Unemployment, the JobCentre, and the imposition of labour discipline

Unemployment, the JobCentre, and the imposition of labour discipline

Having been gainfully unemployed for a number of months, I’ve recently returned to take a swim in the shark-infested, soul-destroying, disease-ridden hell hole that is the job market. It’s also the first time I’ve been, ehhem, lucky enough to be able to claim dole. This means applying for jobs and making a fortnightly trip to the JobCentre. And it sucks.

My experience back in the labour market has led me to think about the role of both the state and capital in imposing labour discipline not just on the job, but in every aspect of the labour market.

I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed some years back. It’s got its problems—being inherently social democratic, for a start—but the one part that really stuck with me was when she talked about the interview process for retail jobs like stacking shelves or taking stock. As she describes it, the interview isn’t there so much to ensure suitability for the role (these are, after all, extremely de-skilled positions), but to establish the workplace hierarchy and ensure that the candidate understands that management has a totality of control regarding everything from pay to breaks to social interaction on the shop floor.

In short, and although Ehrenreich doesn’t use such terminology, the interview process itself lays down the rules of labour discipline in the workplace.

With my partner and I both applying for these sorts of jobs, I actually think Ehrenreich hasn’t taken the argument far enough. In today's world, as part of the application, there are these utterly bullshit questions which having no bearing upon the skills needed for the role. Instead, such “surveys” are designed to ensure potential applicants understand the expectations that they will, amongst other things, shorten lunch breaks to accommodate business needs, welch on workmates for even the slightest infraction of company policy, and be available for whatever ‘reasonable’ requests management may make of them.

The JobCentre, as you can imagine, only reinforces such dynamics.

And, just like with employers, the JobCentre expects you to meticulously tick each box, show up on time, grovel with thanks, and show deference to the point of physical sickness. The JobCentre, on the other hand, can have labyrinthine rules which change with Kafkaesque regularity. They can keep you waiting weeks, fuck up, then lose your paperwork, and ask you to fill out the same form a dozen times. Too fucking bad. They’re in control, you’re not. There is no double standard so get the fuck over it.

None of this is a dig, I should add, on JobCentre staff as whole. Some are lovely, helpful people. Some aren’t. But even those who are assholes are more likely to be jobsworths enforcing company policy that they have no say in crafting than they are to be explicit class traitors. After all, they wouldn’t want to end up on the receiving end of a dole payment.

Then, there are the posters. I have literally never felt so patronised in my life. And I’m not one of the people who uses ‘literally’ to mean figuratively. I mean like literally, literally. They’re where those god-awful motivational posters go to die. And then come back to haunt you at a point in your life when the last thing you need is to hear someone telling you, high school American football coach style, that all it takes is some perseverance and you too can be arranging fruit at Tesco or selling fucking phone upgrades from some unholy call centre in the heart of a Grimsby industrial estate.

The posters, in their hellish Panopticon of shame and revulsion, contribute towards an entire JobCentre experience which leaves you feeling at once confused and patronised, alienated and belittled, desperate and angry, demoralised and… You get the point.

Oh, and lest we forget the constant references to benefit fraud. When you call the JobCentre you are given the option to report benefit fraud before you are given the option to start a claim. Such priorities are, not surprisingly, again brought to light by a poster on the wall which warns that JobCentre “security agents” will track you down if dare commit benefit fraud. As if the money and time spent on “security agents” would in any way would justify the relatively very little money which people scam off the dole.

Beyond the psychological aspect of all of this, there’s the material. For example, since my partner and I are making a joint claim, we get thirty quid less in total than if we applied separately—which of course we can’t. And that money? It only goes into one account. What, you’re in a patriarchal, controlling relationship with a drunken husband who’s the main claimant? Oh well. Fuck you. We don't care, dole scum.

Let’s not forget government expectations on how far you should be willing to travel to work: 90 minutes. Each way.

And, according to the sanctions which came in last week, you can lose your benefit for up to 156 weeks if you “leave a job voluntarily or lose a job due to misconduct”. I mean, we all know how fucked it is that you can lose benefit if you “fail to take part in a mandatory work activity program”, but losing your dole for misconduct (and not even gross misconduct) or for leaving a job? That has some seriously dangerous implications.

The language around such sanctions has always been vague, but a codifying of such draconian rules demonstrates further the way in which class gains like unemployment benefits can be turned around and used as levers of class control.

Finally, while at the JobCentre, my partner and I had the pleasure of overhearing a conversation between a manager and a claimant being put on workfare. What employers value, apparently, is not education but “experience”. It’s an opportunity for “valuable insider knowledge” and “proving yourself on the job”.

Now, we’re still a while away from workfare, but it is worth noting that a large part of our job searching record log is dedicated to listing the agencies to which we've signed up. As if that's a normal part of job search... Why would you expect direct employment? What do you think this is? The 1960s, you stupid hippy?

This explicit push towards agency work and workfare points to a state policy of precarious employment.

A comrade in SolFed describes workfare as “state intervention in the labour market for the benefit of capital”. I like that. Slightly academic it may be, but it’s succinct. Obviously, there’s a major concern workfare will depress wages and lead to employers filling vacant positions with claimants whom they don’t have to pay, reducing the pool of jobs for everyone.

But perhaps we’re missing a trick. After all, the genesis of capitalism wasn’t low wages. It was primitive accumulation combined with the ability of newly empowered employing class to impose a labour discipline on a newly dispossessed working class.

So, perhaps the goal of workfare, short-term and zero hours contracts, agency employment, and privatisation isn’t first and foremost to reduce wages or even increase the reserve army of labour. Perhaps what we’re seeing is a concerted state-capital effort to begin a renewed cycle of increased labour discipline across the job market and, more generally, across the class.

And if that is indeed what’s going on, the case for a class-wide response to such measures is that much stronger.

Posted By

Chilli Sauce
Oct 30 2012 20:26


  • The JobCentre: where those god-awful motivational posters go to die. As if all it takes is some perseverance and you too can be arranging fruit at Tesco or selling fucking phone upgrades from some unholy call centre in the heart of a Grimsby industrial estate.

Attached files


Oct 31 2012 15:40

Anyways, fancy actually responding to this?

northumberlandsoul wrote:
But that's my point, this author DOESN'T have any experience of Workfare, he hasn't been signing on long enough to be part of the Workfare scheme!

Which is why it's not an article about workfare! But glad you've clarified what your point actually is.

northumberlandsoul wrote:
it's like me spending a couple of weeks working at Tesco and then writing some exposé about what a terrible employer they are

It is not like you working a couple of weeks in Tesco and then doing an expose, it's like you working a couple of weeks in Tesco and saying "this is shit, this is why it's shit, and here's some theoretical meaty goodness to boot that I've been sinking my brain chops into". Is someone who's been working at Tesco 2 weeks not allowed to have an opinion of what it's like working for Tesco for 2 weeks? Does chilli at any point pretend he's got any more experience of claiming benefits than he has?

Chilli Sauce
Oct 31 2012 15:44

Now that you've discovered that it's probably not best idea that the JobCentre refer you to a job as a detective, care to actually respond to my last post?

Fall Back
Oct 31 2012 15:41

Not so much Poirot as Clouseau.

Chilli Sauce
Oct 31 2012 15:46

Oh, I know people back my arguments not because I've got an elaborate system of multiple accounts but because I get lots of ups. You, on the other hand, are managing to get downs in the double digits which, trust me, is pretty damn high for this site.

Oct 31 2012 15:48

Just to pre-empt any attempt to invalidate my points because of my relationship to chilli, I actually think he's a knob end most of the time (ie ^ see above), I just happen to think this is a bloody good article and find your hostile objections really weird and unhelpful.

Oct 31 2012 15:49
Chilli Sauce wrote:
While we may recognize divisions in the working class, including those of income, the notion of “middle class” is very much rooted in a bourgeois conception of socio-economics. I think middle income verse low-income or manual verse intellectual* labour is far more useful.

Yes, I agree entirely in principle, but I have known so many so-called Communists who have used this argument as a way to brand themselves 'working class' and remove themselves from their bourgeois or nouveau riche upbringings and increase their far-left credibility, only to abandon it all when they hit their mid 30s, and trade it all in for the materialism they are supposed to abhor, for the house they've 'earned', for the education their children 'deserve', and hey presto, they've ended up just like their parents. This isn't aimed at you in any way, I just mean that I totally agree with what you say, yet I'm extremely conflicted when it comes to the practical application of the terminology.

Chilli Sauce
Oct 31 2012 15:54

Okay, not an actual response to my last post, but whatever.

I will point out that it's not "upbringing" that determines your class, but your relationship to the means of production. Again, this is pretty basic communism.

But this is a derail, so I'm not discussing this point any further.

Oct 31 2012 16:08

Well, I've already outlined my argument, there isn't much else to say. I don't think you're qualified to write such an article, you and your cronies and the Libcom admin that you're such good friends with etc etc obviously do, which is fair enough, we're not going to get anywhere by discussing it on here.

I didn't change my argument, my point about the jobcentre staff was merely an example of your naivety and total submission to populist rhetoric. Ultimately, this article offers no insight whatsoever. You could have written exactly the same article without ever needing to have actually signed on yourself.

However, I have nothing against you personally and I wish you the best of luck in finding work. Think positively and be as agreeable as possible with the jobcentre staff, in my experience they very much appreciate a smile and a friendly word (they don't get much of that in their job). Also, don't worry about the 90 minutes travel thing, in practice it is very unlikely that you will be forced to apply for a job which is any more than 40 minutes away.

Oct 31 2012 16:08

I enjoyed reading this, Chili. Reminds me of my own time right after my botched high school degree where I had to visit the job centre regularly for two years and each visit felt like I was next on death row. I think you captured that psychological terror quite well.

Chilli Sauce
Oct 31 2012 16:21

Thanks R.

And, I guess, thanks to Northumberlandsoul for the, um, friendly advice.

Oct 31 2012 16:29

Northumberland, it's a fucking blog post. Not an MA thesis, a newspaper article or govt. white paper. A fucking blog post. Chill the fuck out. And now we know that what you are reacting to is chili's imagined boogie upbringing rather than the post itself. In other words, your comments are just one long logical fallacy. Tbh you've probably got more in common with chili than you think. Engage with him seriously, you shoul be able to show him at least that minimum of respect rather than dissing him for something he is not.

klas batalo
Oct 31 2012 17:35

All revolutionaries but Northumberland are petit-bourgeois scum, will the real proletariat please stand up? twisted

Oct 31 2012 20:10
northumberlandsoul wrote:

Worst of all are your views on those who actually work in the Jobcentre. Yes, of course there are some unhelpful staff, but there are also many enthusiastic and caring people who work there, who will do their best to refer you to potential employers for interview, and who turn a blind eye to the amount of time you spend doing voluntary work. Yes, we all know that the system is flawed, and that really, the only thing you have to do in order to remain on Jobseekers allowance indefinitely is to tell the truth in job interviews ("What would you say is your greatest weakness?" "My terrible punctuality/Poor listening skills/Anger problems etc etc" "Oh")

I guess this is a fair point. I think in Brighton back in the days of the New Deal (see what I did there wink ) there were some successful attempts at organizing between claimants and support staff (sorry, I was never on the New Deal, does that mean I can't discuss it?). i have to say my experience of JC staff has been both positive and negative. Two have been 'enthusiastic caring people' (one of these guys even complained to me that he doesn't get enough breaks, I thought that were pretty cool smile ), one was patronising and all the rest of it.

Given the new regimes being bought in at the moment (sanctions and the rest of it), I think your a little bit optimistic with your faith in being able to fuck up the interview every time. I wager that within a few weeks there will be stories coming out of people being sanctioned for 'deliberately stuffing up an interview' (whatever that may mean).

On having a degree. I don't know whether this passed you by, but between 1997 and 2010 there was this government (same gov. that introduced the New Deal) that had a saying that went 'education, education, education'. They planned to get up to 50% of the leaving school population into universities. The higher education sector grew exponentially. It is now estimated that some 20% of the population in the U.K. have a degree. That is like twelve million. Is it really such a mark of privilege anymore?

Oh and, there is nothing wrong with saying dude wink.

Nov 1 2012 00:16
northumberland wrote:
They hate Workfare just as much as us, you know.

Every JC worker I've come in contact with has supported it.

Kevin Smith
Nov 1 2012 06:41

I am long term unemployed and on the Work Programme. I don't get all of the comments but from my experience can say that this blog is a fair assessment of what to expect at the Jobcentre. Before my present lengthy spell of being unemployed, my last period of unemployment was back in the early 90s. Wasn't good then, isn't good now but mi how things have changed. In either spell I've never really felt there was much carrot involved but there certainly is plenty of stick nowadays. And in the main, as mentioned in the article, it is pointless ticking of boxes, jumping through hoops or you are threatened with sanctions and when mistakes through no fault of your own, you are expected to just put up and wait, and wait, and wait for it to be resolved.

To the author of the blog I hope for your sake you manage to find a job before you are "eligible" for referral to the Work Programme. I have been on it for 9 months now, and it stinks. I have managed to avoid workfare simply by point blankly refusing to do it. How long that can be maintained before more pressure and sanctions are inflicted I don't know but fear the worse. Once a week I am sat in front of a PC for a few hours and that is basically the extent of my extensive "back to work" scheme experience (and from what I have read and heard muted, something I fear will be extended to at least 2/3 days a week or even daily) I am amazed at the number of people who have been attending the same WP as me for a long period, who don't have very basic PC skills. Not their fault but surely it should be a prerequisite for a "back to work" scheme to teach this. Of course computer skills are not essential for many a job but nowadays it certainly helps with applying for jobs. I constantly overhear the staff saying "mandate this one" - "sanction that one". If you talk to the person next to you or stop to look at a story in the Echo before reaching the Jobs page you are reprimanded like being at school. If you miss a day, you are told to get a Doctors note or risk being sanctioned.

If you manage to find a job which is for less than 16 hours, you still have to attend the WP once a week or again risk being sanctioned. I could go on and on about things I have seen and heard but I'm guessing most already know so won't bore you. So to summarize, it's just pants!!!!!!

Nov 1 2012 09:27

Good post Kevin. And good post Chili!

I'm tempted to start an 'authentic prole' thread to immortalise the likes of Northumberlandsoul

Chilli Sauce
Nov 1 2012 09:35

Thanks Kevin.

Yeah, like I said I'm new to claiming, but I have some friends who've claimed for longer periods and it's amazing just how backward and inflexible the system is. They've found free training programs of even voluntary placements which are in the field they want to work. Instead of allowing them to attend, the JobCentre has forced folks with English degrees to go on CV writing courses. I mean even by their own standards, the JobCentre is really fucking illogical in how they deal with getting people back to work.

Which is guess is the point: the benefits system is far more about social control than it is actually getting people back to work.

Also, there's a couple orgs fighting workfare, not the least of which includes Boycott Workfare and the Solidarity Federation if you're interested in getting involved and maybe getting some support.

Nov 1 2012 10:26

Hwey Kev, sorry to hear about your situation.

Kevin Smith wrote:
you are told to get a Doctors note or risk being sanctioned.

Am I right in thinking Docs usually charge ££ for notes? (my doctor tried to a few years ago)

Nov 1 2012 10:27


Kevin Smith
Nov 1 2012 14:18

Doctors do tend to try to charge for medical notes when it is for something out of the norm - it's a case of hit and miss and your relationship with or the character of your GP.

I am involved with an anti cuts group, BPACC and we do anti workfare stuff but only in a small way. Have leafleted outside my local Jobcentre which was taken from a Boycott Workfare one. The response has been mixed so can be a bit self deflating but I put some of that down to the intimidation / fear factor that is prevalent. I can't see workfare / benefit cuts disappearing anytime soon, so it's a long road and the ultimate aim is to set up a self organising support group but it's hard to get support so it's still work in progress.

I have to be careful when attending WP because after refusing placements I was told that if I was heard talking about that in the WP office I would be kicked off the programme which, rightly or wrongly, I have taken to mean I would be sanctioned. Again the fear factor kicks in, like everybody else, I need some sheckles to live on and have decided that was / is not the place / moment to make a stand.

Nov 1 2012 23:35

I can't believe this hasn't been brought up yet... the boss in the picture... why's he pointing at the worker's bum? laugh out loud

Mar 8 2013 01:26

norhtumberlandsoul wrote:

'shitty' (read: lower class, menial) jobs

to be aimlessly drifting, dreaming of something better (yes, even working class people have dreams!), whilst being offered the least stimulating jobs imaginable and expected to be thankful.

Contradiction much?

And no, I don't personally know any Jobcentre staff members, but I do know that they have to put up with abuse every day

Apr 14 2015 14:07

here in Finland we encouraged to start own company. But we loose our social benefits if we do so, for that you get start money, for half of year or something ... find any other way than take loan and start private company. So cant start from small, immediately when you would get something out of firm you have to pay loan and give up from social benefits. Prinsible is that you work for free if you have something to give, but not capital, it slavery of poor. It different thing when rich kids start company, they dont have to sell anything to survive. Many of benefits are like that only ones who get real benefits out of that system are those rich families where children have their parents bank account and apartment and officially look poor at records but are not ...I know many. I know also those who get benefits and pocket money comes from crimes, it another way. Seems like succeeding in life requires crime or another, is it fraud like capitalist do or just normal thief.

Apr 14 2015 14:27

I dont know yours but our social workers have to have your bank account information every month and if there is something what you have earn (sold a T-shirt example) they take it away from social benefits. So cant start from small, should like sell something 1700 euros netto from start that you can live whit out social benfits, living is so expancive. This is some agreement whit banks and social offices??? Take loan and get troubled ... that what they want.