The greatest trick the DWP ever pulled was convincing the poor benefits don’t exist

I’ve just got back from the Jobcentre. My advisor – Linda -was flanked by a blank-faced, near-mute young man, consciously trying to not look bored while fidgeting restlessly on his office chair in such a way that indicated a sore, sedentary behind.

“He’s here on work experience,” Linda offered by way of explanation, evoking Basil Fawlty’s timelessly desperate “he’s from Barcelona!” quip as she did so.

“Workfare?” I nodded an acknowledgement at him and his eyebrows rose by way of affirmation.

Linda’s desk was littered with papers offering Workfare positions (they call it GBW: Get Britain Working): one at Tesco Express, stacking shelves for 8 weeks for benefits, another customer service position at an unidentified place that apparently only offered travel expenses, and so on. The hapless soul who was supposed to believe he was gaining “work experience” listening to me bicker with Linda about my own (un)employment situation later got his own back on the Jobcentre though, jamming the printer during a menial task and briefly shattering Linda’s affected calm, patient, tough-love exterior.

As I walked out, reincorporated into the BTW (Back to Work) scheme, I considered both my plight and that of the yawning guy gazing into middle distance next to advisor Linda. We’re both delicately perched on the jolting benefits wagon, prone to being thrown over the edge at any time. And despite all the grand talk of change and all the pompous, right-wing rhetoric, unemployment continues to rise, especially amongst the young and women, while even the DWP accepts that Workfare doesn’t really ‘Get Britain Working’.

What caught my eye, however, was a new statistical peak that was recorded in “the number of people working part-time who want full-time jobs”. I’ve been working on and off at a language college since October, with scant, intermittent hours and no promises made from one Monday to the next. In the past, agricultural labourers would organise their toil cyclically, reaping, sowing and harvesting according to the number of daylight hours and the time of year, and it’s a process I – and an increasing number of colleagues – find myself replicating. High season in EFL is in July and August, supplemented by brief periods of activity around Easter and New Year. Much of the rest of the year, many EFL teachers scrape by, working second jobs (often in completely unrelated fields), teaching private students (the most unreliable income one can ever find) and – increasingly – signing on.

This, of course, is perfectly legal: DWP regulations state that you can continue to sign on as long as you’re working less than 16 hours a week. However, if you do choose this route, then I feel I must warn you that it’s a dog’s life, since it contrives to combine the existentially pointless charade of the Jobcentre-coordinated job search (the last job I took via their site turned out to be an intensely odd, unsettling position in which I was required to teach a subject in which I had no background at a postgraduate level to seemingly non-existent students) with the relentless pressures and responsibilities of wage labour.

If only it were that easy..

Mornings are spent handling working life stresses and pressures: inspections, complaints, unpaid overtime, fatigue, and so on, before the ever-more-ubiquitous signing on dates, doubled in length by the confusing pile of paperwork you have to wade through in order to legally ‘declare’ your working hours. Forms ask meaninglessly inflexible questions which you “must answer”, such as “how many hours do you work on average per month?” (is ‘casualisation’ honestly as alien a word to the DWP as it is for the TUC?), while the advisor simultaneously asks you if you’ve considered call centre work. And, before you can even turn up your educated, aspirant nose, he’s already clicked it and added the tagged code to the job type you’re required to pursue while you work 15 hours a week.

Of course, the humiliations and frustrations of signing on will not be new to most readers (not anyone who’s ever claimed, anyway), but what becomes increasingly apparent with the arrival of Workfare, the vindictive Atos assessments that have forced the terminally ill back into work and even the flummoxing reforms of housing benefit law, is the wilful complication of benefits as both a punitive measure and a deterrent.

We are familiar with the concept of state violence as being random in order to ensure the widest diffusion of fear of its power. Many of us will have stood in front of police lines, watching boots and batons swing, sometimes at an obviously combative target, but we are most dismayed when they hit out – as they often do – at a confused, scared bystander. Similarly, benefits law conspires to hit the needy and the conscientious objector alike – that they may both consider means other than state subsidy, regardless of their lifestyle, motivations and potential – and it does so by de-regularising regulation. In short, no one knows what the rules are anymore, and this mystification serves to manipulate people out of their benefits.

Claiming JSA while working, for example, can be compared to one long game of Chinese Whispers. I appeared to be the first person to do so in my last advisor’s experience, since he had to fumble around for the correct forms and was unable to answer any of my questions. “That’ll be decided by Belfast,” he tells me when I ask if the JSA I’ve claimed while working will be recuperated by the Job Centre at a later date (Belfast is the location of the headquarters of the Benefits Delivery Office, where any enquiry about your benefits money must be directed, in case you were wondering). Needless to say, it was pretty essential that I knew whether my pay would later be deducted. But when I phoned Belfast, they sent me back to my regional BDO, who then told me it was to be determined by an individual ‘DM’ (decision-maker).

“So what has the DM decided? Can I talk to him?”

“No, sir, but I can send him an email…”

I still don’t know whether I’ll receive a letter through the post demanding my JSA back.

It’s a neat trick of the post-social contract state: convincing us that they’re cutting bureaucracy by stratifying and dividing every social body into a million jigsaw pieces. It facilitates the slow, silent descent of many of us between the cracks, leaving us reliant on the Kafka-esque role play between our advisor and anonymous chirps grunting between periods on hold during phone calls we’re not sure we can afford. And all the while, you constantly ask yourself: what if they do claim my month’s worth of pay from part-time work back? How will I pay my rent and my bills – fuck, how will I eat?

Moreover, true to form, every time I recount my situation to friends and acquaintances that are also caught in the benefits trap, I hear a thousand different stories. Discussions about material conditions on the dole are rendered almost worthless, since the anticipated nod of comprehension and empathy is more often than not usurped by the quizzical, confused frown. We’re all being told different things!

“No wait, they only recoup your pay if it goes above a certain figure…”

“Hang on, I thought they always recoup it…”

“Wait, you can sign on while you still work? I thought you couldn’t, what I heard anyway…”

“When I signed on while working, they took back all of my pay in one go and sent me a letter a month later…I was skint!”

“No, they take it back in stages…”

“I got away with it for a year then they chased me for the whole thing! So now I volunteer here for 3 hours a week, no point me getting paid if the Jobcentre will just take it away from me…”

“Fuck it, I don’t think I’ll bother with signing on, sounds too complicated…”

Repeat ad nauseam.

And it is this common thread which ties together all those who are reluctantly dependent on the state’s charity. The irrationality of British benefits law ensures that our lives are forever fragile, that we must always sweat from one day to the next. There is no benefit – neither personal nor social – to any of it, not for the Workfarer I saw trying to stay awake as he ‘assists’ a Jobcentre advisor, not for the cancer-stricken individual being brow-beaten back into work, and neither for the (albeit less unfortunate) young part-time, casualised worker trying to eke out a living while doing the splits between the workplace and the Jobcentre. Its objective rather, is to drive us out of their offices and off of their phone lines into isolation, via a combination of time-wasting, chastising Jobcentre ‘schemes’ and disorienting mazes of regulation.

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