In the Bored Room with A4e
The Race to the Bottom
I was as deluded as Ben Bernanke, thinking I’d sorted out the ups and downs of my career, believing all I needed for a steady wage was graft and nous. Speaking now as one of the workless, that theory of control is starting to look fantastic: I had a job because there were jobs to be had. And now there aren’t. Eighty thousand people a month join the dole queue and every addition to their number, skilled and unskilled, school leavers and college graduates, competes by undercutting, pressing the market down. Most newly unemployed end up on New Deal, meaning they, too, will be sitting in rooms like this one on the Holloway Road, where someone will be shouting at them over the blast of traffic, telling them to pick themselves up, take stock of their situation, get their lives back on track. As if the problem was self-induced, as if they’d taken a walk in their lunch-break and forgotten the way back to work.
Boom and Bust
Assembled on my first day, what you have here in North London is not so much a cross-section of the citizenry, as a roomful of people who look like they take the bus – but without the migrant workers, the Africans, Chinese, Latins and Poles. In other words most of them are working class. The majority are male. And soon, it becomes clear, many are angry. It’s a hot day; the pep talk and endless form-filling start to irritate. In thirteen weeks this is the only time that underlying resentment and humiliation seems as if it might develop into something more seditious. When our supervisor leaves during a compulsory numeracy test, there is enough solidarity for people to shout out the answers to one another. By the end of the day, though, everyone is focused not on bucking the system but getting what they can from it: the priority, to understand the complex mechanisms governing clothing allowances and travel expenses.
Action for Employment, or ‘A4e’ as they style themselves, are paid by the government to run programmes for people who’ve become detached from the routine world. They aim to get us earning our living and off the state’s back. The company has interesting origins, set up twenty years ago to help redundant steel workers. Now they operate in India, South Africa, Israel, Australia and throughout Europe; a balance book of £152 million demonstrates how successful they’ve been in turning a profit from global unemployment. Their British website claims they “assisted 19,572 people into work” last year, but is less forthcoming on how many of these were soon returned to the dole. With gushing testimonies from employees, and a blog from Bette, the A4e marketing dog (“‘How can a dog work in Marketing?’ I hear you ask”), the style is homespun, but as ruthlessly targeted as any self-help book.
Masters of the Universe
We spend our days attached to computers searching the net for jobs. There aren’t enough to go round and a large table down the middle of the room is packed with people reading newspapers, doing the crossword. Another group gathers around those in possession of a master narrative – the guys in the room asking the big questions. Why are we here? (to cheat the unemployment statistics), why is our army in Afghanistan? (because we’re an American puppet-state), is international capitalism bust? (probably), is the West in permanent decline? (definitely). They divide into two camps: Conspiracy Theorists and God-botherers. The God-botherers are loud and zealous, possessing that self-belief in such short supply elsewhere in the room; the Conspiracy Theorists, who use the net to illustrate their points, have a line in anti-semitic cant. I reflect that in a city as cosmopolitan as London, this is the only kind of prejudice I hear routinely and unashamedly enunciated – and without consequence.
The general view of the supervisors is: they are friendly guys, overworked and ineffectual. They compete with one another through music. At one end of the room there’s reggae, at the other, soul, upstairs it’s 1970s pop. The Bee-Gees are on and someone sings along with a creepy mix of melancholy and irony: “we’re living in a world of fools, breaking us down, when they all should let us be.” One supervisor upbraids his client, “Don’t say, ‘Cross your fingers’ because then nothing happens. Say ‘Yes, I’ll get a job.’ Be more positive!” Occasionally there’s an announcement that someone’s got work and a round of applause is called for. The recipient of a job in carpentry and joinery grins, “No offence, folks, but I hope I never see any of you again.” Laughter rolls across the room. “Adios” a woman with a strong Cockney accent calls back. My supervisor thinks the problem with my CV is layout: I’m not centred enough; I need bullet points. I have a work and education history of thirty years but no one will be interested in anything further back than five. And the writing style is too “chatty”, it should be more formal. I grimace and type the alterations, but it makes no difference, no one bites. I have sent out 32 applications. In desperation I despatch requests for internships (not easy for the middle-aged-with-a-PhD) but these are also turned down or ignored. I can’t even give it away.
I start to come in late, which means there are no free computers, so I bring a book. This reminds me of school, where I minimised the tedium of second year Maths by reading my way through the Scott Fitzgerald box-set. This time I have Palestinian Walks by Raja Shehadeh to eclipse my failure. Shehadeh’s book, full of plotting and perambulation, takes me out of this chemical-reeking room and into the heavily scented hills around Ramallah. The next day, striding up Holloway Road, I think about how to apply his ideas of walking and resistance: I will be active in the city, rather than subject to it. It’s not much of a response but it energises me to find a new route, one avoiding exhaust fumes, taking back roads through the posh part of Tufnell Park on up to Archway. Here are people who will never end up in A4e: the well-off, the well-known, even. Damian Lewis cycles past; he looks cheery. And why not? The sun is shining and there’s a trace of honeysuckle in the air; in the street laughing Indian girls wave hennaed hands, and Belarusian women with hard-to-credit bodies sunbathe in the park.
Many of the people who began the course are gone, not to employment, they’ve just fallen away. I chat with Steadman, one of the few still around. The only thing that’s “made sense” to him is work experience in A4e itself, where he’s laboured unpaid, setting up email accounts for them. As well as help with your particulars (“A4e helped me with my CV”; “A4e gave me the confidence I lacked”), A4e are supposed to provide placements and training, but the only courses on offer are basic literacy and more-basic computer. So what’s everyone up to? There are rumours of people working off the books or splitting wages with employers. The government’s attitude to occasional work seems to encourage such scamming. Whatever freelance bits I declare are subtracted from my £64.30 weekly allowance and lead routinely to threats to cut me off.
I speculate: what would happen if they took away my dole? A supervisor announces there are jobs at W.H. Smiths and in care homes. No one in the room seems keen. A few of us debate this: if you’re signing on shouldn’t you take any job going? Everyone feels some people don’t want work (though no one in this category identifies themselves), but most have a sense of what they’re after and a plan to achieve it. The chief obstacles are universally known: lack of experience, relevant skills and qualifications. Yet instead of putting money into targeted training, the government continues to pay ‘service providers’ like A4e to provide what amounts to no service at all.
My thirteen weeks are up. I sit in cafes watching people meeting, talking, doing – plausible people. Is it possible I will never work again? I confer titles on my unemployment, an amusing game indicating just how low I’ve sunk. I begin with the obvious like Love on the Dole, but quickly move on to more fanciful descriptions: Despair, Nausea, Fear Eats the Soul.