So you’ve probably already heard about the WorkFare furore, mostly surrounding Tesco’s recent advert for unpaid night work. I was quite horrified when I saw it, not necessarily because of the “slave labour” aspect that seemed to have angered a lot of people, but because of the ridiculousness of one of Britain’s biggest commercial companies receiving a government-subsidised workforce. Why should the taxpayer fork out for the wages of staff that Tesco don’t want to pay? I say “wages” whilst fully acknowledging the irony. Job Seekers Allowance + expenses isn’t exactly something a person could live on, a fact which would be cruelly highlighted by making them work alongside people on an actual salary. In fact, I honestly have no idea how anyone survives purely on JSA, I know I didn’t.
Back in 2009 I was made redundant after 6 years of working for the same company. I bloody loved that job, and I met some of my best friends (and some of the worst examples of humanity) whilst working there. It was my first proper job after moving to Portsmouth, and even though I was there to maintain the IT equipment I was given the job title of “marketing assistant” because the company’s owners were troglodytes who didn’t believe in technology and they certainly wouldn’t agree with paying someone a salary to mess around with it. My initial duties were to reboot the servers every time they failed, but that got boring very quickly so I elected to build a new network from scratch- a hugely satisfying task.
There were a lot of major changes to the company whilst I worked there, one of which involved being ditched by the parent which meant that I could finally attain the job title of “IT Support” without offending anyone. Other changes included facing liquidation a few times, and when the administrators swarmed in 2009 it was made final.
My fondest memory of that place was probably my 21st birthday. I was presented with a birthday cake, and then carried from my desk in the office through to the factory, and ceremoniously dumped (as was the tradition) into the test tank (a large tank of stale water); only a fool failed to bring a change of clothes to work on their birthday.
My oddest memories are from the final weeks when we were having to sneak in and out of the building via the fire escape to avoid the bailiff (who had been camping out at the front door) from serving notice to any one of us. Then there was the day they forced entry and changed the locks, so instead of going to work that morning, we all convened in the nearby supermarket car park for a crisis meeting. It snowed on my last day.
The ending of the company was quite messy, and because it was technically bankrupt I had to claim my final month’s salary from the government, via the administrators. I was also told that in order to claim my statutory redundancy pay of £1,349.36 I would have to go and register for JSA (for the first time in my life). Having never been “unemployed” before, this was a hugely alien concept, and I was quite nervous. I walked into the Job Centre, and before I made it through the second set of automatic doors I was almost knocked over by a very angry man who was too busy shouting abuse over his shoulder to look where he was going. I spoke to the receptionist, who was flanked by two security guards (none of whom seemed bothered by angry-man) and she gave me the forms I needed and told me where to wait.
When I eventually got to speak to an “advisor” she issued me with a log book (to enter all my job-seeking activities) and asked about my work experience and what I was looking for. When I told her I would do pretty much anything, she raised her eyebrows and said “Well I’ll put you down for IT roles, and if nothing comes up in 6 weeks, we’ll broaden the search a bit”. 6 weeks?! I didn’t want to spend 6 weeks wasting time when I could be earning money, so I asked her why I couldn’t do less specialised work whilst looking for my ideal job, and she told me that wasn’t how it worked.
I was livid.
I was even more livid when she told me I’d have to quit my college course as it meant I wasn’t “available to work”. At that point in time my highest qualifications were GCSEs, which meant that I was unable to apply for particular jobs, regardless of my experience, so in September 2008 I started an Access course, which is a sort of A-Level equivalent for people like me who might want to do a degree in the future. But apparently these 12 hours a week (9am-12pm Mon & Weds, plus 6pm-9pm Mon) were a huge barrier to my employability and all higher education would have to cease.
I found this completely abhorrent, especially bearing in mind I had just been told that I was to limit my job seeking to IT roles, and that they regarded “job seeking” as “looking through the Situations Vacant section of Thursday’s paper”. I had already fulfilled that week’s job seeking requirements by sending 7 job applications off before leaving home for the Job Centre appointment.
Needless to say, I didn’t quit my course.
All this pissing around for £60 a week, because apparently I didn’t qualify for housing or council tax benefit as I had only just lost my job. Sixty fucking quid. And 3 weeks in they cancelled it and I had to go through the application process all over again because I had the audacity to do 16.5 hours temp work! Didn’t make that mistake again.
Luckily for me I managed to find a fantastic IT support job (without the help of the Job Centre) just as my redundancy payment ran out, but my 8 weeks of unemployment taught me a lot about the “benefits” system in this country; the main lesson being that the only way to actually “benefit” is to play the system. I didn’t want to sign on in the first place but was forced to in order to claim my redundancy payment which amounted to just over one month’s wages. If I hadn’t been entitled to any redundancy payment, say, if I had only worked for the company for 18 months, then I have no idea how I would have coped on the £371.65 of JSA I claimed in total.
I’m not trying to sound like a victim at all; as I said, I managed to get a really great job in a lovely company and because it was so well timed, I didn’t go hungry or stupidly overdrawn, but that was no thanks to the Job Centre. I genuinely have no idea how normal people cope in these situations; and I really don’t know how I would have reacted if I had been told to quit my college course so that I could stack shelves in Tesco for £60 a week.