Casual labour and unpaid work

Back in 1980 when I first started work at the age of 16 for Barclays International, it seemed much easier to find permanent employment. In the main, recruitment agencies were used to find short term, short notice temporary work and there were only a few employment agencies in my home town, Poole. The vast majority of job vacancies advertised in Jobcentres and the local press were for jobs where you would be directly employed by the employer.

After a few years working I began to notice more and more ‘agency staff’ being used within the Department I worked and it was clearly apparent that the jobs roles of these staff were not temporary positions but permanent roles. Around the same time I had become active within my Union (BIFU) and I, along with others, continuously raised this issue at Branch / Area meetings. I am certain that this was happening across the country in other industries and that concerns would have been raised. I do not think these concerns fell on deaf ears, it was a ‘new thing’ people did not fully understand or realise the full implications. Similar to the austerity measures of today, the country was in the grip of the Thatcherism onslaught and the public were being attacked from all angles so this matter did not receive as much resistance as perhaps it should.

Today when I look around my town, it is full of recruitment agencies. The vast majority of job vacancies are advertised in Jobcentres, local press and the internet by recruitment agencies to work for them for an employer. Within 30 years, we have seen the near complete casualisation of work and with that, the demise of the power of Trade Unions and the rights of the workers which has led to lower wages, less job security, pay freezes and the cutting of work pensions.

The point I am trying to highlight is that, in my opinion, we now have a similar scenario with the introduction and expanding of unpaid work placements for those claiming Job Seekers Allowance and Employment Support Allowance. This is a ‘new thing’ to people at a time when the public are being attacked from all angles. Worryingly, after years of the 3 main parties and the media misrepresenting benefit claimants as ‘scroungers’, it seems that unpaid work placements are acceptable to many. This is not helped by the DWP propaganda machine that has stated that all unpaid mandatory schemes must be for “community benefit” which for some will make it even more acceptable. However under Government rules, this “community benefit” can be defined as increasing the profit of organisations where the unemployed are sent to work without pay so it includes any kind of work for any employer.

I have always believed that a day’s work should receive a fair day’s pay whether that work is short term, temporary, part / full time or long term. If an unemployed person participates in a work placement, then not only should they receive at least the National Minimum Wage but also any relevant benefits such as Tax Credits or Housing Benefit. Benefit claimants should not be treated as some kind of underclass and should receive the same rates of pay and benefits as any other employed person.

The unemployment crisis will not be solved by forcing people to work for nothing and there is mounting evidence that unpaid work placements are reducing the overall availability of paid work. I urge everyone to oppose all unpaid work schemes or in 30 years time, similar to the universal use of employment agencies by employers today, we may well find working for benefits is the norm for all unemployed people. And I can also see employers jumping at the opportunity of having an unpaid (or greatly reduced rate of pay) for new employees. We have to fight this now at the outset not once it has crept upon us over time.

Listed below are all the govt schemes which involve unpaid work placements:

The Work Programme is an update of the Flexible New Deal to provide ‘tailored support’ for the long term unemployed. It is compulsory and kicks in after 9 months for young people and a year for the over 25s. Private providers receive cash incentives to get people back into work or training and are able to propose unpaid work placements. The providers cannot directly sanction Jobseeker benefits that refuse or end placements but can refer back to the Jobcentre to implement. Between Jun – Nov 2011 there were 370,000 people referred (figures relating to the number of work placements are not available).

Work Experience is a ‘voluntary’ scheme for people aged 16-24 who have been unemployed for 3-9 months. The unpaid work placements last for 2-8 weeks with participants working 25-30 hours each week. By November 2011, 34,200 people had participated.

Mandatory Work Activity is a compulsory scheme for people who have been unemployed for over 3 months. The unpaid work placements last between 6-8 weeks working up to 25-30 hours per week. People who fail to participate, fail to complete or lose a place due to misconduct will have their benefits sanctioned for 13 weeks. A second failure within a 12 month period will lead to a 26 week sanction. Between May – Nov 2011, Jobcentres referred 24,010 people.

Work Related Activity Group is for ESA claimants who the DWP consider will be capable of work some time in the future. People have to attend work focussed interviews and undertake unpaid (unlimited) work related activities (placements). This includes those who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer but have more than 6 months to live, accident and stroke victims and mental health problems. Latest figures reveal there are over 300,000 in the WRAG group and 8,440 have incurred benefit sanctions from Sep‘10 – Aug’11 for offences such as missing an interview with advisers “without good cause”.

Community Activity Programme is for people unemployed for over 2 years who can be referred for up to 30 hours unpaid work per week for up to 6 months. This scheme is currently being piloted ahead of a potential national roll out and it is intended to be mandatory with failure to participate resulting in sanctions to benefits.

Sector Based Work Academies offer a combination of training and work placement for people unemployed for over 3 months lasting up to 6 weeks with a guaranteed job interview with the organisation. Participation is voluntary but anyone who doesn’t complete will face benefit sanctions. It was launched in Aug’11 and by Nov’11 over 3,400 had participated.

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The Work Programme – my experiences and thoughts

In theory there is nothing wrong with concept of the Work Programme. It is similar to the old Job Clubs, you would go along, get your CV checked out or (re)done for you, have access to look for work on PCs, use telephones, have your job applications posted for you, get interview advice etc. Whether Job Clubs benefited people, I would say is down to personal experience. However it does seem that The Work Programme is being used as a vehicle to promote welfare to work / workfare.

The companies (providers) involved in ‘helping you find work’ get an initial payment for taking each unemployed person onto their books – this is for a full 2 year period, even if you get a job, if unfortunately you lose that job during this period you go straight back onto the Work Programme. The providers get another payment if you manage to find work whilst on WP. There is a valid line of thought being expressed that the providers will therefore concentrate all there efforts on individuals they consider being more likely to find a job. Meaning the others will be cast onto the scrapheap. It can also be viewed as creeping privatisation of the Jobcentres as the work previously done at JCs is effectively being outsourced which doesn’t bode well for the staff who used to do it. The criteria for being referred to the WP is 18-24yo who have been on JSA for 9 months (at mo these are mainly the people being forced to do work placements) and over 25yo who been on JSA for 12 months. Anyone on ESA who is within 3 months of the date their Doctor has stated they will be ‘fit for work’ can also be sent on WP.

As I have been unemployed for over 12 months, my local Jobcentre Plus office referred me onto the Work Programme and I attended an induction on 29th November with my provider – Working Links. It was all very pleasant but seemed a bit rushed, unorganised and chaotic with not enough space for those booked onto the induction. I was not given any details regarding when or where or what would happen next except “someone will contact you shortly”. This never happened even though I chased them for further details on a couple of occasions over the following weeks.

On the third occasion I was told by the provider that I had in fact been referred to NACRO and would be hearing from them. I queried this. As far as I am aware NACRO is to assist people with criminal records / custodial sentences in their search for employment. However the provider insisted that my referral to them was appropriate. I have no problem with NACRO and would be totally fine if I was referred to them but I just found it very odd. I decided to contact them directly and in my email explained the situation, my previous work history (for most of my life I have been in permanent long term employment) and also advised that I did have a criminal record for public order offences but they were all ‘spent’. I received a reply from NACRO and they agreed that it would not be suitable for me to be referred to them.

During the conversation with my WP provider I had requested for the details in writing. A couple of days later, I received a phone call from them and I explained the above. This advisor agreed that it did not seem appropriate that I had been referred to NACRO and that he would chase up this matter on my details and once again I would be contacted by someone soon. I also questioned why it was now nearly 2 months and I was still waiting for details of where, what and when the WP would be offering me in the way of seeking work. I was informed that they had been overwhelmed by the numbers requesting to go on the Work Programme. I am not sure that my response was welcome but I said those people, like myself, were not volunteering to go on the WP but being told ‘go on it or get your benefits sanctioned’.

A further month passed without any contact from my provider. Then I received a letter asking me to attend a Job Search activity on Feb 20th with Abilities who I am assuming have been sub contracted by Working Links. I attended this interview and was told that as part of my Work Programme activities I would have to attend their office once a week for 3 hours to look for work and I would be offered any assistance from their staff. This I have no objection to, I welcome any help in finding paid employment. However within a few minutes of the conversation, work placements were mentioned and how this would help me find permanent work. This I object to. I politely said that under no circumstances would I participate in forced unpaid work. A brief amicable discussion followed about the benefits of working for nothing and how it would help me find permanent work. I conceded that some people may well find full time work this way but re-iterated that I would not participate as I considered forced labour to be immoral, unethical and total alien to my core values and beliefs. I was then taken to have a discussion with the work placement officer.

Similar discussions ensued and it was explained to me that someone had found full time employment with a local Sainsbury’s following a work placement. I stated that may well be the case but why couldn’t companies like Sainsburys who’s CEO earns just shy of £1 million a year afford to pay me the National Minimum Wage for the period of the work placement and if after a few days or weeks I was found to be not suitable, they could let me go. As my first preference of employment is office work, (general admin etc) I was told that it could be arranged for me to go on a work placement in an office. However I explained that aside from several years work experience of general labouring and working as a storesperson, I have 20 years experience of banking and don’t think I am in need of any ‘work experience’ within an office, particularly when I would not be paid.

I said I was prepared to undertake any activity that would enhance my prospects of finding work but reiterated that I would not participate in any work placements where I was not being paid at least the National Minimum Wage and if I was put on an unpaid work placement, I would attend but to picket the employer and would not work. I was told that it was not advisable for me to mention this to the office manager as he would probably put a sanction on my benefits immediately. I asked who this was and was told it was the man I had just seen (hmmm thought me, I have just told him). I was then asked if I was saying ‘was it just a job I was looking for’, I am not too sure what that meant but replied that is about the sum of it. I am actively seeking work and want to find a job, preferably permanent and full time, do a day’s work and get paid for it. I mentioned that I was part of a group that campaigned against workfare and was told that if while doing my job search activities it was noticed that I was trying to discourage people from participating in work placements I would not be allowed into their offices. As much as I like to spout my opinions, I can bite the bullet with this regard, and agreed that I would not enter into such discussions whilst on their premises.

I am not sure what will develop now and as far as I know it was left that ‘we will cross that bridge when we come to it’. That is fine but I am adamant that I will not be crossing any bridge that takes me onto unpaid forced work placements. My side of the bridge may become one without receiving any form of income but it is the right and just side to be on. At certain times in our lives, when faced with dilemnas we must draw a line, do what we know is right and say ‘no more’.

Over the last few weeks, due to public pressure, we have seen employers involved in the work placement programme falling over like dominos and many have withdrawn. I heard today that Tescos have announced they will be paying all those on work placements at least the National Minimum Wage. This is welcome news and I urge everyone to keep campaigning. It may not be so palatable to campaign against charities but the same principles of forced labour applies to charities and they must also be actively encouraged to withdraw. Trade Unions, such as CWU, must also take a long hard look in the mirror and realise they have made a mistake in participating in unpaid work placements and oppose such schemes.

I hate being on the dole, I want to work but I will never be forced to work for nothing and nor should anyone else.

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Don’t Just Occupy

I do not disagree with the sentiments expressed in the statement released by Occupy London, but since this movement hit our shores I have followed it as much as I can and to be honest I am confused. It is clearly apparent that the vast majority of wealth and power lies in the hand of a very small minority. I am fully aware that the cuts are not necessary and are simply ideological vandalism and I am also convinced that many of the myths spread about the deficit are false.

Obviously any protest movement needs to say what it is against and ideally offer workable, coherent alternatives and garner public support. This is where my problems with the ‘Occupation movement’ start. To my uneducated eye they seem to have jumped straight in at the deep end demanding ‘global change’. Again, I do not disagree with the general ideals expressed; however we need to be aware that different countries are in different places concerning how far the corruption of capitalism and global corporatism has penetrated their systems. And it would pay to remember that the statement has originated from the Occupy Wall Street movement. We may be getting closer but as yet, we are not the States. When it comes to change, one size does not fit all.

I may be wrong but from what I have found out so far, the Occupy movement’s main objective, at the moment, is to raise awareness. This is all well and good, but by having a static location you are reliant on people coming to you and good media coverage. I suspect that most who visit will be of similar opinions, so you may encounter the problem of only talking to the converted. As for relying on the media, well, good luck with that! If this is the aim, then to me, the starting block should have been talking to the wide range of anti cut / protest groups and the Trade Union movement about taking the message out to the wider community. All these organisations endeavour to represent the ‘99%’ and have already built up support and links within the community.

I am unclear what are the Occupy movement’s ultimate objectives are. Eradicating corporate greed and creating a ‘fairer society’ is one hell of a monumental jump from where we currently are. If you are to make such sweeping statements I think you really do need to elaborate as to how you are going to get from A to B (and in this case more like A to Z). I realise that people involved in occupying spaces come from disparate groups and opinions which may account for why the statements are so vague but if you want to draw in mass support you need to let the mainstream public know what you stand for.

Maybe I am too much in ignorance of how this is all meant to work but holding General Assemblies to decide the general direction of what the 99% want, does not seem to be a million miles away from how parliament works. Several hundred people voting on what is ‘best for the rest’. In order to engage the public, I feel clear policies are needed. The following are just mine, and no doubt will not be everyone’s, but direct achievable demands need to be made.

• A Robin Hood tax on all bank transactions
• Re-nationalisation of utility companies
• Higher rates of tax for those earning over 150k
• A free universal public health service
• Tougher regulation / law to make it harder to ‘avoid’ tax and large fines for those that do
• Radical changes to how Councils / Parliament operate to make them more accessible and accountable to the public. Manifestos should be adhered to and any unannounced policies must wait until it has been included in a manifesto and voted on by the public
• A total revamp how disability benefits are awarded and social care budgets allocated to ensure the most vulnerable are protected

We need to be realistic – right here, right now – in the UK we do not have much of a choice. We have a 3 party system and although they slightly differ in policies, they all embrace the current economic system. Added to that, it is clear this country is nowhere near ready for a ‘revolution’ of any shape or form. As much as many will not like it, the best we can hope for at the moment is to build mass public support, locally and nationally, and then push political parties to adopt these demands in their policies. But, and a very important but, is that we must continue to fight all the cuts tooth and nail in the meantime.

A walk of a thousand miles begins with the first step and trying to change the world is not the first step. It seems that at some point the global economy will collapse and this will be a really dangerous period when all and sundry will try to seize power. Until then, in order to ‘raise awareness’ all forms of protest should be used; strikes, flash mobs, picketing, direct action leafleting, fly posting etc and yes, occupations. Take a page from the book of the establishment in the way they have enshrined that austerity measures are the only answer into the psychology of the public over the last few years. It is imperative that the message of radical change is spread to the public to build support across all industries and sectors of the working class, including retail, utilities, services, the unwaged, retired and students. All around us, an ideological war is being waged and those who believe there are alternatives must join the battle, but outside of the political bubble. Whatever you choose to do, Solidarity is, and will always be, the answer.

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Another bad day on the dole

I am not a writer and I expect this is a bit waffly but please stick with it. I would like to share a recent experience of my local Jobcentre in Poole. I am 47 and have worked for most of my life since the age of 16 but since 2008 I have been unemployed except for a few weeks here and there temping. During this period I have also has spells on Employment Support Allowance due to depression which I have suffered from and received treatment for over the last 10 years or so. I have been on continous Jobseekers Allowance since November 2010 and have actively and genuinely sought employment but alas, I have been unsuccessful.

Two weeks ago, I attended my normal weekly interview at the Jobcentre. I was informed that I was under investigation for not attending an ‘open day’ at a local factory several months ago. I questioned this as I could remember attending something along those lines although it was for a job I could not not do (counter balance fork-lift driver) and, as it happened, the employer didn’t consider that I was suitable. I also queried as to why I had not been previously notified of this investigation. I was told that a letter explaining it all had been sent but I didn’t receive it beacause they forgot to put my address on it!

Unfortunately, the interview went downhill from there. I openly admit, I am a bolshy person. If I don’t agree with what a person is saying I will tell them. I also accept that I was angry and irritated but not aggresive as the advisor stated was the reason why the interview was terminated there and then. Shortly afterwards, I asked to speak to somone and the manager had a brief chat with me. It was agreed that, going forward, it would be best if I didn’t see the same advisor and I was told I would be sent details of my next appointment.

The next day I handed in a letter to the Jobcentre in response to the previous day’s interview. Admittedly it was a bit feisty but it’s primary purpose was requesting for written confirmation of the investigation and the implications. A week later I attended my normal interview and nothing about the previous week or the investigation was discussed.

On Tuesday of this week, I went to withdraw my fortnightly benefit from the cash-point but found no money had been credited. I kind of guessed what was happening so headed home to ask my neighbour if I could use the phone (I do not have a landline and it’s rare for me to have calling credit on my phone as I can’t afford it).

I phoned the Jobcentre and asked why my money had not been credited to my Building Society account and was told a ‘sanction’ had been placed on my JSA benefit for not attending a ‘job opportunity’. I then asked for how long and the reply was until March 2012. I was a bit stunned and thought I had mis-heard. But no, the sanction is in fact for 6 months. I asked why I had not been informed about this and was informed a letter was in the post. I am not shocked easily but have to say I was absolutely flabbergasted and headed straight for the Jobcentre muttering ‘6 months, no money for 6 months’ all the way.

Upon arriving, I explained the situation and asked to speak to someone. I was offered a form to fill out but again said I wanted to speak someone. The advisor then went off to check my details and said my benefit had been stopped due to a sanction. I said I already knew that, and a bit of a heated discussion followed ending with me stating that I was going no-where until I had spoken to someone. Eventually it was arranged for me to talk to the manager.

Perhaps it is my bad memory but I cannot remember help/reception areas being so obstructive in the past. In general, it seems nowadays they are not gateways to information but hurdles you have to jump!

Anyway, I spoke to the manager who was now aware of the situation and said I had 4 beefs:
1) The fact that I had not received anything in writing
2) I had attended the factory open day
3) Why was I made to go for a job I couldn’t do anyway
4) How the hell am I going to survive without any money for the next 6 months
The manager trundled off and made several calls. The outcome was he was getting the matter re-considered but it was out of his hands. To be fair, as far as I know, he did all he could and he also gave me a JSA hardship claim form to fill out. I was advised that either the manager or another office would get back to me the next day. Neither did!

However I did receive a letter stating the following:

A CHANGE IN YOUR JOBSEEKER’S ALLOWANCE
We have looked at your claim following a recent change.
We cannot pay you Jobseekers Allowance from 16 September 2011.
We cannot award National Insurance contribution for this period.
We cannot pay you Jobseekers Allowance from 5 March 2012.

I am still none the wiser and shall be taking it up again on my next visit to the Jobcentre. I try my best to be sympathetic to the task Jobcentre staff have to do, but sometimes feel that some (by no means all) take their role with too much fervour and a little empathy wouldn’t go amiss.

I am now in the situation where I do not know whether I will receive any benefits for the next 6 months. I will be visiting my Town Hall to find out if my Housing Benefit will be paid, and if it isn’t I will most probably lose my Council flat.

I can assure anyone reading this I am not after sympathy. By hook or by crook I will survive but should it really have to come to that. It is aimed at those who do not have any experience of living on benefits to show what kind of things happen. You scrape day to day to exist or as normally happens your benefit runs out and then time stands still while you go hungry and cold. It most certainly is not all it’s cracked up to be!

More importantly and utterly disgusting is that people on Disability benefits have been persecuted for the last few years. I expect many have gone through similar to my experience and most probably worse. Make no mistake, the attack on their benefits has not just happened under the coalition. It seems when it comes to Disability benefits, governments of all persuassions want to slash and burn!

The figure I have seen bandied about is that 0.5% of all Disability benefit claims are fraudulent. So why on earth is a complete segment of society suffering such a persistent and vicious assault. Especially as many are unable, or do not have the resources, to fight back. It is shameful and we the people must stand in Solidarity and shout from the rooftops this must not be allowed to happen.

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