Who are you calling work-shy?

Now that the boom years are over and thousands of people are losing their jobs, the government announces more restrictions on people claiming unemployment benefits, with accompanying cheerleading in the popular press which print stories crowing about the screw being tightened on the “work-shy”. At least John Major waited until the recession of the early 1990s was over before introducing the “Jobseeker’s Allowance”, a time-limited unemployment benefit, justified by media stories about people living high on the hog for indefinite periods on the old Dole. The other day, while shopping in Kingston, I noticed such a story on the front page of the Evening Standard (notorious for egging on Thatcher back in the 1980s), alleging that the “workshy” face compulsory interviews and possible “workfare” type schemes. I’ve also heard that people will not be able to “use the recession as an excuse”.

At a time when tens of thousands of people are likely to lose their jobs as a result of the Woolworth’s bankruptcy, this looks like something of a sick joke. It is not the fault of ordinary workers that bankers lent money to people who could not pay it back; it is neither their fault that Woolworths stagnated rather than moving with the times over the past twenty years. It would not be the fault of Vauxhall or Ford car plant workers if the companies’ troubles in the USA cause problems here. All these things are the fault of people higher up the chain of command, and if it leads to job losses, then how can the redundant workers be called work-shy when they had been in work for years?

I don’t dispute that there are some people who would rather not work, but that does not change the fact that there are plenty of people who want to work but cannot, for one reason or another: because of a disability, or because of a simple shortage of work, or suitable work. It is a well-known fact that a significant proportion of disabled people are unable to find work, because of a mixture of unsuitable buildings and discrimination. Listening to a BBC radio programme, You and Yours, which had a feature on this subject, I heard a man report that an interviewer’s expression changed markedly when he put on his glasses, which were obviously to correct a severe sight defect (i.e. they were big); a woman reported that her company refused to allow her to park on site as the parking spaces were an executive perk. Really, why should a skilled person be expected to do menial work to save others the bother of making trivial adjustments to their working practices?

Forcing single parents off benefit sounds like a good vote-winning idea, but there are only so many jobs which would allow single mothers to be off work in time to pick up their children from work, and they are likely to be part-time jobs which don’t pay much. Surely many of them could do with the money, but they could also do with time to do household chores which are difficult to do with a young child running around, to cook healthy and nourishing meals for their children (if the Jamie Oliver revolution hasn’t reached their school yet), to help them with homework and so on. No doubt some would find family to mind their children for them, but for those without family able or willing to do so, it’s childcare or bust, and if the childcare doesn’t have a good reputation, who can blame the parent from wanting to look after the children him- or herself? Besides, the childcare has to be paid for somehow, particularly if the parent doesn’t land a well-paid job, and I hope someone has done the sums on whether paying for it is more or less expensive than the current arrangement.

The other night, some woman was on the Jumoke Fashola late-night phone-in, boasting that she had had a child at 15 and brought her up, working almost from the start and now making £50,000 a year. Now, I’ve heard people call London talk shows and aggressively spout anti-immigrant views, making me wonder if they were not planted far-right activists, but they were not talking about benefits to single mothers. This woman may have been telling the truth, but she represents the tendency of people who have achieved against the odds to look down on those who have not. Most single mothers do not make that amount of money a year (even divorced middle-class mothers, let alone those who got pregnant at 15). Like the rich who cut their children out of their wills to force them to work for their riches as they had done, she attributed her success to herself, and forget that they were lucky. Many people work all their lives, and die poor.

The woman insisted that her family all worked, and found it shameful to claim benefits, and asked who would teach her children a “work ethic” if they saw her sitting round claiming benefits. Perhaps she had family to look after her children, but never mind a work ethic, one wonders who might be teaching her children any kind of ethics if they spend most of their time around other juveniles with the supervision of one adult over several children. If a child finds it difficult to cope with the company of other children, or a particular group of them, that would also make childcare a less viable option.

Another part of the new proposals is a “work for your benefits” scheme, which sounds a lot like the American “workfare” system. Ostensibly, it results in a six-month work-experience placement to “build up work-related skills”, but if the work is of a menial nature, or consists of shelf-stacking or basic in-store customer service, it begins to look like a welfare hand-out to a large corporation, who get six months of cheap labour. If the work is public service, this should be done by an actual paid worker, not an unpaid benefit claimant; just as unemployment benefits may be an incentive not to work, free labour is an incentive not to provide proper jobs (and even to get rid of existing ones). We should not get to the point of thinking that someone seen sweeping the streets or erasing graffiti on a wall is either a criminal on “community payback” or on the dole; they could be doing it voluntarily. Besides, such a scheme could easily result in someone unable to find work because of discrimination having to clear up after the very people who refuse to hire him or her out of prejudice. That just is not fair.

The whole situation is very typical of New Labour Britain. The squeeze on benefits, accompanied by headlines attacking the “work-shy” without acknowledging the genuine unemployed, at a time of rising unemployment comes from the same place as this government’s stance on immigration and “foreign criminals”: sticking the boot into the powerless, pretending to be tougher than the Tories while cowering to their media barons. The reality is that Jobseekers’ Allowance claimants already have to demonstrate that they are looking for work and that they lose their benefits if they refuse work, so anyone who has been on it recently will have been surprised at all the stories about compulsory interviews. What is on the table is humiliation for ordinary people who have fallen on hard times, accompanied with free handouts for large corporations. How New Labour.

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