One libcom poster's account of a spell of unemployment, and having to jump through the bureaucratic and pointless hoops of the welfare system.
Over the past two years I’ve walked out of three fairly ‘respectable’ (as my JC+ advisor put it) jobs because I couldn’t cope with the constant bullshit I was expected to produce, promote and deal with. I left these jobs feeling on the verge of having a serious mental health breakdown, taking some time to recover from work, and then finding a new job.
After quitting the most recent job at the start of winter, I decided I had to find a less ‘respectable’ job next time. I am now trying to find a practical, hands-on job working outside. I’m prepared to do anything except be responsible for making up unrealistic mealy-mouthed policies, writing reports to sit on e-shelves, writing glowing PR guff no one reads, or harassing my colleagues to do their difficult-enough-already-without-your-interference-ta-very-much-jobs differently (my previous jobs were mostly focussed on making various public or charitable organisations more eco-friendly to help try to avoid the impending eco-clusterfuck, or at least look busy trying. Sounds almost worthy eh? It fuckin ain’t. But that’s an even longer rant.)
In the New Year, I decided to sign on for JSA as I was not getting any interviews and my wages from the other jobs (in 2012 I was well paid) were running out fast. I also hoped the Job Centre would help me find some free training to help me get interviews for the sort of jobs I was interested in.
At my first appointment with my JC+ advisor I was told I was being placed on an intensive 11 day pilot programme where I would have to complete a range of tasks (which I had to 'commit' to before I was told exactly what they were) and show my advisor what I’d done each week. Ostensibly, this was to show I was capable and willing to do things like searching for jobs, applying for jobs, researching employers and saying things in interviews- thereby 'earning' my £70 a week JSA. I won’t bore you with the details of exactly what all of these tasks entailed but in terms of helping me find work they were worse than useless. I was having to do things like write 5 speculative applications for companies that I knew were not recruiting, or fill in fake application forms, or work out journey times, travel costs and first and last buses, between the London flat I'm soon to move out of and the jobs which I'm applying for all over the country.
To cut a long story short (and then waffle on for ages) these tasks basically prevented me from applying for actual jobs, or prevented me from making my applications as good as possible due to not having enough time or energy to do the JC+ work on top of actual job seeking. In addition to the intensive bullshit programme, I was also on a health and safety course, which I requested to attend as it allowed me to get a specific certificate which I needed for some of the jobs I wanted to apply for, for free.
About midway through the ‘intensive’ unnecessary paperwork period, I got invited to an interview for one of the jobs I’d applied for before I signed on (ie one of the applications I actually had time to do properly before JC+ started taking up so much of my time). I told my advisor that I felt like the paperwork was a hindrance and I wanted to focus on applying for other roles similar to the one I’d secured an interview for. I was told the pilot was inflexible and mandatory and that I was benefitting from it without realising so (despite her never finding anything meaningful for me to improve on when I show her my work). She insisted that I was ‘aiming too low’ in my job search and that;
“for ‘executives’ like you, the feedback about the exercises had been unanimously positive, it’s the other… erm…. customers… who tend to… complain”
(To be clear, although I did have a decent enough wage and a lot of responsibility for influencing so-called ‘high level decision making’ in some of my previous jobs, I was never a manager, let alone an executive).
“Yes, because executives have an unhealthy love of authority are highly skilled in bullshitting to keep you on side. They probably saw it was a waste of time but just didn’t want to provoke the ire of their advisor so half-heatedly bashed out the shit like I did but chose not to share their true feelings. And as for aiming to low- I'm aiming to earn enough to live on and not have a horrible breakdown because of my job”
Is what I didn’t say, partly due to temporary shock resulting in being mistaken for an ‘executive’ type, partly becasue I realised I was getting upset because she was not really taking what I said seriously and I had to stop talking to calm down.
She emphasised that the programme was ‘helping me increase my chances of finding work’ and that actually I was the ideal candidate for this type of intensive ‘support’ as I could do it easily anyway, and there were only a few tasks left so....
“what was all the fuss about anyway?”
(fuck off you fucking dickhead, I AM FUSSED!)
The implication of what she was saying seemed to be a spectacular piece of double-think. That those who would struggle to do these tasks, would also struggle to find jobs, and therefore it was a good programme because people who are good at finding jobs, who didn’t really need the support, could do it easily (and therefore didn't really need to do it at all?).
After letting her praise the intensive programme and counting to ten a few times. I did tell her about another formerly ‘wellish-paid’ worker (actually a former manager) who I’d met on the health and safety course who said exactly the same thing as me- the intensive programme was holding him back from submitting as many good-quality applications for suitable real-life jobs.
One element of this pilot is to show you can use Universal Jobsmatch (which is a truly awful jobsite run by government and used to spy on jobseekers). I won't describe all the shitness of this site but the only jobs I applied for on there subsequently turned out to be start-up agency fuckers mining for CVs with no actual jobs to offer.
At one point while waiting for my appointment (I am always on time, but my advisor keeps me waiting at least 30 mins- once as long as 45 minutes) I overheard one lady, who did not know how to use a computer, being threatened with having her JSA withdrawn if she did not use the Universal Jobsmatch account which her daughter had set up for her. The advisor basically said make your daughter do it for you every day and the woman was clearly very reluctant to burden her daughter (a full time worker and parent) with this. She was telling the advisor other ways she applies for jobs, how she walks from business to business handing in CVs and offering to do trial shifts, the advisor did not give a shit and would only engage in conversation about how useful Universal Jobsmatch is and how many places have computers these days. I wasn't brave enough to pass the woman my email and offer to help but I wanted to, it made me upset to hear her obvious distress.
It seems to me that this intensive pilot and the increased use of Universal Jobsmatch are just being used to find excuses to sanction claimants. I don’t know what motivates the advisors to give out such petty and life-wrecking sanctions, I suspect management pressure and fear of disciplinary or sacking drives some of the advisors' obviously-dickish behaviour, but I also get the impression that my advisor, and the one I overheard, both believe the shit that comes out of their mouths and have a lot of disdain for unemployed people in general. My advisor seemed offended somehow when I said the intensive stuff wasn't useful for me, but other people might need help doing that sort of task, rather than just being told to get on with it.
These reactionary jobsworths who are inflexible and sanction-happy are an inconvenience for those of us who are capable of jumping through the pointless hoops when they command. For me, Universal Jobsmatch and the ‘employability’ shit has been a frustrating waste of time at best, the cause of submitting a sub-par application and missing out on a possible interview at worst. For those who can’t jump through the hoops, these ‘resources’ are a real threat; if your advisor decides you have not done enough ‘jobsearch activity’ of the type they want to see, they will cut your benefits, whether you have been doing more productive things (like applying for jobs you actually have a chance of getting) instead, or not. It seems pretty obvious what the outcome of this pilot will be- people are being given work to do, but I didn't see any evidence of people getting support if they can't do what they are being told to do. If they don't do it, because they can't, they will lose their money. Fewer claimants in the statistics, more desperate people willing to work for a pittance- driving down wages for others. An attack on the whole working class.
I wanted to talk more about the health and safety course I mentioned. It’s based on completing a multiple-choice health and safety test which most people who can read and comprehend English reasonably well could pass with little or no revision (as long as they have a reasonable understanding of common safety signs and can choose the safest-sounding multiple choice option). Normally I guess people would be expected to study for 2 days max to pass the test. But the training provider could only get funding for the course if they combined it with ‘preparation for employment’ training and could evidence sufficient ‘learning hours’ for it to count as a ‘Level 1’ qualification. Which means we have to do 5 days of study on how to be better jobseekers, and get used to being patronised and wasting our time on shit tasks set for us by an authority figure, similar to how jobs might be. Now employers will have an ever-expanding base of compliant drones chasing ever fewer jobs with ever increasing desperation and willingness to accept shit conditions with a well-written CV begging for that shit.
So it goes without saying the 'preparation for employment' skills bits were shit. The health and saftey content was generally sensible and to be honest I wouldn't want to work in a dangerous job with people who couldn't pass that test. I passed the first mock tests each and every time with no revision, in common with about half of the people on the course (most of whom have been in employment fairly recently). A good portion of the people on the course could have a health and safety certificate pass on day 1, the others could then get more intensive support from the tutor. That isn’t what happens, instead we all have to crawl through 5 days of tasks at the same snails pace. These tasks are very similar to what the jobcentre are making me do on my intensive time-wasting pilot (CV building etc). Only once we have endured the full 5 days will they let us sit the test and get the certificate we came for.
Worse off than those of us who can pass already but are made to endure the course, are the ones who have no chance of passing. Some people speak or read limited English and aren’t being offered interpretation. Some of the native speakers can’t really understand the logic of the questions and answers so get tripped-up on the on-the-surface-plausible-but-incorrect answers. I have to admit to being surprised by some of the bafflingly absurd answers people select. To paraphrase an example:
“your boss tells you to carry a tall package down a steep slope, but you can’t see over the top of it, what should you do?”
answer given: “carry it while walking backwards to improve my balance”
correct answer: “go find someone to help you carry it lengthways so you can both see where you’re going”.
The reason the person chose the wrong answer was because ‘the boss told me to carry it’ and by inference; s/he didn’t say I could refuse to do a dangerous task on my own which could be made safe with help. Obedience to authority and a sense of individualised responsibility overriding common sense there, as both are wont to do.
The pace of completing the ‘learning’ tasks is truly, painfully glacial. We have to fill in a workbook. We do this by working in groups to answer the questions on scrap paper, then hand it to the tutor, he either ticks or crosses-out what we wrote (often seemingly removing technically correct answers in favour of the specific answer he was looking for). We keep going (or sit there twiddling our smartphones) until all groups have got all the answers. This means the people who need extra support basically sit there, barely comprehending the discussions, while the rest of their group do the work. Then we all copy word-for-word the model answers which were approved, or the tutor puts the model answers on the screen and repeatedly shows us what to write where. We aren’t allowed to write anything in the book until our tutor is sure we will all write the correct answer word-perfect. He emphasises his obvious and constant frustration with recurring questions to the group such as “how many times did I tell you which box?” Often directly shaming the individual who made the error (my favourite response to this sort of shaming so far was “*kmt* we are giants, man, we stand above it, this is not a big thing like we”).
For those that might have something to learn about how to reduce the chance you’ll accidentally kill or injure yourself or someone else while doing a shitty job, there is almost no learning going on at all. The people who walked-in already equipped to pass will do so, the others seem doomed to fail without any meaningful support being offered, especially since the learning is mainly focussed on employment 'preparation' guff, not on the specific test we were there to take (the test the provider would actually want to focus on the test itself instead of ‘employability’ were it not for the need to jump through govt funding hoops).
In some cases the ones who are struggling will get limited support from other learners. I am the main one in my group who will try and explain the reason we are giving these answers- and the exact meaning of the question to the guys who don’t understand as well. The ex-manager I mentioned earlier is in my group and basically takes over- I will write you can copy when tutor has seen it- we want to get out of here fast (this is a popular approach in our group, we always finish before the others- even when I try and slow it down to a pace everyone can keep up with, or at least explain the meaning of what we were asked and what we wrote- the others are glad the ex-manager does the work because we can go smoke or get out of the stuffy room for 10 minutes if we are far enough ahead of the other groups).
I overheard another guy in a different group refusing to help people learn or understand because ‘it does you no favours because I won’t be able to help you on the test day, mate’. He seems like an OK guy apart from this; I think he was just frustrated and to be fair he does have a point, some people are just sat there copying shit they don’t understand, others seems capable of gaining understanding at their own pace but don’t have a chance if the fastest in the group spoon-feeds answers.
The best thing about being on the course has been winging about stuff while we smoke outside but I haven’t made much progress in terms of expounding on my politics and applying it to the struggles we share in common. I’ve never been good at that. One shocking (but sadly not surprising) revelation was from one guy who was offered a job in a chicken shop working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for £200 per week. His response to this offer was “do you want my ass as well?” I tried to explain the minimum wage but he didn’t really understand (because I was saying “you must get £6 something per hour minimum, or your boss can be in trouble” but he was saying, “yes but they not pay per hour” and seemed to think I was the one who didn’t understand the nature of the pay offer or his joke about getting fucked in the ass- I get that a lot, I mean people often think I don’t understand what they’re saying, not that I get fucked in… yeah).
OK I’ve run out of steam now. There was more I was going to say but I didn’t realise how much I’d waffle. This was more of an exercise in venting than a solid piece of writing. Sorry if you read all the way to the end expecting me to say something important.
Anyway, there is my recent experiences of jobseeking. And my advisor does not know what all the fuss is about.