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When not even dignity remains

Ordinary workers end up in a hell beyond their imagining
Barrie Clement, Monday, December 18th, 2017

Bob Evans* wasn’t the only one feeling frustrated with the staff at his local Jobcentre.


A fellow claimant wrenched a computer screen off a desk, hurled it across the office smashing a window. “It proves how popular you are,” said Bob to one of the staff.


This took place in South Wales, but it could have been anywhere in the UK.


Whatever the personal views of the Jobcentre employees, they are part of a malign government-imposed regime which prompts frustration on the part of claimants at the very best – violence at worst.


More philosophical than most, 51-year-old Bob has never resorted to violence – despite provocation.


A couple of years ago he was a day late at a mandatory Jobcentre meeting arranged so he would continue to be paid Job Seekers’ Allowance. Unbeknown to him his regular appointment had been fixed for a day earlier than normal.


He insists that he had not been told, but the Jobcentre insisted he had. There was only going to be one winner in that argument.


Bob was ‘sanctioned’ – a relatively benign term for a penalty which left him without benefits for six weeks, including Christmas.


Then last year he was dispatched by the Jobcentre to Cardiff from his home town of Cwm Bach in the Cynon Valley to take up a Christmas relief job with the Royal Mail.


He duly complied with his instructions – which entailed a three to four hour round trip and £30 weekly travel costs, which he paid himself. Taken with lunch money and the need to buy work clothes it was hardly worth his while.


When the job came to an end after a month, he was told he’d be shifted from JSA to Universal Credit, but because he had earned some money at the Royal Mail he would have to wait six weeks before receiving the £73 weekly payment.


Bob is not able-bodied. He has a chronic problem with his balance and a major weakness in his ankles which means he turns over on them unless he is very careful. He also has a degenerative disc in his back. And the conditions are getting worse.


His most recent brush with the local Jobcentre came over an instruction to sign up with an Amazon warehouse 30 miles away in Swansea.


There are few jobs in Bob’s locality since Thatcher eviscerated the coal industry ripping the guts out of the area.


“My town is dying on its feet,” says Bob.“It used to be quite vibrant. Now it’s just a commuter town. People are on low wages in poor quality jobs.”


A dry sense of humour helps to keep him going.


“There are a few charity shops and the odd tanning salon around here. You might have no money, but you can always get a sun tan.”


Drugs test

Bob was told that in order to secure the job with Amazon he would have to take a drugs test.


It found he had taken opiates. Bob readily conceded the fact, but pointed out that he takes up to eight Co-codamol tablets a day.


Prescribed by his doctor, the medication is a strong painkiller and contains opiates.


But not even the medication would enable him to undertake the Amazon warehouse work which can entail walking some 25 miles a day.


Amazon also insists on compulsory over-time on top of the basic 43 hours a week, requires employees to sign away their rights under European working time legislation – arguably unlawful – and makes clear there is no question of union representation for ‘casual’ workers.


Why on earth government Jobcentres act as a recruiter for a company which last year paid just £7.4m in UK tax on £1.46bn sales, is anyone’s guess.


As uniteWORKS went to press in November Bob was still awaiting the results of a second drugs test.


Bob is unmarried and has no dependents – luckily he has a supportive family. He has a degree in humanities from the University of South Wales so he is more able than most to cope with the Byzantine and oppressive benefits system. Nevertheless he is deeply concerned that he might be the subject of fresh sanctions if he is unable to take up the Amazon job.


“It’s like a cloud hanging over my head,” he says. “You are not treated as a person at the Jobcentre. You can overhear other people’s conversations. There is no privacy and there is no dignity.”


Bob has become active in the union, with the help of Sue Leader, Unite Community branch secretary for Cardiff and the surrounding area and Mary Williams, Unite Community’s regional organiser for Wales.


He has been involved in the union’s campaigns to raise awareness of the bedroom tax and other issues which affect working class communities.


Mary points out that people in the valleys feel ‘left behind’ by the political elite – one of the reasons why most voted for Brexit.


Bob says the old community cohesion in south Wales has been undermined over the last few decades. While there are still pockets of people who look after each other, there are more these days who ‘look after number one’.


Leafleting commuters during a day of action at Cardiff station recently, Mary and Sue found a mixture of indifference and antagonism towards the unemployed and those who are in and out of badly paid jobs.


“Some people would tell us ‘I’m OK, I’m in work’ and ‘I don’t do politics’,” said Sue. “Others make negative comments about the unemployed. It can be soul destroying.”


But Mary emphasises that with the help of people like Sue and Bob, Unite Community is fighting back in Wales – and starting to make a difference.


*Name changed to protect member


This feature first appeared in Unite’s members magazine uniteWORKS. You can read the latest edition on the Unite website here. Or as a Unite member you can receive a print or digital copy by changing your membership records through My Unite or by contacting your local regional office regional membership admin team.


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