Why doing ‘everything in your power’ to find work is not as simple as it sounds

A few years ago, I applied for a job working the night shift at well-known convenience store in the centre of Manchester. 2012 had not been kind and my once very healthy savings account was gasping for its final breath. Three 12 hour overnight shifts a week didn’t seem like a bad idea. It would leave my days free for auditions so I wouldn’t ever have to pull a sickie to do an acting job again. As a 23-year-old with a university education, four years of retail experience and a glowing reference to back that up, I thought the job was as good as mine. I fired off my CV and waited for the reply. A month later, there was a rather long notice in the window. I don’t remember the exact details of a notice I read four years ago, but in my head I read it something like this:

We have had over 500 applications for this one shitty job where you will have to put up with drunk people shouting abuse at you at half four in the morning. Really weren’t expecting that many people so, we thought this rejection message in the shop window would be much nicer than an automated email response that would take us the same amount of time. Best of luck finding a job, you’re gonna need it!

Now if I, as a university graduate with four years of retail experience was not invited for an interview, what chance does someone with no work experience and no qualifications have of ever finding work?

And so I started to think back to a guy I had met while in that retail job. We were hiring for people to pick and pack orders for the online side of the business and in walked a young man I will call Adam. He was about my age, but came across as much younger. He had very little work experience and terrible GCSE results, but he was so polite and so enthusiastic about the job that the manager decided to give him a work trial.

It did not go well for him. The target for a normal working day was to pick 20 orders every hour. For the work trial, candidates were given ten very easy orders to pick, which would then be checked and corrected by yours truly. Adam tried really hard, but his reading was so poor, he could barely read the invoices. He only managed 8 of the 10 orders – all of which were wrong. As much as the manager would have liked to give him a chance, there was just no way she could’ve hired him.

Photo by Shay Rowan

And so The Stars are Made of Concrete was born. I started to rewrite my own experiences at the job centre from Adam’s perspective. The filling in of endless forms, the advisor meetings were they try to create a CV based on experience that you don’t have and the feeling of dread every two weeks that you are going to be told that you are just not trying hard enough.

Since writing the play I have been back to the Job Centre a couple of times. The Universal Credit reforms have made everything much worse.

When you claim job seekers allowance it is paid every two weeks. You can also claim other benefits such as housing benefit. Universal Credit replaces several benefits with one monthly payment. I opened my claim for Universal Credit on 23rd December last year. My first payment was scheduled for February 5th.

What makes it worse, is that under Job seekers allowance you are given a numerical target of ‘job actions’ to complete every week. This could be checking the newspaper, applying for a job, attending a job interview etc. Under Universal Credit you must agree to do ‘everything in your power’ to find work.

No-one would argue with that. Of course if you are unemployed you must do everything in your power to find work. But that statement is completely arbitrary. Who says where your power ends? Well, it’s decided by your coach.

Coach: So, you’ve only applied for one bar job. There are plenty of bars in Manchester looking for staff.

Me: Well, yes but I can’t drive. A taxi home from Manchester is over £20. If I worked an 8 hour shift at minimum wage that’s only about 50 quid so I’ve cut my wage in half before I’ve even paid any tax.

Coach: There’s a night bus.

Me:  Only on Fridays and Saturdays, but they’re really irregular.

Coach: There you go, you can work Fridays and Saturdays.

Me: Have you ever been on a night bus?

Coach: Have you not thought about learning to drive?

Me: Well, yes. I’m taking my test next week actually.

Coach: Well there you go, when you pass your test next week you can buy a car. First time?

Me: Third time.

Coach: Oh… I passed first time.

Me: Then I clearly just wasn’t trying hard enough to pass my driving test, just like I’m not trying hard enough to find work. You are right. Of course I could hang around Piccadilly gardens at 3am waiting possibly up to an hour for a bus. Never mind that women are being warned not to walk alone through the centre of Manchester after a recent spate of sexual attacks. It won’t be for long of course, because being unemployed and entitled to less than £400 a month, I have the £1500 minimum needed to buy and insure a car just waiting in my bank account. So you were right, I really wasn’t doing everything in my power to find work. Thank you for educating me. I deserve to be sanctioned!

Except for the last bit, that conversation actually happened to me. You may do what you feel is ‘everything in your power’, but if your work coach disagrees with you it means you have violated your claimant commitment, which in my case meant losing £10.40 per day of my Universal Credit until… well, until they see fit. This is not a system that helps people get into work. It is a system designed to get people off benefits.

Luckily, I wasn’t claiming long enough for them to sanction me. A few days after this conversation, I was offered work and the opportunity to bring The Stars are Made of Concrete to Oldham Coliseum Theatre Studio. So, in a way I should be thankful to this dreadful government as this play wouldn’t exist without them. I don’t know what happened to Adam. I hope he is not still caught up in this horrible system, but I have a feeling things are only going to get worse.

If you would like to help us tell Adam’s story, you can donate to our Crowdfunder campaign below:

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