Monday, 27 February 2012

Comment: a view of workfare

A few months ago a 19-year old boy was sitting outside a dentist in Brixton waiting for his girlfriend. Whilst she was being prescribed treatment for a sore tooth, he was in a state of relief of his own.

“I quit last night,“ he said after a short preamble.

“Quit, what?” I asked, handing over my lighter.


In a time when everyone is expected to be grateful for a job I wondered why he saw this as a good move.

“The paid staff just stood around as I was forced to do all the worst jobs in the bar. All the time.”

These were his typical duties from day one, Neville explained. For the mature and well-mannered man the final straw came next.

“I soon figured that one bonus of the bar was that I could get tips. So I worked extra hard, flirting with the girls, making the men feel big, just so I could take home something at the end of the night.”

His charm worked. One punter was so impressed by his service that he handed over a five pound note as a show of gratitude. Neville had cracked it. Or at least he thought he had. Suddenly the bar manager jumped in and grabbed the money before Neville could pocket it.

“I was accused of stealing, and even though the guy who gave me the tip backed me up I was told I was on my final warning. So I thought fuck it and walked out.”

Neville has few material possessions. He shows enormous support for his girlfriend, whose depression came about shortly after losing her job, and the couple share a single bed in a hostel. He said, “I don’t have much but the last thing I’ll lose is my self respect.”

Historically, unpaid work experience has been the stuff of the well-off members of middle classdom. Roles created by ‘dad’s mate’ in fashion (or media, or politics, or banking) were routes in for young people who didn’t really mind what they did so long as it was the ‘right kind of job’. Companies didn’t pay out money for this job because it was all based on a favour in the first place. Nick Clegg has admitted this was how he got his first job in banking, and in countless other professions free labour is still the standard first step on the ladder.

However, beyond having good connections, kids from families with links into these single-class jobs had their bank accounts bolstered by family money at the same time. For young people spending their days doing menial tasks in this situation it didn’t matter if they got paid or not because they still received pocket money.

But this privilage isn’t available for young people from working class backgrounds. In the past, work, of any sort, was work for one reason: it paid, and necessarily so. What’s more, the incentive to work harder in skilled jobs was there because it led to more work, a better reputation and then more money. Cities like Nottingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield were build on this model, and communties in towns like Oswestry, Halifax, Bury and Congleton relied on it.

This still happens. But there are two problems today: Firstly, there aren’t as many local jobs as there used to be and until the government figures out how to create more jobs (I suggest embracing the UK’s sustainable energy potential to create an estimated 1m industrial jobs) work that creates output and can therefore be paid for will continue to dwindle in numbers. Secondly, and more recently, for many young people work has become a route out of a life that otherwise involves crime.

The workfare scheme is a 21st century culture clash. The privilaged elite are forcing their own understanding of getting into work upon the working class. Government has asked its friend Big Business to do it a favour and give its ‘children’ something to do. As long as young people stay in the role and out of the NEET figures they’re happy.

However in this scenario the jobs that unpaid workers are doing are needed, and as Jon Harris points out in a recent article, their profit margins are widening too. Meanwhile, for Neville, who doesn’t drink, learning how to poor pints isn’t what he wants for his CV.

“What will you do for cash now?” I ask.

“What every other kid in the hood does,” he answers. “Shot [sell cannabis] again.”

Many young people, just like anyone else, see unpaid unskilled work as disrespectful. It disempowers an already alienated generation even more. Whilst poor treatment of staff in the workplace is common anyway, without drugery being in exchange of money there’s no incentive to put up with it.

Neville, who had to take a short break from his job in Weatherspoons to bury his grandmother in Jamaica told a relative there of his situation back home. “My uncle said sounds more like slavery than work to me.” His girlfriend emerged from the dentist. “And what do you think?” I asked. He sighed and then walked away.

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