Labour has pledged to end exploitative zero-hours contracts, a policy that I’m sure any working class person can get behind. This commitment should now be the start of a conversation about how we treat people who are trying to find and keep work.
I had a zero-hours lecturing contract with a college which guaranteed me some hours for 4 weeks. It was an excellent opportunity, I got to do something really worthwhile and I met some brilliant people. Having been a student for the previous five years, however, I had accrued some pretty hefty commercial debt. This job meant I had no idea whether or not I would be able to pay my credit card minimum payments and direct debits.
So I went online to DirectGov. In the weeks that I didn’t receive any pay, I would be entitled to JobSeekers Allowance up to £73.10 a week. When you think about it, this doesn’t really sound like I had a job.
I filled out an extensive form online about my situation and had the date and time of my first appointment text to me. There was no discussion about when it would be.
When I went to that appointment, I was greeted by two security guards who took my name and told me which waiting area to sit in. Some people in the waiting area were crying, some people had buggies with them, some were just sitting there, staring into space.
The things I remember from that initial appointment are:
- The flyers for Army recruitment on the desk next to me
- The fact that public policy, social policy and public affairs were not recognised on the computer as actual job fields. So after working hard to become the first person in my family to ever get a degree, I still landed on Computer Says No.
- The rules about what I had to do to prove I was looking for a job.
The warnings about doing my admin/keeping to times and dates/filling out the forms for people on zero-hours contracts were really clear from the start. It seemed like a lot of work for no work. If I didn’t do what was in my JobSeekers contract (non-negotiable, already written) my case would be sent to the “DECISION MAKER”. They would decide if I was to be sanctioned and how long for. They could decide if I got no money for two weeks, eight weeks, eternity…
I was never told if the DECISION MAKER was a human being, a piece of software or a branded Magic 8 Ball. I didn’t know where the DECISION MAKER was based and I didn’t know how I would get in touch with them. The DECISION MAKER was a bogeyman who dealt only in absolutes. They would make the final decision about sanctions and that would be that. In my current job, I hear from young people about the devastating effect of sanctions. I see the devastating effects of making someone feel hopeless and powerless. And I feel ashamed that we’re letting it happen.
Elections often see welfare boiled down to a bottom line. It’s easier for us to deal with the idea that people who need to claim JobSeekers allowance just aren’t like us. That’s probably why we have let how people are treated in the Jobcentre get so bad.
Being greeted by security guards, having decisions made about us when we aren’t in the room by a powerful noun, constantly having to prove we aren’t on the make. It’s dehumanising and not how I want people looking for a job to feel every single week. As a country, we need people to be happy and confident in the workplace. We can’t afford to spend weeks and months making people feel like nothing.
Labour has to lead the charge on this because only Labour can. I’d ask people using the Jobcentre how they’d like to be helped into work. I’d stress the importance of relationship based practice to staff. And I’d make a serious decision about the decision maker.