Once upon a time work experience was something school pupils did for a few days to give them a sense of what the future held in store for them. And basic training was provided by your job. Today, unemployment is portrayed as a personal failing rather than a function of the economy, and unpaid work experience is promoted as a way to help a person’s prospects of finding work. In theory, it is meant to compensate for lack of experience in paid employment, which makes it particularly difficult to justify when forced on someone with a lifetime of work behind them. What has developed is a new expectation that people must earn the right to get a job through unpaid labour. This is simply exploitation. It also undermines paid work – which makes it especially perverse that jobcentre workers should be pushing people to do unpaid work in their own organisation. But that is what was happening to Irene from central Scotland, who contacted us last February. She wrote:
Irene: ‘I have been asked by my work coach to go on a lot of different placements etc. I would like to know which ones are mandatory as my work coach is very unhelpful in telling me. He asked me to do work experience at the job centre I sign on at, (I have done admin/recep in the past) to work 5 hours a day 5 days a week every week at the job centre for my JSA. I will be 63 years old this year and I also have a lot of health issues i.e. cancer, chronic heart problems and other illnesses. He also has said he is going to check up on every vacancy I apply for. He tells me I have to put a code ref no. on each vacancy I apply for so he can check it. I already put the name of the company, the web site I found the vacancy on and the name of the vacancy, i.e. receptionist etc. He also wants to check my personal e-mail account to make sure he sees what replies I am getting, Has the DWP a right to check all your personal e-mails? I have been on ESA and then taken off it. I appealed it but got refused.’
I thought I would post up our extended correspondence, because Irene’s situation echoes so many problems that keep recurring. We answered:
SUWN: Your ‘work coach’ sounds like a nightmare. If you are on JSA, a mandatory activity has to be either specified in your Claimant Commitment or given to you as a Jobseeker’s Direction, for which there is a standard form of letter. I think that they can ask for proof you’ve applied for jobs, but you can’t be made to give them access to your email account or to your Universal Jobmatch Account. Ultimately you are only expected to do what is reasonable to look for work, but you don’t want to be in the position of having to appeal a sanction. There’s lots of useful stuff here. Since you got turned down for ESA have you either got worse or got any new conditions? and is your doctor helpful?
Irene: Thanks for replying to my e-mail and the information you sent me. On my claimant commitment booklet my work coach wrote. ‘I understand my coach may require me to take part in certain schemes to help me improve my chances of finding work. And I understand my coach may require me to take other specific actions to improve my chances of finding work.’ I don’t know what that meant as he never explained it to me… They also have access to my universal jobmatch as I thought that was what the DWP was entitled to do (nobody told me any different). They also ask me to fill out my work plan booklet every time I sign on… Every time I go to the job centre they check all the jobs I applied for. When I was asked to work at the job centre on work experience I asked if it was mandatory, he told me that it would help me back into work, and to stop being negative. I was also told I had to attend Remploy and was made to attend numerous appointments. He told me I had a negative attitude, nobody has ever said that to me in my life as I am a positive person. I have been attending the doctors with poor health and all this stress is not helping. I worry about being sanctioned as he finds fault with everything I do.
SUWN: Do you have anyone who can go into your interviews with you and politely point out when they are being unreasonable? It is also possible to ask to see a different work coach. If they are telling you to do non-standard activities such as work experience or training, then my understanding is that they need to use a jobseeker’s direction for this to be mandatory. You can untick the box that allows them to see your UJM account at any time. They can’t insist on seeing it as this is covered by data protection law. They can, though, still insist on seeing evidence of you having used it, e.g. print outs or screen-grabs. And they can tell you to apply for jobs and check that you have done so. BUT the law states that you should only be expected to do what is reasonable. If your doctor is sympathetic he/she could write a note to say that you shouldn’t be made to do so much as it is damaging your health. If you think that you have got worse since you were turned down for ESA you could apply for ESA again. Did you get help filling in the form last time? It can make all the difference. If you do decide to reapply you should do so soon before [your area] moves onto Universal Credit (currently scheduled for XXX). It’s probably only worth doing this if you think you’ve got a reasonable chance of success, as if you are not awarded ESA, by the time you have to sign on again it will be for Universal Credit, which is generally worse than JSA. Also, do you get PIP? That’s a separate application, and there is nothing to be lost by applying. I can talk this through with you on the phone if it would help 07803 052239. And you could also talk options through with your local benefits advice place: XXX
Irene: I don’t have anyone to come to the interviews with me… I am going to sign on this Friday and I am going to ask for another work coach. I was at the Doctors yesterday and have been told I have angina, and have been given medication to carry with me at all times in case I take a bad turn. The doctor is also sending me to the hospital for further tests. I am one of the WASPI women who got less than 2 years notice of my 6 years increase in my pension, no time to make other pension arrangements as I was going into hospital for cancer treatment. Also, at the job centre because of the 6 years increase to our pension age, they do not care about women like us in our sixties who like myself who have a lot of health issues.
That next interview was cancelled at the last minute due to the snow (there are several emails where we discuss the lack of information about the closures) so Irene didn’t see anyone for a further two weeks.
Irene: Well it was even worse that time. He kept on asking me why I was not going on any
full-time work experience placements. And was very nasty to me when I told him I was not going to do them, saying it would help on your CV if employers see I was working. Also on my Claimant Commitment he wrote ‘Investigate and apply for work experience opportunities’. I never said that to him. I also think it’s wrong not to have your date of birth on CVs. Not many employers would want someone at 63yrs old. The interview or what I felt was more like an interrogation went on for over 30 minutes. I felt bullied and intimidated and I told him he was disrespectful and rude to me and also insulting. He asked me why I had reached that conclusion and I told him by his insults calling me a negative person and his attitude to me. He said he never called me negative and that and he pushes work on everybody. He kept on about my job search going through every job I applied for. I said I am doing what I should be doing looking for work, and he should not even be on my universal jobmatch. He said ‘I could make you go over to those computers for me to see all your latest entries’, and why have I not applied for jobs on the universal jobmatch site? I told him I never saw any on the site. Then he went on a hissy fit. By that time I had enough and asked to see another advisor and also the manager, who he said was not there. He also told me he would have to see the manager to keep himself right, as by this time a lot of people were looking at us. He said they were short staffed and I would have to see him the next time and he would have a manager with him,(and also every time I sign on!) Every time I go to the job centre I feel it’s getting impossible for me to sign on.
I arranged to go with Irene to her next appointment. Her work coach was very defensive: what was her reason for bringing a friend? ‘I have to ask.’ He said he had inquired about her changing work coach and it was ‘not going to happen’. As the discussion got more difficult and tense, and he insisted on Irene itemising all the last fortnight’s actions that she had already carefully recorded, I worried for her health and pointed out that the jobcentre had a duty of care. When he tried to suggest that the situation was equally difficult for him, I observed that, unlike him, Irene had serious health problems – adding quickly that I presumed he hadn’t, though of course I didn’t know. But he immediately pounced and complained that I was making assumptions about him. We then asked to see his manager, and he ended the interview. We were told to wait, and Irene informed me that her heart was beating like anything. She had already told me that after the previous occasion she had had to use her angina spray. After only 10-15 minutes we were called into a private room with one of the managers. While she was defensive on behalf of her staff member – and claimed that he was only complying with the regulations and that they had to ‘offer’ work experience opportunities even though it was optional – and while she protested that they had very limited resources due to people being sent on Universal Credit training, she agreed that Irene could meet with someone else.
Our last email sums up Irene’s options:
SUWN: I hope things go better with your new ‘work coach’ tomorrow. I have now had a chance to talk to our friends at the Child Poverty Action Group who produce the Welfare Benefits handbook. I am attaching a scan from the handbook, which explains that you can reduce the number of hours and type of work you are expected to look for if that can be seen as reasonable in light of your physical or mental condition. You would need to provide medical evidence for your need of any restrictions and you would be advised not to ask for too many concessions or they will say you should be applying to be considered too ill/disabled to work instead. You could, for example, try and argue, with support from your GP, that you don’t look for jobs that are more than 30 hours a week and that these should be day shifts of not more than 6 hours a day, and that you should be able to sit while working. That’s just an example. The restrictions should relate to your particular condition.
If that sounds liveable with, fine, but you should think hard if you do want to apply for ESA, because if so, you should do that now before the change to Universal Credit. To apply again after you have been refused you need to show that your condition has got worse or that you have new problems (or both). Because it is a reclaim they may say they can’t pay you till after you have been found unfit for work, and you will have to sign onto JSA in the meantime, so you should get the process started NOW so you can get through this stage before Universal Credit comes in. The risk of this route is that if you don’t get awarded ESA you will have to sign onto Universal Credit, which has a much nastier sanctions system (hardship payments are loans not grants) as well as the difficult initial delay. The one advantage of Universal Credit though is if you do get odd bits of work you don’t lose so much of your benefit.
We hope this long account will be helpful for others. And we can’t help wondering if Irene’s jobcentre would have taken such a hard line if they had been used to being questioned by welfare activists, like the jobcentre here in Dundee.