I’ve knocked ten minutes off my walk to the bus stop. I celebrated this minor achievement with the same arrogance, machismo and energy of Daley Thompson winning a second gold Olympic medal in 1984, except I didn’t flash my bum at Princess Anne
It might not seem much of an achievement to you but after nine months spent on a lumpy settee, followed by a few weeks of backache, this return to a natural, pain-free walking position is hard-earned.
More importantly on arrival at a dreaded destination, Job Centre Plus seems less threatening; the building doesn’t loom large as I walk down the street as if in some green and yellow nightmare. Once inside I don’t become a subservient mess desperately trying to look like I’m not a benefit cheat but instead another victim of mass unemployment.
I visited today. I arrived early thanks to beating my personal best in bus stop walking and had to wait in the haemorrhoid-coloured room, on a stained chair, reading the “psychological wellbeing” poster which seemed less significant, then the debt advice information which seemed less immediate: I remembered being overwhelmed by the offers of advice and little practical help.
I listened in to a man in his 20s who seemed new to the signing on experience.
“You’re not making the effort,” the adviser told him, a faint squeak in her voice which suggested frustration or nervousness.
He remained silent as I’ve found most do. He watched, waiting for her next comment, knowing it was entirely up to her to lead this conversation: signing on does not feel like a two-way street but an opportunity to be told what to do and prove you’ve done it.
“You’ve not provided a CV,” she squeaked on. “You’ve not completed your Looking for Work booklet.” When she didn’t receive a response she said: “No CV, no job search, no benefits.”
While I didn’t think this was much of a Jobcentre catchphrase, it did get the man squirming in his seat. “I’ve been ill,” he finally said. “When I was better I went to Job Club.”
“But they should help you with a CV. Then you bring that CV to me. Did they not help you?”
“When I went they told me it was the wrong day so I’m going next week.”
“I gave you the correct days. Wait, let me phone them and see what is going on.”
The man waited, calling her bluff then, just moments before she lifted the receiver, said: “Right, I might as well tell you. I didn’t go.”
I had to stifle a laugh. The adviser had to stifle a scream. The man shifted in his seat some more as if to leave.
“I’m not finished with you yet,” the adviser snapped, not the faintest squeak in her voice, and he sat still. “Do you warrant your benefits?”
Silence. I listened as the threats to stop his money continued and wondered why someone would fail to do the bare minimum. I’m told I no longer have to complete my Looking for Work booklet because I’m in part-time, temporary employment. I am, though, acutely aware that I have a Jobseekers’ Agreement which I’ve to commit to every time I sign on. I wouldn’t stop doing this no matter what a well-intended – or potentially dodgy – adviser told me.
This man, I overheard, had what were described as “basic skills issues” but the threat to a benefit ban continued. Jobcentre Plus makes you see life in all its miserable forms: people who can’t find work for lack of qualifications; the mentally-ill; those with learning difficulties; the marginalized; the excluded; the angry; the depressed. All signs of life under Tory rule are here.
Just listening to it is depressing – but to feel that sense of being herded, judged, written-off, to see boxes ticked and papers stamped as you sign on among others fed up of going through the motions is demoralising.
I look forward to the day when my employers pay me and I can sign off – albeit it temporarily. I also look forward to being paid so I can buy some food – my food money is now being spent on bus fares and topping up the gas meter so I can wash my work clothes.
I read that up to 400 workers could lose their jobs at a Kent steelworks with the recession taking 706,300 jobs across UK manufacturing: 119,000 in the West Midlands, 108,000 in the South East and 97,000 in the North West at 97,000.
I see that almost 23% of Spanish workers face unemployment as they too struggle in a global economic crisis brought about by the banks. Indeed, among the Eurozone member states the second highest unemployment rate is Greece (18.8 % in September 2011) followed by Lithuania (15.3 % in the third quarter of 2011). Eurostat estimates that 23.674 million men and women in the EU, of whom 16.372 million were in the euro area, were unemployed in November 2011.
I read this – mass unemployment and greedy bankers offered ridiculous pay-outs – and decide that the man not taking an interest when attending Jobcentre Plus is hard to condemn.
Food I have in until giro day: half a loaf; half a tin of beans; tins of chickpeas, hoummous, carrots and sweetcorn; a jar of sundried tomatoes; the remnants of a bag of oven chips; dregs at the bottom of a jam jar.
Hours I’ve worked in the past two weeks: 20