By Paul Jon Milne
Paul Jon Milne’s art can be found on http://cargocollective.com/pauljonmilne, and his surreal exploration of unemployment, revolution and fighting games can be found on facebook.
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.
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“It just strikes me that these schemes, whatever guise they come under, are not thought through and do not work without the cooperation of local business.”
Andy, that’s right, but how would you get local businesses involved if they don’t think it’s viable?
A friend and I run a small business where we can’t afford to take staff on, so we end up doing all the hours ourselves cos it’d cost us too much to pay someone else otherwise, it always seemed like a good idea to get someone in for a work placement so I looked into it a wee while ago, in a lot of ways we were the kind of place people would want to work at (even though the reality of it is not that glorious), and we’d be happy to provide references, or even possibly part-time work afterwards if it turned out the person helped us build things up, but when I realised people were actually forced onto those schemes rather than volunteering I started having doubts, cos what’s the point of having someone work for you if they feel it’s punishment, they’re not likely to have the right attitude, are they?!
In the end, a chance encounter led us to a local scheme that gives teenagers (16 to 19) who are not currently studying or employed the chance to get a 6-month work placement, which they get paid for by the council!
It sounded perfect, the ones we were introduced to all seemed to have an interest in what we do in the first place, and we thought that because it was something they’d applied for themselves, and they were getting paid for it (more than we were getting ourselves!), it would be mutually beneficial, and 6 months was enough time to warrant teaching them things that are only gonna be worthwhile in the long term…
Unfortunately, out of 3 we’ve had this year, only one completed his placement (and then got offered part-time work not by ourselves but by a business linked to us), the other 2 dropped out within a month or so, they’d consistently failed to show up for work, and when we raised the issue with the person in charge of the scheme and they got called up on it, they took the easy option of dropping out.
In the end, I think we’ve just been unlucky, my colleague thinks differently and now wants a break from such work placements, as it just meant more work for us with the ones that didn’t work out (the first month or so when we have to spend so much time with them just showing them things), with nothing in return. At the same time, I try and point out how much money the one placement that worked out saved us…
Anyway, one thing I will now bear in mind, is that if we have problems with people who’ve specifically asked to do their work placement with us and get paid for it for 6 months yet somehow manage to fuck it up, how would we fare with people who are being forced and don’t get paid for it? We’re probably better off just doing the work ourselves in the first place!
I too, had to do the same course. I too, had to go to the same charity.
On arrival I was told to wait as the manager had disappeared. An hour later he arrived and without apology, took me upstairs to review the Health and Safety Book. I sat there, on my own, for a further 45 minutes, as I read through and completed the associated form.
Unlike you, I was shown the till and was given the job of data inputting the Gift Aid forms. Whilst doing that, the manager appeared with his mobile laughing. He showed me the screen and said, “Great tits, fuckin’ ell”. He was looking at ratemybreasts.com or some similar site… by the time he had stopped laughing he had shown the pictures to all the people working in the shop. In front of customers!
The afternoon carried on along those lines. I was given a tea break, where I took my chance to leave the shop. I informed my advisor the following day and was told I didn’t have to do anymore work experience with them. It took them 8 weeks to find another place, so it all turned out to be a waste of time. After thirteen weeks of getting the extra fifteen quid a week, I had done precisely 6 days of voluntary work.
For me, one of the frustrations was I wanted to do the voluntary work for a business I knew would be beneficial to what I had learnt at uni, but was not allowed under the grounds of health and safety.
It just strikes me that these schemes, whatever guise they come under, are not thought through and do not work without the cooperation of local business. Charities therefore, have to fill the shortfall, which while good for them, is not necessarily beneficial to the ‘client’.
I could go on but I’ve lost my track. I hope things have got better for you since writing this.
I very much enjoyed your article and empathise as I’ve been through a similar experience.
The ignorant and frankly annoying comments here about “how is it free if you’re getting benefit” make me want to find the contributors and poke them in the eye!
Benefit is paid as a universal right. Its paid because society and I contribute in taxes to help people in times of need. It is not a wage, if it were it would be illegal according to minimum wage legislation.
Its actually slave labour, and in a so called free society I do not want to see, or sanction slavery!
As Kristin says – the taxpayer are funding you so you aren’t doing anything for ‘free’.
I don’t approve of minimum wage, living wage, voluntary work or enforced work – so I am with you on the rest of what you say.
But while it exists, its a shame I can’t get hold of some of you slaves to do my garden etc… 🙂
I was in a similar situation a while back, where I was sent to work at a credit union. I did however have to operate the till’s and handle money every day… However, after a 30 minute crash course all the paid staff went to the managers office for a meeting, leaving me on my own on my first day.
I was also condescended too a lot, I didn’t mind working for nothing too much because I was hoping it would lead to a full time job, I just didn’t like the fact they took the piss out of me.
When I wasn’t doing my work, I was doing there work, when I wasn’t doing there work I was going to the shop for them or making them tea.
I was however asked to escort a highly ranked member of staff (female) to the bank to deposit the previous days taking, that gave me a little time away from the boring day.
Sometimes the manager would use my account to deal with her friends money and not do any paper work or tell me about it so my till was down hundreds of pounds on those days which always annoyed me to no end.
Anyway, loved your story, I can really relate to what you’ve been through, I also checked our your art and rather enjoyed looking at that too .
Hope you get things sorted, good luck!
I’m probably being really stupid and failing to grasp the fundamentals of Jobseeker’s Allowance. But if you’re getting money then how are you working for free?
I was unemployed when the New Deal scheme first kicked in. For me, getting out of the house was what I needed, and the extra fifteen quid was welcome. I even got a bus pass that gave me 80%/50% discounts on the local bus companies.
Luckily, I was placed with a newly formed project specifically set up to help unemployed people, but I was aware that other people that had chosen the voluntary sector “option” didn’t fare so well.
The problems I found was that there was the SVQ qualifications on offer were geared towards those who’d left school with little or nothing. The level 2 IT course (Word, Excel, etc.) was a waste of time for me, and even more insulting when the £15/h bank tutor kept coming to me for answers.
I think that these courses are, in theory, a good idea, but they need to focus on the needs of the individual and have a long-term goal rather than just getting someone off benefits in the short-term. Sadly that’s something we won’t get with the ConDems.
I finished a New Deal course a few weeks ago (one of the last intakes to run).On it I found myself in the rather odd position of being sent to work at one of the Wise Group’s sub contractors, who also ran New Deal programs, where it was my job to do exactly what they were doing to us – bully people into jobsearch and send them out on shit placements. Needless to say, my heart wasn’t really in it.