There are interesting parallels to be drawn between the
DWP's ongoing administration of benefit sanctions and the disciplinary action taken against
the Foreign Office cleaners who dared to ask the Minister for a pay rise.
As noted here,
the so-called 'warning' being introduced by the DWP as part of its sanctions
regime is really just an extension of the existing ‘mandatory reconsideration’
period. In Duncan Smith's words, "During this time, claimants will have another opportunity to provide further evidence to explain their non-compliance." This has been reported as a softening of the DWP line, but if anything it will further
strengthen it, normalising sanctions while giving outsiders the impression that
they are now 'fair' i.e. that some people deserve
to be sanctioned. Spinning an overdue appeals mechanism (58% of sanction decisions are already overturned) as a 'yellow card' is
a PR conjuring trick. The intimidation of claimants, expected to produce this
'evidence' on top of all the other absurd 'jobseeking' duties, will continue;
only now, if the sanction is finally imposed a claimant can be blamed for not working
hard enough to prove their innocence or justify their 'non-compliance'.
Similarly, after sending their collective letter to the Foreign Secretary asking to be paid the London Living Wage, each of the outsourced cleaners
at the FCO received a generic reply from the Operations Manager of contractor
Interserve, requesting their attendance at an "Investigation Meeting". The
investigation regarded "allegations that have been made referring to your
conduct in the workplace", specifically "bringing the contract into
The meeting, the letter explains, would be "your opportunity
to voice your version of events" prior to a formal disciplinary hearing,
if the company decided to call one, at a later date. Again the quasi-legal language is
designed to intimidate while being vague about any specific offence (the
manager's mistake was of course to enclose a copy of the workers'
letter, making the connection too clear).
From the institutional point of view, the fear that such
ominous correspondence raises in the precarious claimant or worker is punishment and deterrent enough - for organising against low pay or communicating beyond the
outsourced ghetto, for declining an ostensibly optional 'work-related activity'.
These institutions (government, private contractor, welfare-to-work
provider, welfare department), which distribute huge, disproportionate powers
among themselves in an inversion of the collectivity they stamp on, can dance across
the arbitrary line between formal and informal discipline as it suits them, especially
in response to negative publicity, but the language and the potential outcome
remain the same.
For these distant authorities there was obviously something about
the workers' jointly written letter which had called their conduct (and the
contract) into question, but exactly what, or how, could not be admitted or spelt
out. Speaking interchangeably, practically as one entity, Hammond and Interserve both later announced that
the "matter" had been "investigated" and no disciplinary action had been taken. Their statements blithely carried on the suggestion that the matter under investigation was the conduct of the cleaners rather than
These investigatory, evidence-giving periods are ways for
the state and its corporate allies to eliminate dissent by creating
vast Kafkaesque paradisciplinary grey areas which can later be said by
officials not to have existed. Asking for a pay rise triggers an "opportunity"
to explain your "conduct"; a sanction threat brings an "opportunity" to explain
It turns out then that these pronouncements from on high are indeed warnings, but their true meaning
cannot be acknowledged by the organisations that issue them, respectful as they supposedly are of welfare and
employment law. These paradisciplinary processes are interpellative admonitions
from the corporate state to its subjects (not just those directly
addressed, but all of us) about compliance and correct conduct. While 'opportunities'
to prepare one's defence are built into such trials, innocence can never
be proven, as it rests on a form of compliance which is ultimately not
legal but ideological. The obedient claimant/employee is required to act out
the myth that unemployment is an individual, not a structural matter, and that
poverty is similarly a matter of individual choices, not collective repression.
These must be portrayed as crimes or tragedies of personal conduct, not of class
Some of my earliest memories of my dad involve watching him mowing the garden, seeing him up a ladder banging nails into the side of the house, or hearing him clanging and swearing underneath a car long into the night. Somewhat ambivalently, and, as it turns out, naively, I imagined that if I ever became a responsible adult similar duties awaited me.
How wrong could I be? In today’s UK Plc, where gardening, driving and DIY are largely bourgeois pursuits, I’ve calculated that I spend about the same amount of time on the internet that my dad used to spend on all these domestic chores. My partner probably clocks up as many hours travelling to and from work as my mum did at work. And as for cooking, well, put it this way, there’s more Bake-Off than actual baking going on.
Yes, our parents' generation may have owned their homes or lived in long-term council houses, had recognisable jobs and made proper food; but did they have the opportunity to develop their own personal brands or experience the rollercoaster of privatised train travel? And were their lives emptier or fuller as a result?
We have gone from maintaining the world to maintaining ourselves, with the world as a sort of dimly acknowledged desktop background. My dad had a workshop where he kept all manner of implements, pieces of wood and nails and screws of various sizes in drawers. I have a laptop with folders full of random files, half-written drafts and obsolete CVs, as well as a sporadic blog and years of tweets and emails stored in a virtual cloud which could burst at any moment.
This is not to say that the virtual and the physical can’t co-exist, and indeed my dad was dialling up to the internet in 1991 - although I was never quite sure why - and if he was still around he’d doubtless be a keen browser of today’s online universe. But when a whiff of Swarfega is enough to trigger a Proustian rush of nostalgia, it’s perhaps a sign that somewhere along the way the balance has been lost.
There is a fault in our flat whereby switching off the oven cuts off the electricity. Something to do with the element, apparently - I Googled it. That’s something I can do. I am a skilled Googler. I can diagnose the problem. I can’t fix it, however, even if I find a how-to guide on a website, because as tenants any faults must be reported to the letting agents and repaired by their maintenance team.
It’s probably a simple enough task, I imagine my dad would have sorted it in a few minutes. But if I attempted some homemade solution and it caused complications further down the line... well it doesn’t bear thinking about. The engineers, when they visit, unsurprisingly advise against such experiments.
We’ve been trying to get this looked at for over two months now while these various agencies continue to ignore us, because until the flat catches fire it’s our problem, not theirs. And of course when this and other similarly mundane matters are eventually put right, it’s us who will pay, indirectly through our rent or, if we’re deemed to be the perpetrators, through our deposit when we ‘vacate the property’.
As serial renters we’ve been systematically deskilled: our homes, like our appliances, are factory-sealed so we can’t get into them. As involuntary consumers of landlords, electricians and plumbers, our talents are concentrated in some areas (administration, composing delicately phrased emails, arranging time off for technicians to call, tolerating faults for long periods) and lacking in others (knowledge, tools, time, money).
What brings on this reflective Sunday-supplement-lifestyle-column tone, I hear you ask witheringly as you hover over the ‘close tab’ button? Well, dear reader, I can’t help wondering about our own new life which is on its way, a tiny human apocalypse soon to land amid the stuff and precarity of our flat with a mind already attuned to the wi-fi frequency and a body acclimatised to daily four-hour commutes. How can we hope to give our child those same taken-for-granted memories which formed part of the wallpaper of our own childhoods? Fast-forward a few years to a typical conversation as I sit glumy at some glowing device, scrolling through my social media timeline and fulfilling my jobsearch obligations while the little one watches, brow furrowed:
‘Why can't I put any posters up?’
‘Well my darling, if you read section 2.14 of the tenancy agreement you’ll see that posters, pictures, photographs or ornaments cannot be attached to the walls with sticky tape, blu-tac or similar adhesives.’
'And why are there no shelves for me to put my toys and things on?'
‘I refer my cherub once more to the tenancy agreement...’
Another job interview. The same recycled material, the same territory trodden so many times before. And as if by some far-fetched parodic device, this was literally the same job I had been interviewed for three years previously, and at the same place: assistant at an industrial laundry plant. Not an especially sought-after position - quite the opposite.
As I approached the site, driven by the compulsion of the involuntary ‘jobseeker’, I recognised once again that same knotted feeling, not of expectation but of dread and resentment, and brought on by the prospect not of rejection, but of acceptance.
I lurked outside just as before, in the same suit, then went into the same unstaffed reception and dialled the same number to announce my arrival. Everything was exactly as it had been last time, except for some notices on the wall about the company’s ethical obligations, which dated from this year.
It was unclear whether my interlocutors would remember me, or whether in fact they would turn out to be the different people. As last time, the vacancy was advertised in the local paper and the application form was sent by post and filled in by hand – a ritual rare enough to pass as some sort of period reconstruction. It was likely that the job was aimed at people who, for whatever reason, did not have regular internet access. I made a mental note not to let on about my extravagant broadband lifestyle. The fact that I’d been invited back suggested there was no record of my previous failure; or maybe I’d just missed out to a more suitable candidate and was being given a second chance. How generous.
I hadn’t recognised her name but Jane, the woman who collected me, looked distinctly familiar. She gave no indication of us having met before as we entered the main building and she explained the signing-in process, but then there was no reason why she should remember every visitor, or share that knowledge even if she did, so I supposed it was up to me to decide whether or not to own up. We began the tour of the plant and the moment had passed; already she was describing the layout and I had slipped into the performance of looking interested as the machinery scrolled past, as if I were seeing it all for the first time, nodding and asking questions.
I knew from my previous visit that the tour would be followed by a short formal interview, and pinned my hopes on the probability that the manager had changed. Given the pressurised atmosphere and conditions I figured the place must have a high staff turnover. I remembered that last time I was seen by a middle-aged Scot with tattoos and a hi-viz vest who greeted me from behind his desk and then went through the motions of telling me about the job, while clearly having no intention of hiring me.
After the tour I was shown into the office of the current manager, Ian; a middle-aged Scot with tattoos and a hi-viz vest. He greeted me from behind his desk and then went through the motions of telling me about the job, while clearly having no intention of hiring me.
All three of us sat in the same seats in the same office: Ian at his desk, me on a slightly too high chair in front of him and Jane behind me near the door. None of us acknowledged that this whole scene had been acted out before. Even with such an industrial approach to recruitment it would be surprising if nothing had stirred in Ian’s mind, perhaps emerging like a pair of logoed overalls dragged from behind an industrial washing unit, pertaining to this candidate in front of him or the application form spread on his desk. But then, like Jane, he must have seen countless unhopefuls in his time, and no doubt assessed each one instantly as a bundle of human material which either could be ironed into productive shape or should be thrown out. Maybe he was playing a clever game, waiting for me to make the first move. Maybe he detected something uncanny in our encounter but dismissed it as déjà vu; maybe he was oblivious, or simply didn’t care. In that couple of seconds, I couldn’t tell.
He asked me what I knew about the company. I should have seized this opportunity to come clean: ‘Well, Ian, I know about the same amount as I did three years ago when I last saw you...’ But as tempting as this was, I thought if there really was no mental or digital imprint of my previous application, a reminder could only damage my chances. Being all too aware of my fear of getting the job - the seasoned drudge must always be on the lookout for such traps laid by one’s own unconscious, desperate for escape - such an approach might even constitute an act of self-sabotage. What was the strategy here? I wondered whether any of the employability manuals covered this scenario.
I blurted some basic facts. After a perfunctory nod he embarked on the formality of explaining the corporate structure, and again the moment had passed.
As the process went on I sensed that I had been pretty much eliminated (again), with my bookish body stuck awkwardly inside a suit recently dry cleaned by the retail arm of this very company (I had an echoing sense of thinking, I should have dressed down). Ian’s reiterations of the demands of the role suggested that he thought I wouldn’t cope with dull repetitive physical work, even though I emphasised that I would positively embrace such work and pointed to my successful history in other such jobs.
Still the interview ticked on towards its inevitable conclusion, the only new information being that although they have bank holidays off the manager doesn't let staff take any other leave during the weeks of bank holidays, including Christmas. I didn't recall that from last time. He explained the sound business reasons for this and I nodded in acceptance, obviously, as I did at the policy that any lateness or sickness in the first three months would result in instant dismissal. During the tour, as we had watched workers put wet garments on hangers or fold dry ones into plastic bags, tasks which would be repeated for weeks at a time, Jane had mentioned the need to meet deadlines in order to return the items promptly to their owners (hotels, airports, garages). If the workload increased, the staff had to work harder and for longer hours to keep up. Apparently all the staff were working 7-5 this week rather than the standard 8-5 hours. Everyone worked together to get the work done, she said. I got the impression that this overtime wasn't necessarily voluntary.
Last time when it came to the ‘any questions’ stage at the end of the interview, I couldn’t be bothered asking anything because I knew it was hopeless and I just wanted to get out. I knew it was hopeless this time too, and I still wanted to get out, but nevertheless my self-sabotage radar warned me against worthless silence or belatedly mentioning my past failure. In an effort to pull the experience out of the amnesic void of the here and now, I wondered aloud how long the plant had been here. A laundry has been on the site since the 1880s, Ian told me, and it used to cover the whole area of the industrial estate. It had operated under different names and owners before its various specialist departments had been re-located and it had finally been rebuilt in its current form as part of a national chain.
All three of us, Jane, Ian and myself, momentarily bonded over our shared fascination with this historic fact; we stepped outside of the script and the characters we inhabited. We had all been here before, certainly, but in a way which transcended our individual identities, just as the soiled uniforms delivered here and passed through the machines over and over again were elements in a larger fabric, the impervious material of time.
Appropriately enough, as he sat in his office in his hi-viz vest, denying his staff holidays and ordering them to fold clothes for the minimum wage for nearly fifty hours a week, the manager struck me as being a 21st century version of a Victorian factory boss, so absorbed in the duty of maintaining his human machinery as to be utterly unaware of his own cruelty. As he led me out of the plant, twenty minutes after I’d arrived, he told me he’d been the manager here for eight years, having worked his way up through the ranks at another branch.
Outside I noticed a gleaming black Mercedes in the otherwise desolate car park. I presumed it was his, and wondered if I remembered it from last time or if it was a newer model. I imagined all the luxury vehicles which had occupied that same spot over the years, paid for by the labour of those toiling inside: another kind of laundering, another motif in the same endless story.
Labour MP David Lammy and right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange have both expressed deep concerns that Jobcentres are failing to help people find work. Policy Exchange have produced a report called “Joined Up Welfare: The next steps for personalisation”, which proposes that the service provided by Jobcentres should be opened up to market competition, and that claimants should be allocated “caseholders” to “coordinate specialist support suited to that person’s unique needs.” Lammy, meanwhile, writes that Jobcentres are no longer "fit for purpose". The “one-size-fit-all national system doesn’t reflect the varying and specific needs of individuals,” he argues; “the unique nature of each case of unemployment means services must be personalised and responsive to individual needs.” He too favours “a network of regulated charities and private sector organisations” to administer this model of personalised welfare provision.
The similarity of these pronouncements, coming from supposedly different political perspectives, demonstrates how one-dimensional ‘debates’ about welfare have become (Lammy even cites the Policy Exchange report approvingly). In their enthusiasm to propose dynamic new forms of support for ‘jobseekers’, both overlook a fact which is obvious to anyone who has actually had to sign on in recent years: people don’t go to Jobcentres to look for work. Jobs, or rather fragments or episodes of work, are found elsewhere, usually online or through agencies after days or weeks or months of copying and pasting and clicking and scrolling and phoning. People go to Jobcentres to get the welfare benefits they're entitled to, and which they need to live on.
Immense ideological resources have been invested in obscuring this fact, through the invention of a range of contrived interactions, most of which are thinly disguised surveillance exercises. Once inside the Jobcentre, recipients of ‘Jobseeker’s Allowance’ are required to prove their eligibility by producing evidence of job searches (often involving the spam-filled Universal Jobmatch website), made to undergo “work-focused interviews” and attend compulsory workshops on CV-writing, motivation or self-esteem. None of these contribute anything in practical terms, but all serve to wrap the basic transaction between claimant and state authority in an imaginary relationship of rehabilitation or moral instruction, as if to administer financial support without these strings attached would be somehow flagrantly irresponsible.
So, the personalisation of welfare is already well under way. Under its oppressive regime unemployment is presented as an internal fault in the individual, either a deception - you’re not really unemployed, you’re not really looking for work - or a negative attitude or deficit in employability, rather than an external economic fact. In his article, Labour MP Lammy lists examples of reasons for becoming unemployed as “health issues”, “confidence problems” and “a lack of training and skills.” But not a lack of jobs.
This is the context in which reports of politicians and think-tanks about “specialist support” and “specific needs of individuals” must be interpreted. They are falling over each other to express their concerns that Jobcentres aren't helping people - especially young people - not out of any bid to rebuild the true social purpose of welfare or revive the spirit of the Labour Exchange but because, having systematically stigmatised the unemployed and whipped up public resentment and ignorance through the language of ‘welfare dependence’ and ‘something for nothing’, the Labour and Conservative parties are now racing to be the first to push the detonator in front of the cameras. These statements are the latest mystifications of the reality of work and non-work, providing a convenient opening for further outsourcing to the private welfare-to-work industry with its humiliation programmes and obstacle courses of appointments and activities, where the economic causes of unemployment and necessity of benefits are forgotten amid the scramble to offer lucrative guidance to 'customers' in return for public funds.
There is another glaring gap in this official talk of personalised welfare support: while claimants have to attend Jobcentres to claim benefit, the duty of Jobcentre advisers is now to do everything in their power to stop people getting that benefit. Advisors are no longer able to offer worthwhile work opportunities, as the few such opportunities that exist rarely reach the doors of the Jobcentre and are hugely over-applied for. It is not a coincidence that the web of Jobcentre rules has expanded as the same time that the labour market has dissolved into low-paid temporary and zero-hours drudgery. The goal of ‘getting people off benefits’ has been detached from the goal of finding sustainable work and is now predominantly a matter of intimidation and statistical chicanery.
Conspicuously absent from the MP’s hand-wringing elegy and the Policy Exchange plan is any mention of benefit sanctions, an issue which to anyone in close proximity to the reality of ‘welfare reform’ looms far larger than any PR waffle on what sort of “support” should be offered. Benefit sanctions are at their highest rate since the introduction of JSA and still rising, even as the official unemployment figures fall. 874,850 sanctions were imposed (5.1% of claimants) from September 2012 to September 2013 (rising to 6% in the last 3 months); and this before the introduction in October 2013 of the ‘Claimant Commitment’ requiring 35 hours per week of job searching. Targets for sanctions achieved by Jobcentre staff are widely reported, although officially denied.
In July last year, eight days after his JSA was sanctioned, 59-year-old David Clapson died from complications of diabetes. Mr Clapson was found at home “a short distance from a pile of printed CVs.” He could not afford electricity and the coroner found that his stomach was empty when he died. A response to his family from a DWP official stated that “the correct procedures were followed for the administration of benefit.”
This is the kind of personalised tyranny which routinely operates in Jobcentres today: “little trip wires" designed to snare claimants and exploit vulnerabilities, regardless of the consequences, and thereby to reduce the official jobless figures, if not through actual work then through workfare, sanctions, destitution and death. As long as they are processed correctly, all outcomes are statistically the same.
In perpetrating such atrocities the Jobcentre has indeed lost any social purpose it may once have had, and as such it should be abolished in its current form. This is not however the reason for the objections of the politicians and think-tanks; for all their ideas for personalised support, they will not be drawn on the details of individual cases, even though such cases are the logical conclusion of their rhetoric. The aim in re-branding Jobcentres as remedial services based on individual responsibility and employability is to eliminate all consideration of the general economic necessity of welfare, along with the structural fact of unemployment under capitalism. Just as unemployment becomes a personal rather than a social issue, deaths from sanctions or institutionalised bullying are viewed as personal tragedies for which the organisations involved cannot be held responsible, even when they have engineered them.
Jobcentres haven't 'failed' in their aim to help people find work, because that is not their real aim. Their function is to act not as a support but as a deterrent. Everything from the bureaucratic minefield of claiming to the inquisitions of advisors and the atmosphere of humiliation is designed to make you feel like a) you’ve done something wrong to get here; and b) you would rather be anywhere else. This is not an accident or a case of bad management, it’s a deliberate policy.
These same themes are played out in party-political pseudo-debates regarding the workfare schemes ostensibly set up to help unemployed people. The Work Programme hasn't 'failed' to get people into work, because its function isn't to help people get into work. The ‘Help to Work’ scheme is not designed to help people into work. The function of these schemes is to artificially reduce the official unemployment rate, firstly by discouraging claims through stigma and fear, and then by creating pretexts for sanctions and conscripting people into workfare, erasing them from the statistics and giving corporations a supply of free labour into the bargain. On these terms, far from failing, the schemes have been extremely successful.
Of course Jobcentres will soon disappear into the morass of virtual employability hubs and remedial training providers. The relentless torrent of dole stigma emanating from both government and opposition and amplified by media have turned the Jobcentre into the post-Fordist equivalent of the asylum on the hill that prompts ordinary ‘hard-working’, Reality TV watching people to shudder as they walk past, thinking it full of Hogarthian caricatures rather than people just like themselves only even worse off.
A vision of a truly joined-up welfare state would be the complete opposite of the market- and target-driven machinery of blame proposed by the political authorities, and would aim to ease the anxiety and despair of unemployment, rather than add to it. An unemployment benefit office – freed from the misnomer ‘Jobcentre’ - would invite claimants to register, sign on without fear of sanctions or coercion, and leave, without any compulsory support or stupefying activities or jobseeker’s agreements. Better still, depersonalise the process entirely: put the whole thing online and make claiming benefit a matter of one click, whereby the money is sent straight to your account, without human contact and without conditions, until you find a job worth doing. In an era of permanent insecurity, this is the only sort of welfare system which would really help individuals and society.
As the last welfare claimant is sanctioned, the statistics show a jobless figure of zero. Unemployment has been eliminated. The word has been consigned to the virtual heritage cabinet, along with the old ‘job for life’. Meanwhile full employment, for so long an impossible dream buried in some bureaucrat’s drawer, has suddenly become a bright, market-led reality. The news channels are in full flow, business leaders and their political allies are triumphant. This is the surest sign yet of the economic resurrection, a victory for hard-working families doing the right thing and a validation of the moral toolkits of the employability coaches, a turnaround in the national mindset and a huge winning stride forward in the global race.
Viewers watch this scrolling fiction with a weary indifference as they scour the job sites, clicking from one assignment to another, searching for another few hours, bidding for scraps of work tomorrow or next week, often for no more money than so-called welfare would provide. It has long been known that a benefit claim is a conscription to Poundland. The figures have been massaged out of existence by the invisible hand and its twin pressures of stigma and fragmentary labour. The duties are the same, the rewards and prospects equally non-existent: it comes down to a choice between one arbitrary authority and another.
1 = Strongly Disagree
2 = Disagree
3 = In-between
4 = Agree
5 = Strongly Agree
I try to avoid work which is not essential
1 ☐ 2 ☐ 3 ☐ 4 ☐ 5 ☐
It’s impossible to be warm towards everyone you meet
1 ☐ 2 ☐ 3 ☐ 4 ☐ 5 ☐
I turn up for work when others wouldn’t bother
1 ☐ 2 ☐ 3 ☐ 4 ☐ 5 ☐
It is best to do what you are paid for and nothing more
1 ☐ 2 ☐ 3 ☐ 4 ☐ 5 ☐
I am happiest when I have nothing to do
1 ☐ 2 ☐ 3 ☐ 4 ☐ 5 ☐
I cannot be cheerful all the time
1 ☐ 2 ☐ 3 ☐ 4 ☐ 5 ☐
There are some days when I just can’t face going to work
1 ☐ 2 ☐ 3 ☐ 4 ☐ 5 ☐
I sometimes find it hard to keep smiling
1 ☐ 2 ☐ 3 ☐ 4 ☐ 5 ☐
I sometimes tell lies if I think it is necessary
1 ☐ 2 ☐ 3 ☐ 4 ☐ 5 ☐
Do you remember when I registered with you? That bright smiling day in your office when you admired my CV and promised that ongoing full-time warehouse work was just around the corner? As we completed the paperwork we were full of hopes about our future together. And later, after a single day's work which you assured me was only an interim measure, I even gave you my P45.
Yet now over a month has passed and still this ongoing work has not materialised. I phone and you say you'll call back soon with definite news, but I hear nothing. Then, when you finally do ring, it is to offer a one-off nightshift in a supermarket... And when I give my reasons for not accepting this you seem disappointed, as if I am the one at fault, and say that you'll "get someone else..."
How did it come to this? Was our relationship doomed from the start? Was I wrong to trust you? etc.