Thursday, January 13, 2011

Back to Work Session


I had to attend a Back to Work Session yesterday at my local Jobcentre Plus (soon to be renamed and rebranded Jobcentre Minus by the new government). Slightly reminiscent of John Hughes's seminal brat pack flick The Breakfast Club, with a group of motley yet quirky stereotypes (criminal, chav, nerd, brat, brain, etc) forced to sit and endure each other and listen to what we already know about not being able to find a job, it was in fact a rather sobering experience.

Most of the group were quiet and obedient, answering questions when asked by the session leader, with the exception of the black criminal and the teenage female chav, who were amusingly aggressive. They spent ten minutes debating the need to be there at all (if they'd just shut up it would have been over in half the time). The chav was all 'whatever', loud tuts and texting incessantly on her Blackberry. The criminal was irate over a misunderstanding with the session leader about what the term 'mandatory' meant.

Things went swimmingly for ten minutes or so, with a PowerPoint presentation telling us what we already knew. We were each asked what jobs we were looking for ('anything'; 'bar work'; 'driving' etc). The criminal and the chav obviously felt an affinity for each other's predicament and backed each other up for the final battle.

The chav had three children and was being evicted from her house; how could she be expected to find a £6 an hour job then pay a nanny £20 an hour? She wanted to raise her children, not work, but she wasn't allowed. She'd been previously advised to put her kids into care.

The criminal had been in prison a few times. He had a family to feed which a normal job just didn't pay enough for, so he had to resort to criminal activities. He had a husky yet soothing and commanding voice, which seemed to make his criminal enterprises seem quite logical. But his criminal record had prevented him getting a job and he genuinely seemed to want help.

There was nothing anyone could do for either of them.

The session leader, trying no doubt to placate them, did seem to agree and sympathise with them (everyone else seemed to be staring at the floor). He said he was just a pawn in the game; he just did what he was told. He said the new government didn't care for people like us. He said even more cuts were on the way. He essentially said we were all fucked. And then, adopting his official position once again, and without a trace of irony, told us to 'stay positive'.

The chav and criminal were understandably angry people, frustrated by a system designed to keep them at the bottom. At the beginning of the session, I thought they were both annoying clich├ęs. By the end, they had won me round with their honesty, their sense of humour, their not going down without a fight attitude. Just like in The Breakfast Club.

On the way out, an out of work PA (middle class, uptight, overweight, glasses) who was at the session, turned to me and said, 'How aggressive was that girl?' I had to agree, pretty aggressive, but said she perhaps had good reason to be. Then she said, 'Maybe if she'd heard of contraception she wouldn't be in the mess she's in'. Who knows, maybe, but a slightly harsh comment, perhaps.

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