Tag Archives: unemployment

from boycott workfare to boycott work – some ramblings

5 Jul

Post work politics is creeping into debate on the left – Nina Power has written and spoken about it, but stated that perhaps at this time of high unemployment, it seems perverse to do so. Owen Hatherley laments that we do not seem to have the will anymore to abolish work. But surely, with millions unemployed, millions labouring for free (in internships and workfare), and millions working under rapidly worsening terms and conditions – the myth of work-as-saviour will no longer hold. Now is the time to talk about work and how we can move beyond it.

Alongside the increasing unemployment statistics there is the intensified attack being led by politicians and the media on those who find themselves out of waged work. Young people cannot dress themselves and ‘sit at home…glued to the TV’, disabled people are ‘languishing on benefits’, ‘benefit scroungers’ are everywhere. With European unemployment at 25 million, for politicians and the media that translates to 25 million people doing absolutely nothing.

Anyone who does not conform to the ‘ideal’ of the waged worker is vilified – they are seen as unproductive and valueless. (This sadly is often true of some of the left as well as the right with so-called ‘radicals’ looking to the ‘workers’ to lead us to the promised land). Yet, as the feminists of the 1970s pointed out with the ‘Wages for Housework’ movement women in the home work too, often in caring duties for children or the elderly, and deserve financial remuneration for their labour. As we shouted outside Parliament at the Welfare Reform Bill protests – ‘every mother is a working mother’.

Their argument encourages us to see the other forms of work that are hidden and unrecognised such as that done by disabled people in caring for themselves in a society that is organised without them in mind, and by those people who simply cannot find a job. These people conduct daily activities that are immensely valuable to society however they find themselves demonised for apparently not working. Importantly, Wages for Housework’s argument was not just about recognition of hidden work but was a direct challenge to the nature of work under capitalism.

Yet, decades later these forms of work, that are based around living, are not only still unrecognised but are under intensified attack – the government is set on forcing the poor and vulnerable, regardless of their mental or physical health and of whether they have dependants, and regardless of the actual state of the labour market, into what is often low paid waged work. When there is no low paid waged work to be found, the government has workfare schemes with which to force people to work for free.

However, the government’s enforcement of work within the labour market, when there is so little paid work to be found, has begun to look quite pathetic and defensive – take the image of Chris Grayling re-opening the burnt down Job Centre in Tottenham recently. Or of Ed Miliband trying to outdo the Tories on sanctions if someone refuses his ‘Job Guarantee’. What sort of ‘guarantee’ is it when you have to back it up with the threat of destitution. What are they so scared of? That we may discover an existence that doesn’t involve sitting in front of excel spreadsheets or cleaning up other people’s shit for exploitative wages.

The feminists of the 70s – and the contemporary twitter account Dole Cat Adventures @wrongtowork – raise an important point; one which is even more significant for our present time as those outside the labour market are coerced inside and as conditions for those already inside the market are being rapidly eroded. What is all this fuss about work? As a ‘job-seeker’, a title/mission given to me by the state which I resent more and more each day, I can’t see what all the hype is about. The job adverts are hardly inspiring, I mostly flick through for lulz and to see what I’m not missing out on. I recently saw a job advertised that seemed to take capitalism’s preoccupation with ‘efficiency’ to new levels by requiring the applicant to have an ‘efficient face’. There was one unpaid internship that was looking at suicide statistics for 6 months. Even a job with the thoughtful and inspiring online blog ‘Our Kingdom’ fatuously declared that ‘It is not so much a job as a creative, entrepreneurial role’.

Work is viewed as a natural state – but there is nothing natural about it whatsoever; this is adequately proved by an experience of my childhood. When I was 16 we all went off on work experience for two weeks. After the first morning of filing I rushed to the nearest phone box at lunchtime and cried down the phone to my mum. When it was time to return to school I told my peers excitedly how much I loved and appreciated school; a teacher overheard my eulogy and warned us to make the most of it.

As we challenge the idea of work, we can start to articulate and imagine ways of organising our society in which we do not exploit and devalue ourselves and each other. Post work politics takes us beyond the fetishisation of the ‘workers’ and values everyone in its attempts to re-think and re-make our present situation.

It may seem difficult to imagine what a post-work society would look like, but there are many moments in our daily lives in which we do rebel against and live beyond work – these seem like a useful starting point. Located outside the job market I am able to enjoy some of the aspects that a post-work society might include – a real sense of freedom, the ability to decide what I want to do with my days, variety, no boss – yet within the confines and limitations of our work-based society which means that the unwaged must also deal with pitiful benefits and the related money worries and stress, stigma, bullying at the job centre, and threats of workfare.

Work is so valorised by our society, yet most people are willing to admit to pulling sickies, counting down to the weekend and holidays, feeling brain numbed – surely there are better ways for us to live our lives…With waged work being so difficult to come by, now seems to be the perfect time to re-think work and debate and imagine post work politics. This seems much more appealing to me than wasting time filling out yet another job application form.

Barking and Dagenham Against the Cuts First Meeting

10 Jun

I headed out to Barking yesterday afternoon to attend the first meeting of Barking and Dagenham Against the Cuts, which awesomely shortens down to BAD Cuts, to give a short talk about Boycott Workfare. They had organised an afternoon conference with talks from groups such as Keep Our NHS Public, Defend Council Housing, and the Coalition of Resistance. We then broke down into smaller groups in order to discuss jobs, benefits, pensions, health, housing, and multiculturalism in more depth and to generate ideas for local action.

I attended the session on housing and jobs, benefits, and pensions where we had some lively and inspiring discussions. It was a great opportunity to listen to people’s stories about the local area and the difficulties they are facing but also to come up with ideas together of how to resist the cuts. One woman described how it was becoming common for her to see families outside their homes with all their possessions having been evicted and that other families were living crammed into one room. Listening to stories like these really brings home the reality and horror of the cuts.

After both sessions we had generated a list of action points for local action. People seemed  genuinely interested in taking action against workfare in the local area – with workfare sleuthing and workfare walks of shame – which was great to hear. And it was empowering to have generated this list of things that we can do. Expect some activities in Barking and Dagenham soon and if you live there – get involved!

One man in particular had a moving story of how the cuts are personally affecting him – I won’t detail it all here as I didn’t get the chance to ask him if he’d mind me writing about him. He works at the local Remploy factory but his job is now under threat. He spoke of his fears of being unable to pay his rent and what he would do without his job. ‘There are no jobs out there, we’re being put on the scrap heap’. Our group came up with plans on how we can organise resistance to the closure. Keep checking BAD Cuts website and if you’re in London, get ready to hop on a train at Fenchurch street to Barking to help defend their factory!

Although the number attending the conference wasn’t too large, it’s exciting to see a new anti-cuts group form and come up with lots of action plans. No doubt, as the group hit the streets with various actions – the numbers will grow.

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’.