This post originally appeared in VICE UK
Good news: The old stereotypes of jobless people idling their days away in their underwear watching Top Gear reruns are long gone. Bad news: As supervised job search schemes and mandatory workfare programs have forced claimants to work for no wage, unemployment has become a full-time job, only without a pay slip at the end of the month.
Since November, the government has introduced the Pilot Supervised Job Search Scheme, where unemployed benefit claimants are expected to spend 35 hours a week searching for jobs inside the steamed-up windows of their local Jobcentre provider. Claimants are forced to sign an attendance register at 9 AM and search for jobs solidly until 5 PM, five days a week, for three months. If they fail to do so, sanctions will follow. Benefits will be cut.
After a late start, the pilot scheme is gradually being rolled out in East Anglia, West Yorkshire, Surrey, Sussex, Mercia and the Black Country. While the programme is only scheduled to run until March next year, if it is deemed a success by the Department for Work and Pensions, it will become nationwide. As the scheme runs its course, 6,000 claimants will be selected to participate. Jobseekers will be hand-picked based on two criteria: the first group will be aged between 18-24 and will have been claiming Jobseeker's Allowance for 20-24 weeks. The second batch will be over 25 and claiming for between 33-37 weeks.
Worcester—a place best known for its Lea & Perrins factory—is one of the areas where the Pilot Supervised Job Search Scheme is being put into practice. I spoke to 40-year-old Max Pheby, who has recently been placed on the Pilot Scheme. One week down and with 12 weeks of the program left, Pheby says he is already "bored to death."
"Every day I'm here from 9.30 until 4.30 with half an hour for lunch. On Mondays and Tuesdays you apply for all the jobs that are available and the rest of the week you just look busy or twiddle your thumbs."
Why is it felt that he isn't capable of looking for a job, alone, at home?
"Well, they obviously thought I wasn't doing it correctly," he says. "Not, of course, that there is a lack of jobs." So far, Pheby says he has received very little job advice at Worcester's LearnDirect center, where the program is being run. "The staff are incredibly busy. They're making endless phone calls, having shouting matches with the Jobcentre and are endlessly doing paperwork."
Despite it being 2014, claimants aren't granted access to printers or proper wi-fi. Instead, they are given dongles. Pheby brandishes his USB stick, laughing: "Not only do these dongle things get us online for cheap—all of our searching information goes on here and they're routinely checked!" There can be no idle YouTube searching, either—website usage is closely monitored during each supervised job search session. Pheby says Facebook is banned, that all outward emails are checked and that you have to ask permission to use Google. He thinks they might become short of computers, too, when more claimants arrive onto an already oversubscribed scheme.
The Pilot Supervised Job Search is unflinching in its rigidity. It claims to take into account "childcare/caring needs, such as lone parents or carers" but has failed to do so for Pheby. "I applied to have my hours restricted because I have to look after my elderly mother, but that wasn't considered a good enough excuse since she doesn't qualify for in-house care." Despite the fact that he is the sole carer of his mother, who has dementia, he stills has to attend the scheme every single day. "If I wasn't here all day, I'd do everything for her—do the shopping, make her lunch and dinner, just make sure she's OK. Now I have to leave her on her own all day." He's not allowed to leave a minute before 4.30 PM, either. "Our lives are worth so little to them that they think they can arbitrarily decide our time."
Pheby was last employed 18 months ago as an industrial cleaner. He strikes me as an astute man, one who spends his spare time building everything from furniture to computers and reading classic literature. Although there's less and less time for these things now that every day is spent at the center.
The oldest claimant in this particular pilot is an impressive 64 years old. Despite being just a year away from retirement, she is still expected to spend 35 hours a week on the pilot scheme in the meantime. Another older claimant selected for the scheme is Ray Crane. In his early 50s, Crane has spent most of his working life laboring and working in warehouses. Due to a lack of local jobs, he has recently relied on agencies to gain work, procuring several days of laboring at his local university and a nearby nursery in the last eight weeks. Nonetheless, Crane was selected for the pilot scheme. "I cannot see how they're going to make us sit down for five days a week in there. I still can't believe we have to be there for a full day on Christmas Eve," he says.
"I applied to have my hours restricted because I have to look after my elderly mother, but that wasn't considered a good enough excuse since she doesn't qualify for in-house care."
In the end, it seems that searching for jobs all day, all week, for quarter of a year, may be more counter-productive than effectual. Claimants like Crane and Pheby might be able to produce more applications, but they can't magically create jobs that don't exist. In just an afternoon of conversations with these people, the tension and frustration was palpable. They felt patronized and, crucially, utterly unmotivated. Forget any Paul Dacre headline about benefit fraudsters—there is nothing cushy about being unemployed under the current Coalition government.
It's hard to see this scheme—which increasingly feels like a farcical joke—as not setting its claimants up to fail. Pheby's ability to eat, drink, get around and heat his home now depends on it. If he switches off his alarm clock one morning and decides he can't face a day in the center, or has to call in sick because he's picked up norovirus, he might lose his benefits.
Across the UK, the amount of claimants receiving sanctions and losing their benefits has been consistently rising since October 2012, when the DWP issued a tougher policy on sanctions. The new sanctions regime increased the minimum sanction from a week to a month and the maximum length of a sanction to three whole years. The new rules meant that claimants could see their benefits cut for a number of reasons, including failure to partake in a mandatory workfare program, leaving a job or program with no good reason, missing a sign-on session or even arriving late.
Under the coalition, the annual number of Jobseeker Allowance and Employment Support Allowance sanctions has almost doubled. In the last quarter of 2013, 227,629 people were sanctioned—that's 69,600 more than in the equivalent quarter in 2012. Still, the spokesperson who took my call at the Department for Work and Pensions says: "It's only right that we look at new ways to target support to people who are finding it difficult to get a job. The supervised job search pilots are all up and running in selected areas in the country and, if they are successful, the changes may be rolled out further."
But it's the sanctions that Pheby and others I spoke to believe is the whole point of this scheme: "T hey put as many hoops in the way so the people that they consider don't absolutely need the money will drop out."
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