“Mark Cowley,” the lady tiredly calls out, as though speaking to Mark might be a task akin to mucking out a stable. “Mark Cowley please?”
“Do you mean Andrew?” I venture. “I’m Andrew Cowley.”
“Right,” she replies, my name was clearly as important as the business of a single ant to Zeus. “Sit down.”
My first visit to collect my Job Seeker’s Allowance in ten years hasn’t got off to a flying start. I’d already been sat in the warm and humid waiting area for half an hour past my allotted time. I’d got there fifteen minutes early as well, so as not to inconvenience anyone. For most of that time, I’d been eyed up by the G4S security guard like a Centurian to a Christian in the undercroft of the Colosseum. Angry that he couldn’t beat me to a pulp with his own hands, but amused that soon the lions would have my entrails as a new toy.
“It’s nice to see the sun out,” I say, attempting to lighten the stormy mood over this desk. I receive a long-suffering look from over a pair of metaphorical reading spectacles, and a short, feint sniff.
“Where’s your evidence,” she enquires, staring at my empty hands.
“Oh, it’s on the Job Match thingy,” I reply. Do I detect an eye-roll? Maybe it’s my imagination.
“There’s nothing here,” already she appears to have determined my fate and picks up a blue bic biro with the end slightly chewed.
“What do you mean, I’ve spent all week filling the log?” She slowly rotates the monitor on its large supporting arm. The Kensington lock halts it short and I have to shuffle slightly in my chair to see.
“Nothing,” she says.
“That’s not my email address,” I venture.
“It’s the one you put on your form,” a slight hint of real agitation now. I’m just like all of the others; time-wasting scroungers.
“No, it isn’t, it’s spelt wrong,” I offer my actual email address. She sighs, the time is five past one. I’m encroaching on her lunch break now. She needs to get to ASDA to pick up something for tea.
“Fine,” she hammers in the correct details. “There’s nothing on here either, if you haven’t done any job searching I’ll have to sanction you.”
“It’s under ‘Notes’,” I say.
“Why is it under notes,” she asks, the weight of a thousand catastrophes weigh down her words.
“Because Universal Jobmatch can’t find anything in my sector. I’ve been using recruitment agencies and specialist job boards, like I was told I should be doing when I first had my interview.”
She clicks around and finds the page. Without pausing to read anything on the page, none of the meticulous notes I’ve kept over the past week about my futile search for employment, she closes it and picks up my record booklet.
“Fine,” she says. “Sign this.”
She drops, almost throws a pen at me. I sign the form next to her signature, barely a slightly curved line. I look up to note her name badge but it’s covered by a cardigan which she pulls tighter around her, despite the 24 degree heat. A deliberate obfuscation? No, surely not, I’m being a conspiracy theorist now. I push the chit back over to her. She looks at me, slightly puzzled.
“What? You can go.”
“So, I’m ok then? I’ll get my payment.”
“Yes,” exasperated comes the reply. “You’ll get your payment.”
The word ‘bloody’ almost forms on her lips in the middle of that sentence. Another seventy quid down the scummy public toilet of scrounger town. Another hour of her life wasted. She hates me, it’s quite plain. She also hates the man next in the queue, early sixties, a former factory worker whose factory was closed at the start of the economic troubles and has been unemployed ever since. The hurt in his eyes as she gets his name wrong too is clear. He’s at the end of his tether. I’m fortunate, this is my first week. He can’t see a way out of this.
I tramp out of the building into the sunlight and feel immediately better for the wind on my face. The Job Centre is a place of misery and despair. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I was unemployed in 2003 for some months as well, and I don’t remember it being such a hostile environment. Maybe the naiveté of youth clouded that. I do remember being engaged though, someone going through the list of things I’d done that week; looking at my CV and pointing out potential improvements; asking why I’d chosen to apply to a particular position and not another. That’s what I expect from the Job Centre to be frank. I don’t expect it to be a happy-fun-time, people are at their lowest ebb. What I do expect though is a modicum of decorum from the staff. I don’t want to be there more than they don’t want to be there. I can assure you of that. They get paid at least minimum wage to make me feel like shit, whereas I get barely enough to live on at the expense of my dignity and self-esteem. Is it any wonder that there are so many long-term unemployed people in the UK when the very people who are supposed to be helping them into employment can’t even be bothered to get their name right, never mind look them in the eye.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there are abusers of the system, there are also downright arseholes who come for payments week in and week out and are as abusive as possible. There aren’t hired guns wandering the floor for nothing. Although, when a chap did kick off one week a tirade of abuse that would make Gordon Ramsay wide-eyed, the G4S cavalier had conveniently nipped out for a fag. However, to treat everyone as an abuser by default, where has this come from? Is it the media? Reality TV? Grand Theft Auto? It’s worrying me. When I see someone else who needs help, my initial reaction isn’t ‘oh great another scavving scumbag’, it’s ‘can I help them?’ In fairness, a lot of times the answer is no. In that situation I just have to move on. I ceased to feel guilty about this some time ago. I can’t help everyone, I know that. I’d like to think I’m fairly non-judgmental though. Even if the dude is kicking off and being an arsehole, why is he? It may well be just because he’s an arsehole, they’re everywhere at every level of society. It may however be that he’s been kicked while he’s down for five months, by the same miserable bastard every week, who’d judged him before he’d opened his mouth. Yes, there are cheats and players of the system, but the vast majority of claimants just want to find some bloody work and get out of that miserable bloody hovel that is the job centre.
I realise the irony, of course, in me taking sides. The lady who looked after my claim may also have been abused day in and day out for the last ten years, and become disillusioned as much as me. There is however, a certain level of responsibility that someone in her position should be mindful of. As I cast my eyes and ears around the room while I was waiting, I saw claimants having jovial conversations with their clerks. It looked in some cases like actual advice was being given. In the vast majority of cases though, I saw emotionless robots, going through the motions. It pays the bills, don’t want to put in too much effort. Just remember though love, these are people’s lives you’re toying with.
I like to think of my self as fairly stoic emotionally. I just brushed the whole experience off, and was fortunate enough to find employment after a very short period of time. The whole experience though has left an awful taste in my mouth. I realise this experience is entirely anecdotal so I cannot, from my narrow field of view, decry the system as a whole. However, that anecdotal experience seems to be as far-reaching as I’ve ventured to look, with friends’ experiences and twitter conversations yielding the same story over and over again.
What motivation do any of these people have to better their predicament when they’re just kicked over and over again by selfish people in privileged positions?
Please,if you have any experience or opinion, get talking in the comments. I’m very interested in anyone’s view on unemployment and the Job Centre