I was recently reffered onto the Work Programme by the Job Centre on very sketchy grounds. Yesterday I had my initial introductory group meeting with A4E called "About You" and here is my account of how it went and everything leading up to it.
It all started a couple of weeks ago when I managed to finally see my new adviser at the Job Centre after being blown off numerous times before at extremely late notice (half an hour before my appointment for example). Due to this, my appointment with my new adviser coincided with the day I was due to sign on and so I was pretty confused whether I was actually meeting my new adviser or signing on or both, so I went to the job centre without any activity for the last 2 weeks written in my diary. When I discovered that I was told in the meeting that I was signing on today, I realised I was fucked because of my empty diary and so lied and said I had not got it on me. Luckily she said she would do "a verbal one" where she just asked me to list things right then and there, so I just bullshitted and she believed it. So, after hastily spinning my fortnightly web of lies I relaxed. It was during this time however that she casually slipped the fact that I was going to be put on the work programme in January. My ears pricked up needless to say and numerous alarm bells were ringing in my head, but I stayed visibly calm and feigned ignorance as to what it was to try and get her to explain herself. I also took a booklet on it. She told me that my next appointment with her would be 40 minutes and would be about updating my information and would be a referral, though she was being quite vague and I left quite unsure what to expect from the next meeting.
Because of this unsurity, I didn't really do anything for the next couple of days. I then posted a thread on the forums asking for some advice but only got a small response. Again, I left it for a couple of days and typically found myself last minute making up stuff to put on my diary quite nervously early in the morning before I left for my appointment. I did manage though to gather some statistics thanks to some replies on the thread which I posted and went there with the intention to be assertive and refuse on the grounds that the work programme is not working by the DWP's own standards.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite how it went. Her relaxed manner and the fact she generally seemed to be a nice woman caught me off guard a little. I let her update and confirm my info and I signed a new copy of my job seekers agreement. She then started talking about the work programme and handed me various forms which she told me to sign. I tentatively asked whether it was mandatory or not and what would happen if I refused to sign the forms. I also asked her if I was considered “especially disadvantaged on the labour market”, as for 18-24 year olds Work Programme can be made mandatory after your claim has reached 3 months if you fit into this category rather than the normal 9 months. She told me that it was mandatory and that it was basically because of my age and the fact that I am NEET (not in education employment or training) but in a roundabout vague way, alluding to a threat of sanctions if I were to refuse. I started to talk about how it didn't work and told her I had done some research on it as I got my phone out to read the statistics but I didn't find the confidence to truly confront her. After just gazing at my phone with the statistics I had gathered whilst she went to print something off, I relented and signed the document saying I agreed to go on it essentially. She told me to expect a call from A4E and a letter from them within the next 2 weeks.
The day after I noticed I had missed a call from a number I didn’t recognise so I rung it back. When I heard an automated message from A4E saying how the call was going to be recorded, I immediately hung up. I then got a call from the same number in the evening and decided to pick it up. I got asked for some details like my number and address and gave them and was given a day for my appointment.
That appointment was yesterday. I went there slightly more prepared then last time and had planned to print this off where the DWP clearly says you were not obliged to sign any company documents and would not risk benefit sanctions for doing so. Unfortunately I didn’t managed to get this print in time but I had read enough on donotsign.com (a very helpful website I would encourage you to visit) to feel more confident.
So when I got there after signing in I was led to a room where about 2 others were already sitting down with a staff member, who I’m going to refer to as L, also in the room waiting. Once the others had filed in the meeting began. It started off fairly friendly and when handing us our first bit of paperwork L said that it was not mandatory to sign it. However, L said that this was the only bit of paperwork that was not mandatory. And so the lies began. For those that didn’t want to sign we were asked to simply mark our initials and date and to put it in the files we had been given.
When the second piece of paperwork came, after he had explained it giving the illusion of it being harmless and reasonable, I put my hand up when L asked if there were any questions and begun to explain how we weren’t actually obliged to sign any company documents and that I was going to refuse to sign it. L looked fairly perplexed and bewildered, and this does not surprise me as I am sure L is used to having a bunch of nervous people that keep their heads down and don’t question a thing. That is not to demean or criticise these people however, as the entire atmosphere and setting is going to be deliberately set up to induce that sort of state. In many ways it felt like being back at school, as we were all told the blatantly obvious in strung out detail and then expected to dutifully sign a bunch of paperwork in silence whilst he paced around the room waiting. Indeed when the man next to me, a 60 year old guy who had recently gotten out of prison, had traveled for around an hour to get here, was unfamiliar with the area and was currently doing community service begun getting his newspaper out and doodling at points, also asking if he could go outside for a fag he was asked to put them away in a soft yet condescending tone by L. I’m sure he felt like he was being treated like a child as well.
Luckily, I think with my refusals and questions gave other people the confidence to start asking questions. The woman sitting across from me was probably the most sympathetic of the bunch and throughout the meeting and when the staff member would occasionally pop outside, I was initiating conversation with her and explaining to her why I objected to workfare and how we were not obliged to sign anything. She seemed to be fairly ‘right on’ with what I was doing and knew something was up. She repeatedly said to me how she found the whole thing a bit suspicious etc. When she asked L if there was going to be any unpaid work, L desperately tried to weasel his way out of it and dodge the question explaining how he himself was not an adviser and that we could seek unpaid work and volunteer if we wanted to. She wasn’t having any of it and kept on saying “you’re not answering my question”. L managed to keep his calm but you could tell he was getting quite frustrated and inpatient by his general manner and the way he just repeated himself over and over, refusing from the response he was probably told to give by his superiors.
Towards the end of the meeting things got less aggressive as L wasn’t going to bother putting up a fight with me anymore when I continued to write on the paperwork I was refusing to sign, with the reason why and my initials and date as asked. Things also got more school like when L began to ask if anyone was considering self employment. When a fair bit of us expressed our interest L started to get more enthusiastic and eventually it ended up with L going round the room asking us what we wanted to do. When I said I wanted to work in the music industry etc ideally but knew it wasn’t realistic he gave me quite a patronising little talk about not giving up on my dreams and telling me about some people he knew that worked in the area.
And so the meeting was then basically over. We were told who our advisers were going to be and we were given a letter with the details of our next appointment. Mine is the 1st March and I think this is somewhat telling that I shouldn’t really be on Work Programme at all with it being so far in the future. Despite L obviously telling us that we should come in before our next appointment to use their facilities and job search, I think I will be keeping well away from them for as long as I can. I am sure I can expect my next appointment when I meet my adviser to be similarly based around getting me to sign paperwork I don’t have to and I will keep on refusing.
Whilst Workfare is a huge problem that individual resistance like this won’t solve by itself, if we can build up a culture where people recognise the facts about workfare, have the confidence to exhibit such resilience collectively and support each other in the struggle against it if we are on it ourselves or not, I do believe we can begin to be in a situation where we have a real chance of stopping it.