Thomas Barlow – @tbarls
Like many people I have been in and out of work over the past couple of years.
Every job is temporary, or low paid, or unspecified hours, or all of them together. And all of the jobs come to an end.
Recently I decided that I was going to stop this cycle and follow my dream of becoming a writer. This is it, this is what I will do, or die in the process.
So when I was told, suddenly, by my advisor, that I had to come in every day to the jobcentre for the next two weeks at least, I finally felt confident enough to speak back.
Though not at the time I was told. As my interview was ending my advisor told me
“Oh, and you have to come in every day for the next two weeks, starting tomorrow”
“Really? Oh ok” I replied meekly and got up to go. Oh come on Barlow, you are supposed to be a Welfare rights journalist, try again!
“Actually, um,” I sat down. “Err, could you tell me why I have to come in?”
“Oh I don’t know, we don’t have time to cover that here. I have booked you an appointment with your special advisor to help you sign off as you are going to declare yourself self-employed. You can ask them”
“Ok, when will I meet them?”
“Is this really necessary? I just want to sign off with the right support, do I need to come in?”
“If you don’t come in you’ll be sanctioned. It is as simple as that.”
I half expected her to say ‘I don’t make the rules…” Or “Just doing my job…”
I go home. Raging.
It is the straw.
There is no explaining it, but all the humiliation and fear and shame of years of sporadic employment wells up within me, and makes me unfathomably angry.
From the outside it may seem perfectly reasonable. You don’t have a job, you should do what you’re told, and shut up.
And that is part of the fear and misery of being unemployed.
You don’t feel like you have the right to be treated like a human. It is perfectly fine to be treated like cattle, for the mere crime of being unable to become a wage slave.
I am signing off. Forever. All the years of being treated as ‘less than’ finally bubble up through my usually meek and polite barriers. I am going to talk about this.
I arrive at 10.30am, on the dot.
“If you can just take a seat here, I will sign you in.”
“Why am I here?”
“If you can just take a seat…”
“Why am I here?”
“Has no one explained? Well I am afraid I can’t tell you. All I know is if you don’t sign this and sit here, we can take your benefits away.”
“You mean my right to live? Why?”
“I’ll see if I can get someone to answer your questions now, then.”
I am introduced to my special advisor.
“So why am I here? This isn’t in my jobseekers agreement.”
“Quite frankly Mr Barlow, we can do what we like with you. You have to come in when we tell you to, or else we will sanction you.”
“You mean you will take away the means for me to live. Fine. You have the gun to my head, why am I here?”
“You shouldn’t see it as a gun to your head. This is an opportunity. I have loads of clients who wish they could be in here daily.”
“Well I don’t. And it is a gun to my head. You can take away all of my money, make me homeless and allow me to starve. You know sanctions kill people right? It’s a nice word for a dirty act.”
“Look Mr Barlow, quite frankly we have got the powers we wanted. Not everyone sees it that way, but I do. There are people who do spend their time actively job seeking. If you are not willing to search for a job for 35 hours a week…”
“We deserve to die?”
“Because that’s the crux of it isn’t it? You are saying that in a world of plenty, where there is way more than enough to go around” and there is you know, more homes than homeless, more food in the bin than the hungry could eat, more energy in the world than we all could use “that if I refuse to be disciplined by you and the state, then I should die.”
“I know what you are saying, I used to be a job seeker myself” They always have been, job advisors. “I know how hard it can be. I was refused benefits for months, you don’t have to die.” Nice change of tack.
“How did you get through it?”
“I lived with my mum who supported me.”
“So what about people without family, or without means, or without space, or spare cash? I mean isn’t this the point of Welfare? It is a way of looking after each other, because we all have – or should have – more than enough. It isn’t supposed to be disciplinary. It is not supposed to be something you punish people with, force them to do unwaged work, or make them feel small.”
“That’s not what I want to do. I want to help people back into work.”
“But that isn’t what you do any longer is it? You have to find ways to take our means to live away from us.”
“Well it is not what I want to do.”
“OK. So why am I here again?”
“Because if you don’t come in you’ll be sanctioned.”
I spent the two weeks writing articles and emails on my phone in the job centre. The computers didn’t have access to email (though they did have access to facebook), so i just made do.
After making a fuss about the pointlessness of the whole exercise, I was left to my own devices.
My fellow ‘jobseekers’ (I would prefer to think of them as human beings, but there we go), spent the two weeks bemusedly looking at Facebook and LinkedIn, before occasionally asking if they could leave to go on a job interview. They twiddled their thumbs and kept their heads down.
I guess that is what they want from us all.