By Paul Jon Milne
Trundling through the life of the long-term unemployed, I find myself having to put up with a lot of ridiculous nonsense from the Jobcentre (sorry, ‘Jobcentre Plus’). In the past, I’ve been sent on ludicrous“League of Gentlemen”-style Jobseeker courses, and I’ve toiled on the New Deal for Musicians and some sort of self-employment course, exercises in buying time so the Dole don’t do what you’ve heard about and fear, but don’t truly believe will happen, which is: force you to work for nothing.
Back in 2008, I found myself having to do just that.
Sent along to what I was under the impression was a generic“let’s polish up the turd that’s your CV and spend hours on the internet for nothing”2-week course, I wasn’t in the best of moods, but I at least had an understanding of what was in store, and could steel myself accordingly. Sadly, I’d just begun taking medication for Obsessive/Compulsive disorder and was feeling the full brunt of the side effects, sweating a hideous amount and feeling like I would vomit whenever I yawned (which was often, due to the medication also making me tired).
Further panic started to set in when the advisor (or whatever their official title was) handed out sheets to all the unfortunate souls there. On the sheet was a list of potential places of work, mostly charity shops and warehouses, and we had to tick three or four we’d be interested in having a placement at (or, as was the case, the three or four that seemed the least terrible).
Having chosen the stand-out and actually-possibly-good option of a placement at a video editing place, and some charity shops as last resorts, I handed in my form, then sat twiddling my thumbs until I got called through to see another advisor.
I was informed that the video editing placement no longer existed and shouldn’t have been on the form, and that the first two charity shop placements I’d chosen were already filled, and so I was given the British Heart Foundation (my last choice).
The deal was I’d be working there nine to five, four days a week, with the other day spent in the building I was currently in, doing ‘jobsearch’. I’d be doing all this for my usual Jobseeker’s Allowance, plus a cool fifteen quid to spend on travel expenses. I was to start the following Monday.
I spent the weekend beforehand sulking and feeling very sorry for myself. I was living with my parents at the time, and I kept the whole ‘forced volunteering’ thing a secret until the morning I started the placement, as I felt humiliated and worthless, and couldn’t bring myself to mention it for fear of making it ‘real’.
Declining a lift to the charity shop, I elected instead to embark upon the hour-long walk, in order to have some thinking time, and hopefully work through some of my frustration so I could at least present myself to my new bosses and workmates as a cheery, likable individual.
However, by the time I got there, I was drenched with sweat due to the medication, which acted as quite the knock to my confidence (no first impression as a louche hipster for me!), and was also thoroughly knackered from the walk, which did not serve me well when I immediately had to help load many heavy bags full of clothes onto a delivery truck, with no time for introductions. The fact I was in a shirt and tie didn’t help.
After this was over, I met the manager, who seemed nice enough, and the assistant manager, who was probably nice but it was hard to tell due to her not seeming to understand that myself and the other workers in the same situation were not there as punishment for some crime, and were in fact doing the shop a massive favour by helping out. All day. For free.
I have no problem with the idea of working in a charity shop, and can see the good points. It’s good work experience, you get to meet people (though I don’t really like that aspect what with the anxiety disorder and all), it keeps you moderately fit, you get to aid a charity. Sadly, these plus points are hard to focus on when you’re not there by choice.
Most of my time there over the next thirteen weeks was spent lifting heavy bags up and down two flights of stairs, trying my best to be upbeat and positive, or at least to view the whole situation with some degree of gallows humour.
Life on the scrapheap, eh? At least I got first dibs on buying any cool stuff that was handed in to the shop, and on occasion the Nice Boss would let us workers keep any item that was going to be thrown out (the sheer amount of perfectly good stuff that was going to be thrown out was quite an eye-opener. I dread to think of the genre fiction and cardigans that were disposed of when I wasn’t there to save them!).
Sometimes we’d get to go home early, too, which was great until I remembered I shouldn’t actually be there in the first place.
Sadly, none of the perceived good points could shield me from the knowledge that what I was doing was chiefly manual labour for free in a place where I was regularly treated with something less than respect, where I had been patronisingly shown how to shelve books in alphabetical order by someone who spoke to me as if I was a child, where my co-workers would regularly espouse rank bigotry, and I would feel so demoralised and useless that I would do nothing to challenge it.
Unemployment’s not great for the old self-esteem at the best of times, but being forced to work for nothing, while doing a job that gives you a lot of time to focus on your lowly societal status and disgusting moral cowardice is not exactly the greatest confidence booster in the world.
After a few weeks, however, I started to settle in to my miserable new status quo. In fact, I’d been working so well that the Good Boss assured me she’d give me a great reference, should I need one.
I was not actively dreading work each morning, I was talking to the staff, and I was pathetically grateful for any praise I received (once again, unemployment’s not great for self-esteem). The Bad Boss was actually seeming okay, and I was spending less time staring into space, gritting my teeth and trying not to punch a wall/burn myself with the steamer/openly weep.
These Glory Days were not to last, however, as one Monday I got into the charity shop to find out the bosses had been fired for reasons that were never really explained (there were some rumours about after-hours partying on the premises, as well as stealing from the till, the former of which I believe, the latter of which I do not). Replacing them was the area manager, who was, to be kind, sort of a jerk.
Gone were the perks of going home early, being treated with vague respect, and getting the odd free thing that was going to be chucked out, to be replaced with relentless hard work with little acknowledgement or thanks for the free labour we were providing, and bizarre, expensive prices for things that were worth very little.
Worst of all, when I asked for a reference, I was told this particular charity shop didn’t give references.
So what was the point of working there? The whole pretence of the placement was that it’d aid me in gaining future employment, but I was to get no reference, and I wasn’t even learning any transferable skills – people sent there by the Dole weren’t allowed to operate the till (apparently we’re basically all common criminals), which is one thing I would actually like to have learned how to do.
My overall experience of my period of forced volunteering at the charity shop is one of hideous negativity and resentment. It was thirteen weeks of my life I will never get back, where I gained nothing but increased feelings of post-adolescent, post-higher education self-hatred, misery, and obsolescence. Instead of making me more suitable for joining the working world, it made me feel less suited for and capable of working a‘real’ job than ever.
That was a few years ago.
The ‘good news’, however, is that the ludicrous ‘course’ I am currently on (weekly CV-polishing and looking for jobs that don’t exist) has been cancelled halfway through, as Labour’s ‘New Deal’ programme ends, and the Coalition government’s plans for the unemployed kick in. I expect to find out next week whether I have been fast-tracked to visit whatever private company handles the current version of the forced volunteering programme (or whatever it’s called).
My Jobcentre Plus advisor will no doubt report this news to me with an apologetic tone (they seem to know it’s a worthless course, a punishment for having no job, something to lower the unemployment figures as you don’t actually count as ‘unemployed’ on these things for some reason), and I’ll die a little more inside.
I’ll try to put a brave face on it, eh?
At least this time I’ll know what I’m in for.