I’ve just finished a 10-month sentence. Although I wasn’t an inmate in a prison or a mental institution, at times it certainly felt like it.
I am one of the many thousands of undeserving poor who each year are coerced into attending one of New Labour’s spurious training schemes aimed at motivating the so-called work-shy.
As a middle-aged unemployed man living in Greater Manchester, I was put on the government’s New Deal scheme at the beginning of 2008. Having a university degree, I initially saw it as an opportunity to take up the government’s offer of training and retraining to improve my job prospects. But any ideas that I may have had about training were soon dispelled after my first meeting with my New Deal advisor. When I asked about suitable training courses, I was told that the only course available was something called ‘basic employability training’. I was then handed a leaflet.
I found that a training agency called ‘TNG’ ran the course. Help was available on CV’s, job search and with basic literacy and numeracy problems. There was assistance with confidence building and self-esteem. TNG also provided what is euphemistically called ‘work experience’ placements. In the USA this has been dubbed ‘workfare’ and entails people providing compulsory free labour to a local employer or charity for which they receive their dole money plus a small training allowance which amounts to less than the minimum wage.
After several months on the New Deal ‘gateway’ which involved weekly interviews and job search, I was referred to TNG. I discovered early on that some people on the induction course had been there several times previously and had been unable to get permanent jobs. Karl, a young man in his early twenties, was attending for his third time. When I asked him what he liked about the course, he told me, ‘I’ve hated every fucking minute of it’. He went off sick later that morning. The building where the course took place was overcrowded, poorly ventilated and foul language was endemic. At times I felt as if I had been catapulted into a linguistic sewer. Though we were told that racism, homophobia and sexism would not be tolerated, when I asked what the policy was on swearing, a member of staff told me rather pathetically : ‘We tell them not to swear and hope they comply’.
We received some mixed advice on the induction course. On one occasion the tutor told us : ‘Always smile when you’re making a phone call. Employers know if you’re not smiling’. We were told to avoid alcohol and drugs and not to carry offensive weapons. We were reminded of the importance of personal hygiene and the need to attend regularly and on time. ‘If you’re on probation’, our tutor told us, ‘we can get you a better report (pre-sentencing)’. We were told that we were required to choose a placement and that we should pick one that would look good on our c.v.such as Travel Lodge or Sports City. It was pointed out that though ASDA would take people on placement (working for their dole money), they would not give them a permanent job. Our tutor then told us : ‘Getting a placement gets you out of here’.
Inmates were given a designation. I was labelled IAPWE, denoting ‘Intensive Activity Period Work Experience’. Other tags were ETF (Environmental Task Force) and VS (Voluntary Sector). We were all given basic literacy and numeracy tests. A question on my maths paper asked : 2+2=?. The literacy paper looked as though it had been set for seven year olds.
Enrolled on a course designed for people with learning difficulties, the staff tended to treat you like school kids or as retarded in some way because you were jobless. It was almost as if one was participating in a degradation ceremony involving as series of abasements and humiliations intended to break your will in order to make you more malleable to take dead end jobs or jobs with no pay at all. As our induction tutor told us : ‘It can be hard to get a job if you’ve got unrealistic expectations’.
Understandably, many people did feel resentful about being forced to work for their dole money and felt that they should be receiving a wage for their efforts. Many realised that most employers were unlikely to give them a job when in effect they were receiving regular free labour from TNG paid to them as a subsidy from the taxpayer. Also, there was a sense that you were being punished and that, like an offender, you were being forced to do a community service order.
One young man told me that he’d worked on placement through TNG for three different fencing erectors on three occasions and had never secured a paid position. Mike, a bloke in his thirties, told me that he was working four night shifts a week at ASDA for his dole money. Another man in his late 50s, who worked part-time as an optical technician, was offered a placement at Specsavers doing the same work but for his dole money.
A 19-year-old man-child, who clearly had psychological problems, was sent to work in a home for the elderly. Frequently, you would hear, ‘who’s interested in bar work or care work’.
Typically, there were the Jobcentre (joke shop) jobs which staff tried to foist upon you : ‘Domestic 9 hours a week, meets Nat. Minimum Wage’. ‘Litter picker 5 hours per week, £7.50 per hour’. ‘Kitchen assistant 9-15 hours per week meets Nat. Minimum Wage’. ‘Cleaning operative 10 hours per week, £5.70 an hour’.
I was to discover from a member of staff that some of the people on the course were registered sex offenders or had convictions for theft, drugs and violence. Also, that some people were classed as vulnerable adults. On one occasion, I witnessed a fight between two men and though a member of staff intervened to remove one of the men from the building, later in the day he was seen sauntering around the building trying to provoke other people. A man in his fifties also told me that he’d intervened to stop a youth verbally abusing a black member of staff and that the youth had sceamed at him ; ‘shut the fuck up, smack head, or I’ll fucking bury you’. It was hardly surprising that some people left the course (and signed-off) unable to stand it any longer.
I was also told that TNG received £100 per week for every person on their course (13 week/26 week) and that every person who completed a 13 week placement was classed according to government targets, as having obtained a permanent job even though they had been receiving their dole money throughout. Yet, when a placement was successfully completed, TNG got extra money.
During a ‘consultation exercise’ which took place within the building, inmates were asked to put forward suggestions that they wanted to make about how the course might be improved. There were some interesting suggestions. Some comedians asked for pole dancers and better-looking women. Some complained of overcrowding and why nobody on the staff was showing them how to work the computers. Others asked why they were only being offered ‘placements’ and not jobs. At the end of the session, the manager informed us that she would invite the army in to see if any of us wanted to join up.
After several weeks, I went over the wall and caught the midnight express. My way out of this veritable shit-hole was to take a placement at a local sanctuary for distressed animals. Most days I took dogs for a walk but some days they took me for a walk. Though I didn’t secure a situation, I did lose some weight and I found the English collies delightful.
After my stint at TNG, I was press-ganged onto New Deal ‘follow through’. This was a 4-week job search course provided by an organisation called i2i (‘Inspire to Independence’). The course took place in a cramped wing of a decrepit old mill. On the front door were the words, 'i2i The Door To Your Future’. Everywhere in the building the walls were adorned with propaganda and psychobabble. There were pictures of Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell MP, with the caption : ‘Jobless Warned – Work or Lose Your Benefits’. One poster in particular I found highly amusing. A caption read : ‘It’s your choice!’ There was a picture of a wino and a yuppie. Over the picture there was a caption : ‘Who do you aspire to be?’ Another picture showed a tramp/rough sleeper on a park bench. Over the picture were the words : ‘You snooze You Lose!’ Another picture showed a Ferrari and a bus. Over the picture were the words : ‘Which one would you prefer?’
The project manager was a 46-year old peroxide blonde. Straight out of a Dickens novel, she was a dead ringer for both Wackford Squeers, the Yorkshire schoolmaster of Dotheboys Hall and Pauline, who ran the Royston Vasey Jobcentre, in the TV series ‘The League of Gentlemen’. Naturally suspicious, she saw scroungers and skivers everywhere. Periodically, she would erupt into a fit of rage and roam about the rooms pointing at people and shouting : ‘You don’t want a job!’ ‘You don’t want a job!’ ‘You won’t beat me!’ ‘You won’t beat me!’ On induction day she told us : ‘If you don’t want a job, you shouldn’t be here!’ One punter on the course told me that he thought she might be suffering from mad cow disease.
As with TNG, most of the work on offer tended to be low-paid skivvying. The centre ‘employment specialist’ would ask : ‘Anybody interested in working as a sandwich artist?’ ‘Who’s interested in working 25 hours a week at the biscuit works?’ ‘Anyone interested in packing at the bakery?’ Other vacancies also came from the Jobcentre. One list entitled ‘Top Vacancies’ had the following jobs : ‘Cashier, Toys ‘R’ Us – meets NMW, 26.5 hours per week’ ‘Clerical Assistant £12,000 Pro Rata, 20 hours per week’ ‘Residential Support Worker, £135.50 – 40 hours per week’. Most of the jobs on offer involved either cleaning, caring, or retail. An exception to this was when a security firm visited the centre hoping to recruit bouncers to work the club doors.
Despite applying diligently for job vacancies every week, I was unable to get a job or even an interview after spending 10 months on the New Deal. I received no training whatsoever and I cannot recall meeting anyone who did manage to get a job. No doubt some did get casual jobs, others signed-off and a substantial number, like myself, went back on the dole.
Under the New Deal, these schemes are compulsory and if you don’t comply you lose your benefits. People are therefore subjected to a lot of hassle and pressure to take crap low-paid jobs, which are often temporary, or to take placements where you work for your dole money. What was obvious was the way in which employers did use these New Deal placements as a way of getting free labour through outfits like TNG (specialists in exploitation), who got paid regardless of whether a client got a job or not. Apart from charities such as Cancer Research, private firms like Ethel Austin, ASDA, Sainsbury’s and J.D.Wetherspoon, were all using conscripted labour from TNG. Many local retailers also took advantage of this free labour.
Before starting the New Deal, I spoke to an employment officer who worked for a local authority. Her job involved working with people with disabilities who she tried to get into paid employment. She told me that finding jobs for her clients was becoming increasingly difficult because of the activities of TNG. It seems that many local retailers were getting free labour from TNG rather than recruiting staff that they would have to pay. Indeed, one local retailer had told her that they no longer took staff on permanently because they got their staff from TNG on placement. When a person finished their placement they got another person on the same scheme to replace them.
While the general public may have little sympathy for the unemployed and generally supports harsher benefit regimes which are aimed ostensibly at getting the jobless back to work, one suspects that the public does believe that their taxes are being used to train and retrain people in order that they can get back into sustainable employment. After all, this is what the government tells them it is doing, offering the unemployed training and work opportunities. But in reality, the New Deal and New Labour’s welfare crack-down, are really about cutting social security spending, manipulating the unemployment figures and about forcing the unemployed off the dole by using persistent harassment to force them into taking the most badly paid, casualised non-unionised jobs that they can find. Taking a hard line against benefit claimants is also seen as a vote winner.
With the economy in recession and unemployment expected to reach 2 million by the end of the year, New Labour’s Work & Pensions Secretary, James Purnell, remains determined to get single mothers, the sick and disabled, back into work. Single parents on Income Support with children aged 12 (120,000), are now being called in for interviews and are being transferred onto the Jobseekers’ Allowance. Mr. Purnell (whose first job was baby-sitting for Tony & Cherie Blair), favours a system of compulsory labour in the UK for benefit claimants and he now wants to compel the over 60’s who are claiming dole to attend Jobcentre interviews. He recently told the Daily Mirror : ‘Many 50 to 69 year olds tell us they want to carry on working. It is only fair they get the same training and work opportunities as everyone else’.