"Slave Labour?" by Liz Deans, Course Leader: Learning Difficulties, City College Southampton, July 2012

"We have successful placements with Supermarkets and were planning to increase this year as were they. However, apparently, because of the accusations of "slave labour" Tesco managers have been told they can only have someone for one day a week for 4 weeks rather than them continuing all year and staying on after they left college.

The thing is, that the student group we work with have fairly high support needs; the stores 'give' a member of staff to support and monitor them. The students, parents and carers do not see the lack of pay as an issue, rather, are really pleased with the outcomes. The students are learning a range of soft and basic skills in a practical environment.

I wondered if anyone else has this issue or if you have any suggestions of how we can turn this decision around?"

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"Sentenced" to the Work Programme

by Caroline Masundire, from Rocket Science, July 2012

My single parent friend has been unemployed since she moved to one of the more affluent but very rural areas of Essex two years ago.

The other week I received a message from her saying “I’ve been told by the Job Centre that I have to join the Work Programme or lose benefits, they are going to make me work shifts and I won’t have anyone to look after my eight year old daughter”.

She was obviously distressed by this news, but her employment situation is not by design and neither for the lack of desire to get a job. As one of many applicants she has managed to get interviews, only to be told she is too experienced, not experienced enough or would be bored. At her last interview just two weeks ago, she was told that her commitment to do a ten hour day was not good enough and they mentioned the challenge of her being a single parent to be able to be flexible - her interviewer was (yes you guessed it) a single parent!

She feels that she has been “sentenced” to what she perceives as an inflexible regime, where she will be demonised as a workshy, feckless parent and will be forced to take any job regardless of whether she can get there - she has no car (she cannot afford one) and public transport is a bus which passes through the village twice a day. Access to any form of childcare around school hours is non-existent and her circumstances mean that she has no informal care around her now.

BUT, she has not even started the programme yet. She has picked up some very negative vibes about the programme already, from the press and an unsympathetic JCP advisor. If this is the scenario painted for Work Programme clients before they join, it is no wonder that people feel negative about the process and what could be an opportunity to move them into work.

The cynical part of me feels that making it sound as worse as it possibly could is a way of managing individual expectations, and threats are being used to strike such fear into the hearts of those it is meant to support that they end up walking away, off benefits and into dire straits.

I am sure my friend’s experience is not unusual but her story reminds us of the many practical challenges faced by providers in getting people into jobs:

  • Employers’ expectations and, in some cases, discrimination which despite legislation, advice and good practice has not altogether disappeared.
  • The sheer volume of applications for jobs and how lack of appropriate matching, preparation and coaching for interviews puts individuals at a disadvantage. My friend was so nervous in one interview that she accidentally burped and in an attempt to cover up her faux pas broke the chair she was sitting on. Not sure how even the infamous ‘fairy jobmother’ Hayley Taylor would be able to prepare for that scenario!
  • Accessibility of jobs for those living in rural areas where they are constrained by both lack of transport and opportunity.
  • The challenges of balancing work with the availability of childcare - where is the childcare at 4.00 am in the morning if you have to work shifts and you are a single parent?

I could go on, but this is no mean feat and we should all remember that.

I have done my best to reassure my friend, as the optimistic part of me hopes that the provider she ends up with will recognise that she is serious about getting a job, has taken the trouble to get her office skills up to date and will by her very nature be a loyal and hardworking employee. She should not see this as a sentence, but as an opportunity and if she builds a good relationship with her advisor she should get something that suits her needs.

However the Government seems to have stepped up its criticism, launching a major press and policy offensive on the unemployed, young people and benefit claimants in advance of welfare reform changes.

The pragmatic part of me knows that in time she will probably have to give up her home and disrupt her child from school (three times so far in primary education), to move to an area where the likelihood of her getting a job will be better, but the cost of living higher.

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