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...’