Loveable and Capable

Posted on March 6, 2011

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Abdel Moneim Riyadh Square | Hossam el-Hamalawy

Compulsory voluntary work is set to becomes a permanent fixture in our welfare system. Dave Riddle gives a first hand account of being put in place(ment).

I have been referred to Working Links, my local (part private, part government- funded) “employment provider”. I am expected to attend from 9:30am until 4pm, Monday to Friday without fail; otherwise my benefits will be suspended.

The first few days were spent in workshops: motivational training (‘IALAC’ – “I Am Loveable And Capable”); improving your CV colour from red to green (analogical to the traffic light code); and cold-calling (speculatively phoning potential employers for jobs they don’t have). For these first few days, I sat like a school kid waiting for the lunch bell, unresponsive and insolent.

However, I then started to realise that the Working Links staff ‘consultants’ did in many ways want to help me get work. And not, as I had suspected, just as disguised government agents trying to force me into badly paid retail jobs. Many of the consultants at Working Links had themselves been ‘long-term unemployed’ (2 years or more), and their first jobs after this period were in Jobcentres or recruitment agencies.

One method used to get people back into work is to find them a “voluntary placement”. Voluntary labour is quite rightly getting a lot of negative media attention at the moment, as David Cameron slashes public sector jobs only to force this newly unemployed workforce into the voluntary sector (the Big Society). But there is also a positive side to voluntary labour, as a way of easing particularly the long- term unemployed and young people with no experience to put on their CVs back into work. Voluntary work can be good for the long-term unemployed who may have become depressed, socially isolated perhaps, and quite hopeless. When you are unemployed for a long time, you kind of forget what working was like, especially on the level of routine – getting up early, being out all day, living a separate daily life from one’s partner/family. Voluntary work can also be a creative and liberating experience; you choose to give your time to something you’re interested in (of course, compulsory voluntary work is an absurd oxymoron, a perfect example of Orwell’s Newspeak).

After the failure of my own attempts to find work after graduating in 2009 (with a 2:1 in Philosophy, from Warwick University – a prestigious member of the Russell group no less), after my “gateway” period (the time you are given on the dole to find work yourself), I have opted for the subsidised work-placement option and will soon begin working as a literacy and numeracy tutor for Springboard, Hackney. This will involve working 25 hours a week, for a minimum of eight weeks, for nothing, not even bus fare.

The person I can thank for finding me this placement is a man known within Working Links as “The King”. While working at the Jobcentre, King claims to have “discovered” work placements as a great way of getting the long-term jobseekers back into work. This, however, created tensions at the Jobcentre between King and his colleagues, as he was spending more time with individuals and this contradicted the unwritten “speed-sign” policy, an integral part of the conveyor-belt approach to welfare. Eventually, after months of hassle, King found a job at Working Links and left the Jobcentre.

I was told another story about a consultant at a competing “employment provider” which operates much more in line with the new Conservative approach to welfare. After refusing to apply for a number of jobs suggested to him, a “client” was told that his benefits would be suspended for three months as a consequence of “failing to carry out a reasonable jobseeker’s direction” (see http://www.benefitsnow.co.uk on “sanctions”). The client returned the next day with a cup full of his own urine and threw it in the consultant’s face. I think that this is an understandable reaction to a “sanction” that will deprive this person of his – and possibly his family’s – only means of living.

Posted in: 2. Ed Zero