Sanctioned for grieving, DWP numptydom, and getting your job back: three sides of life and death on Universal Credit

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Can you imagine waking up next to your partner only to find that they have died during the night? How would you feel, and how would you react? When we met John, he was caught between shock and anger. He was agitated, and his eyes darted to left and right as we spoke to him; he seemed to be a man on the edge, still computing the terrible loss that he had suffered. He was also angry, very angry, as he had just learned that he had been sanctioned for two weeks as a result of missing an appointment on the very day he had lost Joan, his partner. He had turned up at the buroo with a sicknote from his GP, but this appeared to make little difference to his ‘work coach’ and all she could suggest was to apply for a miserly DWP hardship payment.

We offered our sympathy, and an opportunity for John to express his frustration and grief without being judged or threatened with arrest because of the anger sparked by his still raw sense of loss. When he had calmed down a little we went through the appeal process with him, the financial help he might be able to access towards paying for Joan’s funeral costs, and information on bereavement allowances. John didn’t want to know. He was only relieved that the funeral had been paid for by Joan’s wider family; and he wasn’t eligible for a bereavement allowance, as, whilst he and Joan had been in a long-term relationship, they were not married, and had no children.

We provided John with contact details for welfare rights organisations that might be able to help him through the appeal process, and also suggested that he should claim a Welfare Fund grant. John feared that he had reached the limit of what the authorities were prepared to give, but we urged him to get the local council to clarify the situation; and, if, as he feared, no help was forthcoming, to get back in contact with us. We haven’t yet heard back from John, so it could be that he did receive some assistance, but, as experience has taught us, that is, perhaps, an assumption too far. After all, what kind of assistance would it take to relieve the heartbreak of grief? (For further details of help available to the bereaved, see here.)

Big Joe greeted us with a beaming smile on his face – he’s a cheery kind of guy, anyway, but, today, there was an almost mischievous twinkle in his eye. He admitted that, whilst feeling he was almost unemployable, he still quite liked going into the buroo for an invigorating joust with the system. He had just had a ‘wee spat’ with his ‘work coach’, which, while quickly resolved, was only the latest in a long line of such encounters. He gleefully recounted a notable confrontation that had taken place 2-3 years ago, when Dundee buroo was in the eye of the sanction storm. He had run into problems with his ‘work coach’ who, as a result of his continuing lack of job search success, had suggested that he ‘wis daen something wrang’ and that he should be more ‘economical with the truth’ about his quite extensive qualifications. Jim had reacted to this suggestion by arching his eyebrows, leaning over the table and asking, ‘yir noa suggesting that I should lie, are yi?’ After lecturing the increasingly exasperated ‘work coach’ on the morality of asking him to tell porkies, big Joe found himself surrounded by a number of security guards. As they edged closer, he turned round in his chair and demanded to see their i.d. cards, which stopped them dead in their tracks. None of them had any i.d., which led to a rapid retreat by both the security staff and ‘work coach’. The job centre staff, perhaps not surprisingly, are now very wary of pulling up big Joe, who, whilst he is nearing retirement, still revels in his ‘little victories’ over DWP numptydom.

We also met Piotr, a Polish guy in his forties who has been living and working in Dundee for ten years. He likes Scotland and his daughter is now married to a local lad in Edinburgh, but Piotr admitted to us that he had started to suffer from quite serious depression, which was often so bad that he couldn’t manage it into work. As a result, he had been sacked from his job at a Dundee engineering firm, despite his line manager being fully aware of his mental health problems. He had turned towards the job centre for help, only to be informed that, due to being sacked, he was not eligible for anything. Not surprisingly, the prospect of absolute penury had done little to help with Piotr’s mounting mental health problems. The situation had, though, been quickly, and almost miraculously, resolved when his old line manager had been replaced. This led to a complete climb down on the part of his employers: he had received a full apology from management and he had just re-started his job, on a trial basis, for four hours per week. As he crossed the road from the buroo, Piotr left us with this parting shot, ‘I like Scottish people, but not bosses – they were not good to me.’

Duncan, Gary and Tony were on this weeks stall.

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‘Welcome to hell’

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Jim was far from happy when we met him. Rules governing UC claimants who are in irregular employment were making his life a misery, and making him question the whole point of working. Jim, however, is no ‘skiver’, that largely mythical creature, so beloved of Tory ministers and their willing little mouthpieces in the main stream media. As he himself put it, ‘I hae to work, it’s noa jist the money, but it’s getting harder and harder.’ In the last few months his UC claim has been repeatedly shut down.

In the past, someone who got short-term work could make a rapid reclaim when it ended to get back onto JSA, and any way there was no long initial wait to get payments. Now, with the supposedly simplified system of UC, which was meant to make it easier to go in and out of work, your claim can get shut down if even a short term job takes you over the monthly threshold, and how long it takes to start up again is a lottery, depending on when in your assessment cycle your job ends. As we explained in a previous blog, you may be plunged into deep economic insecurity for as long as nine weeks before getting back on UC payments.

In the last year alone, Jim has had five separate jobs, and has had his UC claim shut down on two occasions. As a manual worker who is employed on zero hour and short term contracts, he is keenly aware of the difference between Tory rhetoric regarding life on UC and the sometimes brutal reality of working at the front line of ‘the gig economy’ that neo-liberal ‘voodoo economics’ have brought into being.

And, having worked for a wide range of employers, Jim is also well aware of the ‘tricks’ employers use to deceive and pressurise workers: of employers who take you on but then ‘punt you when their order is completed’; of managers at the Amazon warehouse in Dunfermline who take on new workers and then ‘beast them until they go faster, or get rid of them altogether’; of workers who receive verbal warnings (‘three strikes and you’re out’) for spending five minutes in the toilet rather than the two minutes they are allowed. As we talked, he turned to the buroo, and, pointing to its entrance, exclaimed, ‘There should be sign up ower that door, saying “Welcome to Hell”’.

Life and death in Bilbao by the Tay

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Dundee was long treated very much as the poor relation amongst Scottish cities, a place left in the slipstream of history, with a reputation for poverty and drug and drink induced violence – a place to avoid at all costs. In the last few years, however, Dundonians have been increasingly treated to headlines in the local, national and even international media telling them that, following the city’s ‘transformation from run-down industrial relic to vibrant creative hub’ (Sunday Times, April 14 2019), they now live in some kind of post-industrial arcadia. I’m only surprised that we haven’t yet heard from a local ‘high heid yin’ or design guru that ‘we’ve never had it so good’.

I have news for readers of this blog: this myth of ‘transformation’ is treated with widespread contempt and often anger by ordinary Dundonians who feel as though they’ve been barred fae a perty taking place in their ain hoose. Many Dundonians have experienced ‘transformation’ – there is a list of companies paying good wages for skilled work, such as NCR, Michelin and McGills, that have closed down or have laid off the majority of their workforce. We hear from many older skilled manual workers who have struggled to re-train for insecure and low paying jobs in the service sector. And, being used to a sense of pride in their abilities and skills, some have been horrified at the offhand and contemptuous attitudes they face from much younger managerial staff.

When we meet those who have suffered recent redundancy and who are forced to go into a job centre for the first time in decades, they often express their sense of shock at the ‘transformation’ in the impertinent way in which they are now treated (by ‘work coaches’ young enough to be their grandchildren) and how little help is open to them after a lifetime of working. This is ‘transformation’ of a sort, but not the kind that is often spoken about by those who talk up the notion of Dundee as a city crammed with young, go-ahead, mocha-slurping creative types. They may be, indeed, be found in the west end of the city, or, the ‘creative quarter’, as it has been renamed, but there’s not much sign of them in the schemes, where the vast majority of the population still live – despite the best efforts of city planners whose idea of ‘regeneration’ bore an uncanny resemblance to the Highland, and Lowland, clearances.

For all of that, I’m sure there will be some readers who will dismiss this view as talking down good news, or else as a prolier than thou attack on the shiny new middle-class reality that is emerging on the banks of the silvery Tay. There will be those who will see the victims of continuing de-industrialisation as regrettable but inevitable ‘collateral damage’ in pursuit of the ultimate goal – the creation of Bilbao by the Tay. Fair enough, but consider this – if we are to accept the claims that Dundee has now been transformed, or even that such sacrifices are necessary as Bilbao by the Tay emerges from its chrysalis, what of those pesky statistics that tell a very different and much darker story about the reality of life, and death, in Scotland’s ‘creative hub’?

Not only does Dundee have the highest rate of unemployment in Scotland, it also suffers from the highest suicide rate. As welfare activists, we have direct knowledge and experience of this developing epidemic, dealing, as we do, with folk who are sometimes at the end of their tether – a problem we encounter particularly, though not exclusively, amongst young men. We are also aware of the very real potential for the under-reporting of suicides with death being attributed to other causes – an issue that has been raised with us by visitors to our stalls. Even as the ‘concrete skip’ that is the V&A was unveiled to the international press corps, RNLI boats and rescue helicopters were seen scouring the Tay for signs of the latest suicide attempt from a Dundee bridge. The assembled press corps didn’t even have to budge from the conveniently placed viewing platform at the V&A to watch the grisly search unfold, as it is positioned midway between both bridges and faces the river.

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Our much vaunted ‘city of many discoveries’ also boasts a rate of deaths from drug taking that has seen it earn the, disputed, title of ‘drugs death capital of Europe’. Although local anti-drugs campaigners point to the 2018 figures as a cause for optimism – a decline from the 51 fatalities suffered in 2017 – in the six months between April and September 2018 alone, 14 people lost their lives. According to the local press;

‘[O]f those deaths, 12 were male and two were female. The majority of people who died were in the 40-49 age group. The DD4 postcode – which covers areas including Whitfield, Craigie and Maryfield – suffered the highest number of losses, with five.’ (Evening Telegraph, January 1st, 2019)

To round off the litany of despair that lies behind the gleaming façade of the new Dundee, we would point to the reports we are regularly receiving of increasing food bank usage in the city from folk who are in work. Skilled manufacturing jobs have, in the main, been replaced with zero-hour labouring in the gig economy. ‘Unskilled’ and service jobs have not only become a burden, but also an act of forced charity on the part of those caught within their trap towards the rich corporations that employ them. And, heaven forbid that they should refuse a job that doesn’t pay enough to feed and clothe them. If the zero hour worker leaves the job, they can expect little in the way of sympathy from their DWP ‘work coach’, and nothing in the way of material help.

Reality points, not to a city in the grip of a cycle of virtuous transformation, but one where working-class communities are suffering from deep social stress. Their aspirations have been dismissed and their plight ignored. Actually, it is much worse than this. The constant talking up of an already compromised form of top-down, corporate-led regeneration, is being used to mask the dark reality of a city that has for many years felt as though it is under siege. The current siege by ‘regeneration’ is only the latest in a long line stretching back forty years, courtesy of Tory voodoo economics, in its various blue and red varieties.

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Care workers tell yesterday’s May Day rally about their recent successful strike action and the constant pressures of working for a contracted-out service that only cares about the bottom line