Monday, 3 August 2009

The New Face of 'Signing On'

To some degree despite my interest in a range of issues, this blog, like most, has also reflected developments in my life. It has had stuff about mean landlords and greedy councils and the travails of the employer who made me redundant on Friday. It has shown my continued failure at interviews and the poor way so many of them are organised anyway. Now, today I am officially unemployed for the first time since the Summer of 1993. I was interested to see how claiming unemployment benefit, now termed the Jobseekers' Allowance has changed. After being unemployed I actually ended up working in a job centre for over a year so saw the process from two sides. I left just as the final step of the evolution was proceeding. Even in the early 1990s job centres were different places to what was then called the DSS (Department of Social Security) offices where the 13 other benefits aside from unemployment benefit, were claimed. The job centre was open plan and had carpets; the DSS had bleak rooms with furniture fixed to the floor and staff behind thick glass.

I went to my local job centre today and found it similar to the one I had stopped working in 1994. The technology has advanced, there are touch screens to access things. You are welcomed at the door as if going into a branch of Pizza Hut. Then I found out that you do not make a claim, as the process is still known, physically, you have to telephone first and go through a 40-minute interview. I actually found this easier than tackling someone face-to-face, though I have that element later this week. The face-to-face interview is only for me to confirm that what has been written about me is accurate and for me to bring evidence for what I am saying. Unsurprisingly given the populist concern about immigrants and employment in the UK, there were lots of questions about my nationality, despite the fact they took my National Insurance number at the start. So, the experience was very much like it would be in any other service sector location, if I went to a chain restaurant or my building society. I suppose that should be unsurprising. Of course, a lot of it is not about appealing to claimants, but to employers. Employers tended to view job centres as places where the failures went and a location that they were unlikely to find suitable candidates. Low-paying employers, conversely, saw it as a location where they could pick up cheap workers. I remember the restaurant chain Fatty Arbuckles complaining in 1993 because it had had only 4 applicants for posts in its restaurant in the town where I worked. They went on the local radio station whining that locals were lazy and preferred to 'scrounge' than work, despite the highish level of unemployment with the early 1990s recession just coming to an end. The rate of pay they were offering was £2.14 per hour (worth about £3.14 now compared to the minimum wage of £5.73 per hour) and you would have had to work an hour to cover your bus fare in from many of the villages. So, job centres evolved to look more like employment agencies. I noted the other day that a high-level company I applied for asked if I had seen the vacancy at a job centre (or Job Centre Plus) to give it, its full title, which to me suggested that they had succeeded in winning over employers.

Of course, the bulk of people who claimed at job centres were never lazy. In periods of full employment in the 1960s only about 35-70,000 people remained unemployed and I imagine that if we had full employment now the figure would probably not top 150,000. The rest of people claiming want to work and try very hard to get a job. A lot of unemployment is always 'transitional' even in periods of relatively high unemployment, a lot of people are without work because they are between jobs rather than starting a long period with no work at all. Of course, the pattern varies greatly regionally, but people forget how much work is seasonal and needs workers who can move from it to something else. Of course, with the cost of living in the UK being so high compared to in neighbouring states, it is almost impossible to build up savings to tide people over this transitional phase and without unemployment benefit you would see real hardship. You see hardship as it is, no-one is going to get rich claiming benefit, despite the myths put around by lazy newspapers. No-one seems to go after the tax evaders. In my personal experience a tax dodger owes the state £4000, you would have to be claiming benefit for almost two years to come close to that level of money from the state. Somehow, if you manage to dodge taxes you are a folk hero; yet even those claiming benefit legitimately are too often still seen as pariahs.

Being unemployed does not mean you should be compelled to forget all dignity and totally abase yourself and work for pitiful wages, without rights or in poor conditions. Of course, that was the line of the Thatcherites, and I remember being told repeatedly in the late 1980s that people claiming benefits should not be permitted to have a television. There was a real strain of thinking that harked back to the sense of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. Benefit offices were very much like Nonconformist chapels in those days, set up to make people feel guilty for claiming anything and that they should be very grateful and humble for anything they did get; that they should give up everything of any light or pleasure in exchange for the small sums they received. I see some of this attitude amongst the public today, usually targetted at drug addicts and immigrants, but there are still the enduring myths that 'Jane Smith, she has five kids and the government pays her mortgage, she never even tries to find work'. These myths endure. Having worked in benefits offices and a tax office, I know that the state will cut off anyone getting anything they are not entitled to at a shot and will try to reclaim it immediately. Why do people think that if they are not getting a particular benefit other people are somehow getting it and far more generously than them? I suppose it is an element of human nature to always be envious, especially in Britain where moaning is a sport.

Given that we are returning to the high levels of unemployment we last saw in the 1980s, I hope people begin to realise this time, that the bulk of people who are unemployed hate the situation they are in. With companies laying off staff in their thousands, the majority of people in job centres will not be the durg addicts, but ordinary people, who given a quarter of a chance would be working. Losing your job dents your self respect. It leads to many sacrifices. This is bad enough without people telling you that you are lazy or are scrounging or stealing. There are lazy people, but as the weeks go by they become a smaller and smaller fraction of the millions out of work. Looking for a job, applying for jobs, attending interviews is time consuming and not without both financial and emotional costs. I hope that in part the approach of job centres in the late 2000s helps to normalise and certainly humanise the experience of being unemployed. People feel bad enough when without work, making them feel guilty simply reduces human dignity further and people who feel they have nothing either turn against society or turn against themselves and that is not what you need. The recession will come to an end. Despite the prophecies of the end of capitalism, it has been through worse situations than this. When it ends, do you want a workforce who have been so hammered while out of work that they have no self-respect, no initiative, no ambition? I know many employers like that, but that is one reason why we got into this mess in the first place.

No doubt, I will see how much I get made a pariah and how well I weather the burden of being unemployed. However, I must say the job centre approach prevailing currently, already is making me feel a bit better than it did back in the 1990s.

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