‘giving jobseekers the support they need’

Joe Thorne introduces an anonymous testimony by a young unemployed person, in the context of the government’s plans for further ‘welfare reform’.

This is an account by a ‘customer’ of the Department for Work and Pensions – that is, an unemployed person seeking work.  In particular, the account describes their experiences at the hands of DWP subcontractor Action4Employment, or A4E as they are better known.  A4E administer elements of the New Deal Program; their treatment of working class people is something we can expect more of if the Welfare Abolition Bill goes through.  They also treat their staff appallingly.

The account is also valuable because it shows how different aspects of the ‘welfare state’ can intersect to create a labyrinth of abuse for disadvantaged working class people.  One example of this, rarely mentioned, is the poverty trap of temporary accommodation, in which parents of families who are housed by local authorities are penalised for working to the tune of hundreds of pounds a week.  For the testimony of some Hackney temporary accommodation residents, see here.

I have been a client of A4e and was appalled by how I was treated.  I will start by telling you a little of my background. I had hit rock bottom in my life, lost my job and was living in a hostel with a lot of debt and was trying to rebuild everything I’d lost. I was waiting to start university and had already been accepted. Because of the situation I was in at the time I could not afford to take a minimum wage job and was waiting for council housing to become available. I was in a supported hostel for young girls and if you start work while living there the weekly rent is extortionate.

Regardless of my personal circumstances I was forced to go to A4e and told I would lose my benefits if I didn’t attend. I already had low self esteem because I hadn’t been working for the previous 6 months and had tried to get a job that would cover all of my bills. I had even voluntarily taken up typing courses and had got my level 3 qualifications in the hope that I could get a job that paid enough. I was also waiting to start voluntary work at citizen advice but I couldn’t start there because of attending A4e.

My jobcentre advisor was very sympathetic because she could see that I was trying so hard and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere and she even tried to put off A4e as long as possible as she knew I’d been accepted into university and it was only a matter of weeks until I started.

Finally my first day arrived at A4e and I felt pretty confident that these people are here to help me find work and that they would support me into a job. I was so wrong, from the moment I stepped through the door on the Monday I felt trapped.

After the first day induction we moved onto CV writing and cover letter writing, when the tutor told us that we had to write a CV and cover letter I approached her to let her know that I already had a cover letter for every occasion and an up to date well written CV (which everyone whom I have shown it to has commented that it is the best CV they’ve seen), so I asked if I was able to do some job search and was told that I wasn’t allowed to as it was a structured timetable (Even though job search was after all the main reason I was supposed to be there).

So after sitting bored out of my head for the most of the day I was then told that I had to sign a piece of paper saying that they’d helped me produce my well written CV and cover letter, even though they hadn’t which really disgusted me (the tutor wasn’t able to write a CV as well as the CV I had produced but would still take all the credit and tick the boxes that would eventually go towards there statistics). This piece of paper was then sent along with my CV and one of my many cover letters to my jobcentre advisor.

Most days would consist of job search all day; there were only 3 or 4 computers in the room between about 20 people and a couple of newspapers to share. Every now and again they would make you do something like a presentation or play a game and when I asked to not participate but instead continue job searching in a different room where I could have peace and quiet I was told that I had to participate.

Throughout the whole experience I had to put up with other clients of A4e being rude, disruptive and swearing without any reprimand. I explained on more than one occasion my personal situation and that I could only accept a job that was over minimum wage (I wasn’t being unreasonable as I had the qualifications and experience to get a admin job that paid a lot more than minimum wage).

When they kept trying to offer me jobs that I simply could not take I eventually broke down and I told my tutor I couldn’t handle it anymore I was sent to see a guy upstairs that was meant to help with any personal issues I might have. He started off by telling me that not even his own boss would know what we had discussed in that room and that his boss didn’t even know what was discussed with clients.

After discussing my circumstances yet again I was told that I should go into private rented accommodation so I could get a job now. They didn’t take into account that I had been advised by my key worker (at the hostel) that to move into private rented accommodation at this time would have been detrimental to my life and that I would have probably have ended up back in the hostel and that I needed a secure and safe environment because I was feeling very vulnerable at the time.

He also told me that he didn’t think university was a good idea for me as I obviously wasn’t stable (as I kept on getting upset because I was never listened to and was hating my experience at A4e) I was also told that I should really try to find work fast as if I had to come back to the 13 week course I wouldn’t handle it and he then went on to tell me of fully grown men that broke down because they could not handle that course (I really felt I was being bullied into accepting any job).

After he had asked me whether I felt I was vulnerable and I had replied yes, he continued to make jokes saying I could come and live with him and that he could be my sugar daddy and that he had a big house and plenty of room. I felt very vulnerable then, I had stayed late to have this chat and there was only a couple of people still in the building and none were we were sat in his tiny office which was literally a cupboard. Previous to him being very unprofessional, I had told him that I used to attend a mental health clinic as I had previously had depression through everything going down hill in my life around that time and he continued to tell me that he had worked at the same clinic but had been sacked and that the claims someone had made against him had been false and that he knew he was in the right. This made me think that he may have been over nice to other vulnerable girls in the past and been sacked because someone had told their story, if this was the case what was A4e doing employing someone to work with vulnerable people again on a one to one basis in a tiny room and why was he given a role in a company where he didn’t have to disclose anything he’d discussed in that room.

I was pretty freaked out when I left and felt that I couldn’t say anything to anyone at A4e as anything I said seemed to come back really badly against me. I really wanted to say something to protect other young vulnerable girls from his passes. He was very unprofessional that day, I couldn’t tell you whether that is just who he is or whether he was some sort of pervert but he really shouldn’t be saying anything like what he did.

After he had shattered my hope for university I went back to see my key worker very upset and told her what had happened, she reassured me once again that I was very bright and I could achieve anything that I wanted to in life and not to listen to other people.

I went back to A4e the next day and yet again got uncontrollably upset as I was dealing with a lot of things happening in my home life, I was sent to some sort of manager in a main office area with loads of other people there and this woman told me that I should go onto anti depressants and that would be the only way that I wouldn’t have to attend A4e anymore – who the hell did she think she was, making me feel so small in front of everyone. After all, all I needed to feel fine again was a stable home environment just like every other human being, to feel safe and secure is the most important thing in anyone’s life.

Apparently you either fit into one box or the other when your feeling low because of life events, you either have to have depression or you are fit and well but in an environment like the one they put people in to, a whole lot of people would have low self esteem and not be feeling at their best.

Now I am currently on a social work degree and doing very well for myself but only because of the total support I received in the hostel. A4e obviously aims to get people into work without helping with any obstacles standing in a client’s way. As long as they get their statistics to say that so many people have been introduced back into work then the government will feel that they have achieved what they need to!!!

A4e also offer incentives for people who get a job, if a person manages to gain employment while they are at A4e they put you into a draw to win some money, this once again shows that A4e are just out to get people into work regardless of whether they feel it is the right job for them or whether they think they can even stick at it.

Cutting funding for citizen advice is the worst thing this government has ever done, CAB aren’t just about helping people back into work but breaking down the barriers in clients lives to ensure that they feel able to work and I would put money on it that citizen advice enables more people to keep a job longer and promote people working more than any other employment service.

There are no such thing as lazy people who don’t want to work but there are plenty of people who haven’t been shown that working is a good way of life or that have no way of breaking down the barriers in their lives that stop them from working. Self esteem plays a big part in any person wanting to maintain a job and when people have been out of work for so long without any real support from the jobcentre they may not have any self esteem left. So what the hell do they think they are doing putting people into a stressful situation and trying to force people to accept any work available? They are abusing their power and probably making peoples lives a whole lot worse in the long run. I wonder how many people have walked out and lost their money/homes/lives through this abuse of power.

Since leaving A4e I have received numerous letters asking me to fill out a questionnaire about what I thought of the A4e course, the only problem is that this isn’t an anonymous questionnaire; it has all of your personal details printed on the front. Yet again an abuse of their power, I felt that I wasn’t able to answer this truthfully incase one day I ended up back on the course (I am sure a lot of client’s of A4e must feel the same way), as I felt this strongly about how this information would be used I failed to fill it in and eventually they stopped sending me the questionnaire.”

This account originally appeared on the Johnny Void blog.  Republished with thanks.