you in a box, what am I doing to you, how will you feel in the box?…They have their judgements – if you start to put boxes on it shows we’re restricted, we’re not explosive and out there’.

‘It’s like a date, you go out, you flirt…either you want to continue it or not. Your cover letter and CV is like your first date. You don’t tell them everything on a first date’.

And, finally, in our ‘Stay Positive During Your Job Search’ leaflet it informs us that whilst it is ‘unrealistic to think you will be 100% positive each moment of the day’ you should only allow yourself ‘thirty minutes, one day a week, to lament your situation and then get back to the search’.

 

 

Free education

13 Feb

Last week, I had the best unemployment day yet (although this is not to undermine the often grim reality of being unemployed – unemployed people face stigma, pitiful benefits, and often suffer lower life expectancies in comparison to their waged counterparts – however, sometimes it can be fun to have free time). After three years of intensive study at university (I know people have this idea of students as lazy, but it is quite hard work, and what with all the pressure on yourself as a result of the debt you’ve taken on as well), I finally felt relaxed and well rested. Browsing the internet I also found loads of interesting things that were going on around London for free – I got really excited and started adding them to my diary. Whilst there are lots of things I miss about student life, including the generous bursary that I received, I realised that it’s perfectly possible to get yourself a top education for free. And with the ludicrous fees that are now being charged, as well as the changes that the government are trying to impose on universities which will mean they become even more commercialised than they already are, perhaps free education is the way forward. I thought I’d share some of my discoveries – and if you have any ideas, please feel free to contribute.

As well as being free, it is important that education is critical, and that it isn’t just understood as lectures and reading books, but can be conceived of in different ways, ways that are fun, inclusive, and participatory. Hopefully I’ll discover more sites of alternative pedagogy during my unemployed travels and I’ll be sure to report back.

As well as Free education, perhaps I should expand also to include Free London. I was in Waterstones the other day and found a nice little book called ‘Tired of London, Tired of Life: One Thing to Do a Day in London’ by Tom Jones. It had lots of good suggestions about cool things to do in our wonderful metropolis (did you know the street lamps in Covent Garden and along Green Park and the Mall are gas lamps? pretty cool), however, some of these included visiting fancy cafes, and other extravagant things, so perhaps I could do an alternative that focussed on free explorations, places, and activities.

Free education

Tent City University – Occupy London St Paul’s

Tent City has largely wound down now, but in it’s heyday, it hosted some great speakers and many lively debates – although perhaps it was a little too set on the conventional academic format of lecturer lectures at audience then audience gets to ask questions. Maybe it could have attempted to push the boundaries a little bit and experimented with different ways of learning that weren’t dependent on old middle class white men. This criticism aside, Tent City shows us that we can make our own free and open spaces for learning. I hope we’ll give this a try again sometime soon.

Public lectures at the London School of Economics

I’ve been attending loads of these recently – Paul Mason on why it’s kicking off everywhere, New Economics Foundation on the 21 hour working week, and Richard Sennett on cooperation – there’s a huge programme of really interesting talks and sometimes they even have a reception afterwards with hummus and pitta! Check their website for new additions to the programme and for other free festivals that are held at the LSE – for example, Wednesday 29th February-Saturday 3rd March is the LSE Space for Thought Literary Festival.

The British Library (and the Wellcome library just down the road opposite Euston Station)

Here you can access any book published in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The British Library also has exhibitions on as well as numerous reading rooms where you can sit and work (once you’ve registered to become a member, which is free and open to everyone). I’ve been meaning to go there to read the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest as it sounds like an exciting read.

Or how about the Women’s library http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/thewomenslibrary/

Twitter

Obviously, the internet is a brilliant free resource. I’m sure there’s loads of great websites with videos and all sorts (oh yes, mustn’t forget David Harvey’s video lecture course on Marx’s Capital – I’ve been meaning to do this for years! And Capital volume 2 is being added http://davidharvey.org/) – but maybe it’s a bit overwhelming to know where to start. That’s where I’ve found Twitter so useful. Basically I’ve followed a load of people who I think seem cool and interesting – through this I’ve found all sorts of interesting articles that they’ve included in their tweets or shout outs for events. You can also pretty much just tweet a question that’s been bothering you and I’m sure someone would get back to you with an answer.

Walking

Walking around the city, whether by yourself or in a group, is also a great way to learn about your local area or other parts of London. Experiencing the city first hand is one of the best ways of learning geography. There are all sorts of fascinating objects placed around the city.

These are just some ideas for getting yourself free education, this will be updated…

Liam Byrne and Punishing the Poor

24 Jan

Here are some notes about Liam Byrne’s speech last night at the LSE – I’m afraid I didn’t take the best notes as I was sitting there getting angry so it was hard to focus, but I will listen again to a recording of the lecture, which they put up on the LSE website, and fill in the gaps.

I just arrived home after attending Liam Byrne’s lecture on the welfare state – I’d been very interested in what he has to say on this issue after reading his appalling comments in the Guardian about the ‘something for nothing culture’ – a ‘culture’ that if he knew anything about poor people he would realise didn’t actually exist, firstly as everyone does contribute in some way to society, and secondly because it seems rather generous to refer to our present benefits system as ‘something’ – the reality of living on JSA is more like nothing. I was all primed to heckle and to challenge him on his and his party’s demonising of the unemployed which for me is a very personal issue. My mum brought me up as a single parent mother and felt the stigma of being ‘unemployed’ despite her more than full time job brining up an incredibly stubborn and difficult child. I am now on JSA after completing my master’s degree. I checked my email when I got indoors after Byrne’s stylistically engaging talk – of which the actual content was quite disagreeable – and saw an email from a job I had applied to. I’d actually received an email – this was really promising. I started to get really excited. If I’ve got this job, I’d better get some new blouses for working in the office – I actually pictured myself in my new blouses in my new office doing the interesting research that this job involved, no more Job Centre visits where you are treated with suspicion and punished for not finding a job that doesn’t exist. I opened the email and it was a rejection. It’s my first rejection as usually you don’t hear back at all from the place which you have spent so much of your time and energy writing to. I actually felt distraught this time. It is now becoming incredibly demoralising to make applications in which I do put a great deal of effort and enthusiasm and to receive a rejection. And to know I’ll have to return to the Job Centre which is a depressing thought. I’m sick of the joke of ‘job seekers allowance’ – being forced to job search in such a climate as this one. I almost want to refuse to job search until there are actually any decent jobs out there.

So what did Liam Byrne have to say about all this and the welfare state? As I said above, he was quite a stylistically pleasing speaker – he had a certain rhythm to his talk, but it was a little hard to focus as I was sitting there trying to get over the rage I felt at his comments on ‘something for nothing’ and trying to move beyond this rage to form a coherent comment and question for him afterwards about workfare, the current discourse/demonisation around the unemployed, and the framing of the current welfare debate in which both parties are attacking an ‘undeserving poor’. In his discussion of Beveridge’s eponymous report he actually referenced the Levellers – which I’m sure they would not be all too pleased about from my understanding (which to be fair is little) of the Levellers. He also emphasised ‘rights and responsibilities’ for a welfare state today. This is another way of him phrasing his idea of ‘something for something’. It does sound harmless enough and so it was a little hard to heckle him – he didn’t say anything that sounded too outrageous, but that’s politics I guess – disguising agendas through the clever use of language? Beneath his language there is a punitive agenda towards what they perceive to be the non-working poor. Whilst he did highlight the failures of the Tory government’s Work Programme, this again was perhaps more politics – having a go at the government in power rather than a genuine belief that the Work Programme is morally wrong, as well as economically – I can imagine him rolling out the exact same Work Programme if he were in power. Indeed, he spoke of the need to ‘enforce’ the responsibility to work and when asked to elaborate on what ‘enforcements’ he envisaged, I actually missed them, or perhaps he avoided the question (I’ll listen to the recording of the lecture and get back to you). He did say that he wanted to move the framing of welfare away from the neocon style of the Tories and to one which supported people to fulfil their potential, but surely this is undermined by his emphasis on enforcement. In a rather confusing moment he declared – ‘we sold all our council housing and we forgot to build any more’. I hope this was a weird joke, but I’m not sure. He seemed to be saying this seriously…surely it was tongue in cheek though? ‘We forgot to build anymore’………? Seriously…..how do you just forgot to BUILD HOUSES? Well actually even this PATHETIC excuse is a lie, if you read Anna Minton’s fabulous book Ground Control, the reality is a lot more sinister. Rather than merely ‘forgetting’ to build houses, the government engaged in a process whereby market forces were encouraged to enter the housing market and public money was given to private companies who knocked down perfectly good housing to build swish new apartments. His emphasis on ‘rights and responsibilities’/ending something for nothing, without any comprehension of what the reality of being poor is like, is also challenged by the magnificent film War Horse, to throw some popular culture into this discussion. Sometimes the individual cannot be held ‘responsible’ for their actions which are beyond their control. In the film, the father’s addiction to alcohol is kindly explained by his loving wife as a result of the horrors and pain he experienced in the Boer War. We watch the family’s turnip crop get destroyed by bad weather. Marginalised people cannot always take responsibility – it is often beyond their control and it is wrong and demonising to suggest that they should take responsibility.

OK, I’ll be kind to him – he did emphasise the need to create jobs – but said nothing on what kind of jobs these would be. Frankly, I don’t want his capitalist-soul-destroying jobs anyway.

There were some good questions by the audience – A disability rights activist questioned how they would support those who were unable to commit to work in the sense of which he spoke. One woman highlighted the privatization of the health service and how multi-national corporations are failing to pay the living wage. Another man spoke of the need to stop pitching the working poor against the unemployed. I was unimpressed by his responses to the most sensible comments of the evening. I am utterly disenchanted by all politicians and sick of being punished for not being in work.

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.

Protest against the welfare ‘reform’ bill

12 Jan

Yesterday, a large group of people gathered opposite Parliament to lobby the Lords and protest against the welfare ‘reform’ bill that is currently being looked at in the House of Lords (there’s quite a nice webpage here that illustrates the progress of the bill which is quite useful http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2010-11/welfarereform.html). People from Single Mothers Self Defence, Disabled People Against the Cuts, Mad Pride, Kilburn Unemployed Workers, Boycott Workfare, the Right to Work, and other concerned individuals went along to highlight the extremely negative effects that the welfare ‘reform’ bill will have on the most vulnerable members of society, and to demand the bills defeat. The bill is an attempt to dramatically alter welfare as we know it – which in its present state is still highly inadequate – and to scrape together millions of pounds from the poorest in society to pay for the bankers’ crisis. The proposals in the bill, including capping housing benefits resulting in people being unable to afford their rents, scrapping the discretionary social fund which provides no-interest loans for the poor and for those who find themselves in crisis, and making changes to disability benefits so that those who are given money in recognition for the additional difficulties that they face in life are interrogated about their illness and given less money to support themselves. The proposals go on and on and are almost difficult to believe – that anybody could come up with such punitive measures that literally are an attack on the most vulnerable people in society is outrageous. Thankfully, some of the Lords have a fair bit of sense and are giving this bill the scrutiny it deserves – overthrowing vast swathes of it yesterday afternoon. As Lord Patel, a crossbencher and former president of the Royal College of Obstetricians, described “If we are going to rob the poor to pay the rich, then we enter into a different form of morality”.

Whilst it was uplifting to be amongst passionate, determined, and admirable people yesterday afternoon, I was also a little disappointed at the lack of support from other groups and the rest of London. In my opinion, the whole of London should have been outside Parliament voicing their disgust at perhaps the nastiest cuts. Perhaps people were working so couldn’t make it down. But what about those idealist students who stormed Millbank last year against tuition fee increases and who have a more flexible timetable – why weren’t they supporting us yesterday? I am all for free education, but these cuts are a matter between life and death.

Startling statistics for 2011

17 Dec

Inspired by a US blog post – ‘50 economic numbers from 2011 that are almost too crazy to believe’ – http://theeconomiccollapseblog.com/archives/50-economic-numbers-from-2011-that-are-almost-too-crazy-to-believe/comment-page-1 we are creating our own UK focused stat page to stimulate thought and debate at Christmas lunch this year. We are starting with a more modest 10 statistics, but we welcome people to contribute their own so that we can make it to 50…or maybe even 100.

#1 the latest figures reveal that unemployment has reached 2.64 million, the highest since 1994. Youth unemployment is rising to 1.027 million – the highest since records began in 1992. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/dec/15/young-people-crisis-unemployment?INTCMP=SRCH

#2 Tax dodging by corporations and the rich costs the UK £95 billion a year. The British public is subsidising banks to a tune of £100 billion a year. Either of these could pay for Cameron’s £81 billion four year cuts programme. http://www.ukuncut.org.uk/about/cuts, http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Documents/PCSTaxGap.pdf

#3 Workfare is being rolled out across the country for those receiving unemployment benefits. They are being forced to work for £2.25 per hour in jobs that previously would had to have paid the minimum wage. www.boycottworkfare.org

#4 There are 1 million empty homes (350,000 empty long term) and 2 million families in need of a home.  http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-great-british-property-scandal/articles/home/

#5 There has been a 5% increase in declared homeless households this year. http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/dec/13/homelessness-mapping-technologies

#6 One in four families in the UK will struggle to heat their homes this winter. This is a significant increase from last year in which one in five families last year experienced fuel poverty. This rise in homes experiencing fuel poverty comes as (a result of) the Big Six energy companies recording 733% profits per customer. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/dec/01/fuel-poverty-affects-quarter-households http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2011/oct/14/energy-firms-profits-rise-ofgem?CMP=twt_gu

#7 The Trussell Trust is opening one new food bank each week, with demand for their emergency food parcels up 50%. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/21/eurosceptic-jamboree-distraction-disaster?INTCMP=SRCH The charity Fareshares has seen a 20% rise in the number of people it is feeding – from 29,500 a year to 35,000 a year. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/oct/01/sharp-rise-demand-food-handouts?INTCMP=SRCH

#8 In November this year, it was decided to raise the security budget for the Olympics to £1 billion. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/9997395

#9 The average CEO pay of FTSE100 companies rose by 32% this year (to £3.5m per CEO), while the average worker saw only a rise of 0.5%, 4.5% lower than inflation. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/11804c54-8a11-11e0-beff-00144feab49a.html#axzz1gob3MsUV, http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2011/nov/23/uk-household-earnings-fall

#10 The Libyan war cost between £600-1200 million this year, whilst the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan cost another £5 billion http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/sep/26/uk-operations-libya-costs, http://stopwar.org.uk/index.php/war-in-libya-they-said-would-cost-under-p100m-is-nearing-p2bn

 

Fighting the stigma of unemployment

9 Dec

With so many people now unemployed there is the opportunity to de-stigmatise unemployment and discuss the issue in a meaningful way. For it is quite obvious that it is not some individual failing that results in unemployment but rather that unemployment is a structural issue – that it is the product of the organisation of our society and therefore an issue for society to address collectively, rather than blaming it on, and demonising individuals. This latter tendency of stigmatising the individual that our society seems to have gets us nowhere.

In this article I will draw largely from my own experience of unemployment for the last two months to make my arguments for a radical rethink and approach to unemployment – clearly, my experience of unemployment for this period is somewhat limited, for example, I have been fortunate to have not been forced onto workfare – whereby people on Job Seekers Allowance are made to work for private companies, and even charities and local councils, for the equivalent of £2.25 per hour. However, in these two months, I have experienced many things that make up the contradictory experience of unemployment that I’m sure resonate with others – the absolute horror of seeing someone I knew when I was standing outside the Job Centre, frustration at being treated like a non-person by the Job Centre staff, distress and sadness at friends’ lack of understanding, outrage at the state’s treatment of the unemployed, worry about how I can make ends meet, yet also a brilliant sense of freedom as well. And therefore I hope that sharing these will help others to see the human faces behind unemployment and to generate a meaningful discussion. People often feel able to make comments on the unemployed without actually having listened to what we have to say, often resulting in prejudiced accounts and misunderstandings – listening to others, and listening well, is where we must start from.

 

There is a tremendous amount of stigma surrounding unemployment – however, for a long time this largely passed me by. My mum was a single parent and her time was dedicated to bringing me up as best as she could in difficult circumstances – on the pitiful amount of benefits she received. She may have been classed as ‘unemployed’ but she worked extremely hard caring for me as I did my absolute best to make her job as difficult as possible. The portrayals of the unemployed in mainstream media, by politicians, and held by much of society, do not see the valuable contributions that the unemployed make to society, the worthwhile jobs that they do. A good friend of mine whom I admire greatly has also struggled to find a job that would harness his many talents. Rather than him feeling inadequate and depressed about being unable to find a job, I believe that the problem is that our society has not created jobs that utilise his energy and enthusiasm – and yet rather than think about our job market, the nature of work in our society today, and the proliferation of incredibly boring jobs that revolve around Excel spreadsheets, he is made to internalise these issues and feel worthless. Perhaps also watchin  The Full Monty many years ago with the scene of them queuing for the dole and dancing to ‘Hot Stuff’ may also have contributed to my more positive understandings of unemployment. Therefore, when I needed to sign on after finishing my master’s to support myself whilst finding a job, I was not at all bothered about this. In fact, being unemployed has at times been quite fun. It has allowed me a much needed break after three years of intensive study at university, to think about what I want to do now, and to pursue my research and writing passions – I have found myself co-ordinating a mapping research project and find myself almost as busy as when I was doing my master’s. My point is to emphasise that those who are unemployed are not ‘unproductive’ but engage in a wide range of activities that contribute to the enhancement of themselves and wider society. Furthermore, everyone deserves to feel that sense of freedom that one gets when one has free time and can do things on their own terms.

 

Yet, I have still strongly felt the stigma of unemployment and it has affected me greatly – despite my attempts not to, I have somehow internalised society’s attitudes towards unemployment that see it as a problem, as something to be ashamed of. The other day I was standing outside the Job Centre on the high street unlocking my bike when an acquaintance spotted me and said ‘hi’. It should have been no big deal at all. But I happened to have had a huge crush on this guy as a teenager. He is an incredibly relaxed, non-judgemental person and most definitely didn’t have a problem with the fact that I was unemployed. But walking away after this encounter, which involved me staring at him panic stricken and in which I was incredibly nervous and rambled away trying to justify my unemployment, I felt incredibly low. I felt a deep sadness that after so many years and now that I was an adult, he had seen me unemployed. Perhaps there was a bit of my teenage self still wanting to impress, but unable to with the low status that unemployment commands. Another distressing episode involved my closet university friends. It had been a while since we had all met and I was excited to tell them everything that I had been up to and my thoughts and perspectives on unemployment. These friends are certainly left leaning, yet as we talked about our lives, I felt my comments on unemployment and my life at present to them were not at all legitimate. They did not seem to know how to respond, which is fair enough, but also it felt as if they simply did not want to hear what I was saying at all – that it was so far away from anything that they could comprehend and was perhaps so ‘radical’ that it made them uncomfortable. I felt completely silenced – my experiences of the things I had been doing that I had been so excited to share were deviant and should not be spoken of. I was shocked to have provoked this hesitant and wary position from my close friends. At first I did simply stop talking. Then I tried to raise the issue a couple more times with varying success. Trying to discuss unemployment with them, I was surprised to hear them repeat mainstream perceptions about unemployment – despite the fact that I’m sure they knew very few unemployed people from which they could draw these ideas. This stigma that is associated with unemployment, that I felt myself in the previous episode and that others felt towards me, is completely unjustified and utterly unhelpful to thinking about and addressing unemployment in our society. We must challenge this stigma and highlight the significant contributions that unemployed people make to society – through valuing one another, we can move beyond the idea that unemployment is a problem of the individual and we can move towards addressing it as a society in a way that benefits all.

 

Linked to the stigma of unemployment is the state of poverty you find yourself in when forced to rely on state benefits. From the state’s point of view, the unemployed are clearly so undeserving that they should be punished for finding themselves unemployed.  I was absolutely appalled and insulted when I received a letter from the benefits centre informing me that £53.45 is the amount ‘the law says you need to live on each week’. I was furious that the law (most likely a white, privileged man with no comprehension of what people need to get by) had decided this on behalf of me, particularly when the law does not feel the need to set an upper limit on how much people need to live on each week, so it is deemed acceptable that Frank Lampard ‘needs’ to receive £151,000 a week to live, whilst I need only £53.45. Well, I’m afraid there has been a massive error in their calculation. This measly sum is even less when we take into account that the state does not feel that I necessarily need a roof over my head – with housing benefit only covering some of the rent of my bedroom in a shared flat. Add to this money for bills and I’m left with about £30 for the week for food and travel – obviously the unemployed don’t deserve to enjoy any leisure or social activities. This amount of money immediately marginalises you from the rest of society as you are unable to engage in many activities that your peers do. Day to day living becomes a constant stress. Your benefits obviously do not allow you to live – covering as they do only food – and this is at a stretch. What happens when those other aspects of life, such as a bike in need of a new chain (£10), a need for new shoes (£30), a visit to a friend in another city (£20) crop up? What happens at Christmas? I guess the unemployed just don’t deserve to celebrate Christmas. Those who made this law, as well as the entire Conservative party, should be made to live on £53.45 a week, I’d like to see how they get by. Perhaps then they will realise that this is not how much a person needs to live a decent life. One of the low points of unemployment for me was when I checked my bank balance at a cash machine. Standing in the high street my balance flashed up as £10. My heart literally sank at this moment. All I had was £10. In a society where your worth is measured by your possessions, by your wealth, to have only £10 is to feel utterly worthless.

One further point that I would like to raise – and I haven’t even been able to address workfare here – is the lack of support that there is for the unemployed to actually find a job. Your signing on meeting is supposed to last 10 minutes, but is often much shorter. For the past couple of weeks I have been served by a woman who does not speak to me and barely acknowledges my existence. It is thoroughly demoralising. I enter the Job Centre keen to give feedback about my last two weeks of job searching and to receive advice, yet it seems that they do not have the time for this. Being ignored week after week was an incredibly frustrating experience, and it is no wonder that some people end up staying on the dole for long periods of time when there is such disregard for them and their attempts at job searching – what do they do when they have run out of ideas, or when they simply need some morale boosting? I’m sure the people at the Job Centres are doing the best jobs they can, but there needs to be more support for those who are job searching, just some recognition would be nice. It really does make a difference.

 

I hope that this account will contribute to productive discussions on unemployment and the ways in which we can address it. As described above, immediate demands include respect and value of the unemployed and the contributions they make, a decent standard of living, and greater support in finding a job that harnesses our talents, as well as an end to workfare. The most important thing is that we do not see it as a ‘problem’ of the ‘individual’ but as an issue for society to address with the voices of the unemployed at the forefront. Looking at unemployment may lead us to question the entire nature of work in society today for the two are intimately linked. When you are unemployed you think of the kind of job that you would like to have, and for me, my ideal jobs and how I would like to do them simply does not fit with what is out there. Let us all, the unemployed and the employed, think about the jobs we do and what we value in life and organise our society so that what we enjoy and what we value make up what we do each day.