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Down And Out At The Job Centre
Adventures In The Netherworld Of (Un)employment
by Michael Newland
I thank all those who unintentionally played their part in generating this little
‘web book’. They helped to make up the rich Dickensian cast of characters anyone having the
misfortune to use Job Centres is likely to meet. As they say, only the names have been
changed to protect the guilty.
1. “You should write a book about it”
2. Down and out at the Job Centre
3. A rich cast of characters
4. Training for a changing world
5. “We’re from the government and we’re here to help”
6. You’ve got the job!
7. Ten years hard labour exchange
8. Closer to the edge
9. The deeper waters
10. What has gone wrong?
11. What’s needed
1. “You should write a book about it”
Most people will probably never in their working lives visit a Job Centre looking for work.
Many of you, dear readers, probably think that the government’s employment offices are
somewhat similar to private employment agencies. Plenty of advertising puff, often some sharp
practice, but in the end there to get people into work or they won’t get paid. The
private firm's limitation is the sort of people their customers will take for a fee.
Job Centre jobs are likely to be at the bottom end of the market, but generally genuine,
or why would people bother to advertise? If you’re stuck and not getting anywhere with
newspaper advertisements and private agencies, then, at least a slightly worse paid job may
be there for you through the government’s employment agency. A safety net, in fact, when the
rent needs paying and you are forced to lower your sights.
I wish it were so. But often it’s not, and the press which one might have thought would
have regularly covered the matter seldom does so. This is something of a surprise since
there’s a story with all the right ingredients for popular journalism - exposure of government
incompetence and duplicity, jobs with wages no one could live on, and the chance to read about
the employment misfortunes of others on the train home with the wages cheque au poche - and
As a Job Centre manager once said to me: “The only people who could afford to do our jobs
are teenagers living at home, and people on pensions”. Not a great exaggeration where the
jobs which really are available are concerned.
I’ve often told people about what it’s really like to use a Job Centre. Some respond with
disbelief, thinking one is putting the worst complexion on things for one’s own reasons.
But others say: “You should write a book about it”.
Perhaps a book would provide comfort to others who want to work for a living but
have little opportunity except through the portals of their local state service. Many of
them may imagine that their discouraging experiences are unusual, and that bad luck has
dogged their particular endeavours.
Books about the netherworld of employment, and the unemployed, are uncommon but all the
more needed for it. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, about low-paid jobs in
the US, is a little classic. And, of course, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London,
and Robert Tressell's immortal Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
But a book which caught my eye some years ago in WH Smith, and persuaded me that something
might be written about Job Centres, was a little hardback called Management Mole.
John Mole was a investment banker who took jobs at the bottom of the British private agency
pile to see what it was like, and write about it. As with Barbara Ehrenreich, he was not
forced into it, but went downmarket as an experiment.
Some of us have not had the luxury of choice.
Now the point about writing is to get a message across, and possibly make some money.
It’s nice to see yourself in print in what is called a book or magazine, but the world has
changed since the web became near universal.
Nearly everyone who has tried to get a book published can tell of endless frustration at
the hands of publishers, and most can tell of little profit at the end of it. Often the
material has to be spun out to book length when it really does not merit it. So why bother
putting yourself through angst when most of the world can be reached through the web for
come? Anyone who is interested can read what you say for nothing. You are not dependent on
a publisher believing there is cash in what you want to say.
Almost the entire edifice of hands-on government employment policy in Britain depends
on Job Centres for its functioning. When a government announces that some sector of the
population is going to be assisted or persuaded into work - for example the army of those
on sickness benefits who have essentially been parked there to lower the unemployment
figures - it is not going to happen by magic. It is the Job Centres which are at the sharp
end of the task. If they are not much good then the policy government announced is not going
to be much good.
But, as with making use of most public services, those in power do not use Job Centres
to gain employment. I expect their lips would curl at the thought. The likely result is
easy to predict.
If it has been like it has for me then it’s likely the same for many others who have been
forced to rely on the state’s employment service to any extent.
2. Down and out at the Job Centre
I first visited a Job Centre when I was approaching fifty.
I’d decided to change careers
some years before, and study accountancy. I’d survived thirty years as a builder without
killing myself, and decided I was not going to stretch my luck into my fifties. When I
started, it was up thirty foot ladders with a ladle of molten lead in one hand.
Like everyone else in a risky trade, I had my lucky escapes.
Walking onto a staircase in the dark which no one had told me had been removed in the
hour since I last descended it. Falling off the scaffold in a stair well, but managing to
catch hold of the handrail a story down. Then there was the boiler flue which a helpful
neighbour to my customer had filled with sand to stop the fumes in his garden. The customer
did not know that the Grim Reaper’s bony arm was reaching in his direction. He’d not used
his heating during the summer, and suggested warming the place up a bit.
If you feel a bit tired, think! Is it carbon monoxide?
They say carbon monoxide corpses have a healthy-looking rosy hue to their skins….
If you don’t get killed, trying to do physical work for a living after fifty runs
a severe risk of physical disablement. I’ve met too many people with wrecked knees or backs
who went on too long because they had no other trade to fall back on.
So, when I was in my early forties, I went off to evening classes, and studied accounts.
“If you can pass the professional exams you’ll never be unemployed even if you have to
work for the gas board” said the trainer. It’s 1986 and that’s probably true - or it was at
Years later, I remember an earlier occasion I was told something of the sort about a job.
Before leaving school, I went on a week’s course down the mines. They were looking for keen
lads to join the Coal Board as engineers and managers. The trainer told us: “Coal mining is
a job for life”. It’s 1961, and that’s probably true - at the time.
Five years after starting classes, when I’m near fifty, I’ve got a degree and a
professional qualification. Now all I need is a job. I take advice from the other students,
and a lecturer, who recommend a particular and very large and well-known employment agency.
I pick a branch from the telephone book and walk in. It does not take long. A pleasant
man tells me that the upper age limit to work is 35.
“It’s unlikely you’ll work again” he says with a smile. He adds that he expects to lose
his job soon since he’s 39.
But it’s the dark days of the massive recession which followed Britain’s joining the
Exchange Rate Mechanism, and the Lawson boom. I don’t expect things to be easy. I reason
with myself that I’m only looking for one job not the approval of the entire world.
I soon take up what I don’t realise at the time is my main new career - visiting Job
3. A rich cast of characters
Remember those Victorian engravings illustrating novels and so on? The precursors of film
in which the various characters float in a panorama, some in the foreground, some in the
That’s my mental image of looking for work through the Job Centres. But, in the film
posters, some clean-cut people occupy the foreground, with the more villainous in middle
distance, and often their followers rampage on the skyline.
In my mental image, a cast of none too savoury people are at the front with yet more in
the middle. The very few people you’d trust to watch your case on a station while you fetch
the tea appear only at the sides and quite small, as befits their roles as bit-part players.
Who to put in and who to leave out when so many odd situations present themselves to the
lucky ‘job seeker’ with the full weight of government authority behind his job search?
The office is in a smart new building on the outskirts of the City of London. Like many
such buildings these days, it’s filled with umpteen firms who rent little offices. But, to
put a gloss on each little enterprise in the eyes of the world, there is a grand conference
room where visitors can be welcomed without knowing about the cramped quarters which are all
the firms can in reality afford.
Period houses were built like that with an arch at the end of the hallway. Few people
appreciate that the arch was there to hide a curtain rail. With the curtain drawn visitors
could be ushered into the front parlour never seeing the squalor behind the curtain.
Mr Haig and Mr Curtis ask me into the conference room.
They’ve got my CV in front of them. They ask some rather inconsequential questions but
then suddenly toss a googly. Have I been to prison they ask? I think perhaps they are
concerned that someone from the Job Centre might steal the petty cash. It is the very grand
City after all where ‘one’s word is one’s bond’.
Mr Haig then ventures that the firm has millions a year in turnover but no adequate books.
It’s some sort of financial operation. And it’s been in business several years. Is the question
about prison to see whether they’ve found the ‘right person for the job’?
Now I may draw a tentative conclusion about what sort of people I’m dealing with, but
you can be wrong and the job seeker must give things a chance. So I let the remark about
going to prison pass by without a hissy fit.
The partners ask me upstairs to the office. It’s one small room with a lad of about
eighteen at a desk. He’s introduced as Mr Curtis’s son who is on ‘work experience’. It
looks as though there are no paid staff at all.
The next day I get a call. Can I start the next morning? But there is one small matter
which was not mentioned at the job interview - the wages. The advertisement in the Job Centre
did not say. Of course, no firm should be allowed to advertise without stating the wages,
but this is the Job Centre not a professional employment service.
So I ask what the wages are.
“Why don’t you just start and we can discuss it later” says Mr Haig.
“We’re a happy family here so we’ll sort it out later”.
I’ve already met one member of the happy family who is working for nothing. I tell them I
want to know the wages before I start. He won’t say. I give up in the end and put the
Later in the day, Mr Curtis rings.
He can’t understand the problem and why I have not agreed to start the next day. The hell
I tell him about the leading case in contract law where the judge ruled that it is not the
job of the courts to fill in the terms of a contract where the parties have been too lazy to
agree them. I’m teasing now. He knows perfectly well that if no wages are agreed there is no
contract and they are not obliged to pay anything. They are trying to get someone for nothing,
and have used a Job Centre expecting to find someone who will accommodate them whether he
intends to or not.
Eventually, Mr Curtis grudgingly tells me about the wages they have no intention of paying.
But by now I know what variety of animal I’m dealing with. A contract may be a contract but,
without evidence, it’s unenforcible. I want it in writing.
“Send me an e-mail saying what the wages are and I’ll be there tomorrow” I tell Mr Curtis.
No e-mail ever arrives. I won’t be hearing from them again.
One of the staff in the Job Centre’s telephone enquiry service once said to me: “There are
some genuine jobs in our lists”. Well, there must be some!
Martin Michaels has what is called an ‘office suite’ off King's Road.
No shared conference room here. A whole floor of an 18th century building is all his. He
is running a dealing business in something or other, so he tells me. The sky is the limit.
The advertisement said the job was twenty hours a week. No wages given. On the telephone
he’s told me it’s eight to ten hours a week. The advertisement was a lie to get people to
I tell him that‘s of no help to me. No problem. He can make the hours longer. What is the
minimum I could do - hours and wages? He’s there to help like the government Job Centre.
At the interview, a piece of paper is pressed into my hand. They have calculated
that if I reduce my wages to two-thirds of what I asked for (already below the market rate)
they will gain twice as much as
I lose owing to the nature of the tax system. It’s all there on paper carefully calculated
by experts! They will gain about £20 a week. The sky is definitely the limit with this firm.
The idea of working for cash while signing-on is also suggested as something I
might consider. Now anyone considering doing this should understand the hazards. If you
don't get paid you can't exactly go to court! In fact there is nothing you can do
short of serious crime, as firms of a certain kind understand very well.
I ring the Job Centre manager and point out that the advertisement is fake, and the
suggestion about working for cash.
“What do you expect me to do about it” she says.
Well, stopping people like it advertising at public expense would seem a good idea to me.
A month later I get an e-mail. It’s a job offer! The twenty hours per week are now twelve
(if it's not another tale), and they are to be spread over four days. The happy worker will
not earn enough over a week to keep a mouse going (if paid at all). I don’t reply. Another e-mail
arrives expressing surprise at the lack of interest.
Months later the job is still being advertised. It’s now 15 hours a week. The wages again
are not mentioned.
Downmarket in Tower Hamlets. It’s one of those areas partly redeveloped in the 1990s. A
horrible mix of new buildings, and odds and bobs of old ones. The character of the old area
has been destroyed, and there is not even the gloss of a spanking new one where everything
A run-down building with a bell and name on the door. The only good thing is that it’s a
stone’s throw from the river. I have visions of watching Old Father Thames go by, and
dreaming of Sir Francis Drake sailing the Golden Hind back from afar, as I eat my lunch
during the summer.
Ed greets me and asks me to sit down. He tells me something about his firm, and casually
mentions that he also owns an airline with some other partners. I nod seriously. I expect he
tells women about his yacht.
He explains that he’s not only got the business mentioned in the advertisement but another
as well which he runs from the office. He tried running it in the ordinary way but the other
building firms were so much cheaper that he’s been forced to operate by the same methods to
compete. Illegal immigrants are the answer to the staff problem.
“Have a chat with Moira” he says.
“She’s been doing the books but she’s leaving”.
Moira, I guess, is his mother. She has a certain air of Irene Handl in ‘Two Way
Stretch’, who chided her son for not making a respectable effort to go ‘over the wall’
of the prison he’s in. She asks whether I know how to do what she calls ‘wrinkles’ with Sage
I leave at a suitable point when conversation is exhausted, politely shaking hands with
Another day, another dodgy little firm looking for a patsy who can be blamed if the
Inland Revenue or VAT inspector starts poking in his big nose. The insulting supposition is,
of course, that if you come from a Job Centre you are in the business of fiddling other
people’s taxes for a pittance.
I tell a local trader I know about it.
“It’s bad enough fiddling your own tax” he says “Let alone being asked to fiddle someone
I’m given an address in Bloomsbury. When I get there I think I’ve been given the wrong
address. It’s a shop which appears to be empty and abandoned in a hurry. The floor is piled
with junk when one looks through the windows. Perhaps the firm is just moving in?
A woman appears from a staircase to the basement. There’s a rather run-down office down
under with three people in it. The job, I’m told, is doing the books for a chain of shops.
Each day, an envelope of papers arrives from each shop about its takings. My job is to
write them up in an old-fashioned cash book. There are some till rolls among the stuff. But
about a quarter of the takings are not included in the amounts going through the till but
listed separately. Now how is the proprietor going to have any notion of how much is really
being taken when it’s not put through a till? He’s not there to check.
Now it is easy to sniff a funny here. There is only one reason for not putting
takings through the till in a shop. And you don’t need to be an accountant to work it out.
Even the staff can work it out. What is sauce for the goose is good for the gander when
cash is available. And the shop has been dressed to appear abandoned in case unwelcome
The second day I arrive at work to hear that the manager of one of the shops has
disappeared. He was supposed to pay each day’s takings into the bank. He’s had the brilliant
idea of not banking the takings for a week and then taking the accumulated cash with him.
The proprietor appears for the first time. He distinctly reminds me of the well-known car
dealer Arthur Daley.
And I can work out that my job is doing the figures for the money being taken by the
shops. Any trouble with the authorities and the finger will be pointed at me.
I ask the
girl who appears to manage the office what happened to the last person who did my job. She
was Filipino and left after becoming ‘upset’. No wages paid is my guess.
4. Training for a changing world
Training! The key to success. The newspapers are full of such messages.
We’re in a skill-based economy. You get nowhere without skills. But I like learning
things. I’ve just spent five years doing exams so show me a course and I’m your man.
Getting a job is a skill in itself, and advice is welcome.
The Job Centre advertises a week’s course on seeking work. Since the entire economy is
in the pits, there is only so much a course can contribute but at least they are trying.
There are two trainers. Decent well-meaning folk without the pinched look you often get
with front-line staff in Job Centres. A friend told me that he’d known someone who worked in
a Job Centre. The keenest job seekers were the staff themselves.
Our teachers seem reasonably content with their lot. The course is quite practical.
I chum up with Pete who is about forty, intelligent and sharp, and was made redundant a
year or two ago. Perfectly employable one would have thought. But he can’t get a job.
Pete and I knock up a running joke about taking jobs as crash test dummies. The requirement
is to do the full range of tests. Whiplash, side, and front impact.
Few of the others on the course speak English well, and most seem uninterested. The
impression one gets is that they’ve been press ganged by Job Centres trying to show they
are doing something for them.
Being systematic about looking for work is a good idea, the trainers point out.
And they throw in a little
motivational stuff. We have to write a list of the disadvantages in being unemployed. I
suggest ‘the deleterious effects of daytime TV’. This goes down well as a suggestion not
heard on previous courses.
But all the training in job search is no good if there are no jobs, or firms won’t take
on people over 35 and you are over 35.
And the training course assumes genuine employers, and real jobs. Advice on the realities,
and the signs of what to avoid when looking for work through Job Centres, would be as helpful.
You cannot take anything for granted with Job Centre jobs.
The advertisement says ‘25 hours a week’? Does that mean that the job provides 25 hours
of work each week? In many cases it means a ‘general idea’, a ‘possibility’ or a ‘target’.
There are no guaranteed hours at all! The fortunate job seeker has no idea whatsoever
whether he will work from one week to the next. The firms simply want someone to be available
in case they are needed. The advertisement does not tell you that, and the Job Centre neither
knows nor cares. In fact, there is no ‘job’ in any normal sense at all!
None of this is covered on the training course.
5. We’re from the government and we’re here to help
One of the regular features of life at the Job Centre is the ‘interview’.
No, not the interviews with employers. The interviews ordained by the government to make
sure everything is being done properly. Billed as ‘helping you back into work’, they are
nothing of the sort. A highly stylised ritual.
The job of the interviewer is supposedly to provide skilled help with getting a job.
Most of the people who do these jobs appear to have been hired because of their lack of
knowledge, or even any interest in employment. One seemed better suited to be on the door
of a club than working in HR as flexed his muscles meaningfully.
Being interviewed by them is like, one
imagines, being quizzed by a third-rate and crooked policeman. Poorly veiled attempts to
make out that one has done something wrong dot the conversation. Words are twisted in an
amateurish way. The mildly sneering and disbelieving manner often employed, after the
initial friendly greeting, is something of a Job Centre art form.
Demoralising the workers and making them feel guilty seems to be the objective. Even if
you cannot think of anything you have done wrong, a vague impression is given that unspecified
charges are being prepared. One gets
the impression that some smirking occurs privately. People with useless jobs despise
those they deal with.
But two essential rites of passage must be passed through at each interview. These are
intended to cover the organisation if any challenge is made as to the quality of the
assistance provided to the unemployed. It’s obvious that the interviewers have been told on
a training course what boxes must be ticked as to the components of the interview.
A suggestion must be made as to how the claimant can better find work. The usual one is
to ask whether the job seeker has tried advertisements in newspapers. Never thought of that.
Lucky to be able to enjoy such advice from experts.
But it’s the close of interview which really tells.
The interviewer scans the employment records. Have you applied for this one? The subject
must always be sent away with a job to apply for selected by trained human resources
personnel who know how to match applicants with jobs.
Del suggests a job in a shop.
I read the description. The job is for a shop boy. A very low-paid assistant to the shop
assistants. The sort of person one imagines as 16, just left school, and sent on his way,
whistling, to deliver Mrs Smith’s pound of kippers.
“Don’t drop them mind”.
So I send off my CV showing me to be 60 and with now two degrees and a professional
Unsurprisingly, I get no reply from the employer who must wonder why I applied. Most
employers will conclude that people taken on whose skills and experience are grossly
mismatched with the job will soon be looking elsewhere.
wasted postage stamp.
It seems to have escaped some
people's attention that our economy is based on specialisation. If a skilled person takes an
unskilled job then the economy is deprived of the use of those skills. But we are supposed
to have a skills shortage! Further, there is an excess of the unskilled and no need, in
principal, to press
the skilled into doing unskilled jobs to obtain bodies.
But the interview has been correctly conducted according to the rules, and all the right
things done to assist the claimant and by him. Another good job by Job Centre staff.
While this sort of charade is inflicted on people who want to work for a living, the
Audit Commission has refused to approve the social security accounts for the past many
years because of fraud.
When ineptitude reaches a certain pitch, what might otherwise be regarded as an
accident ceases to be an accident and becomes manslaughter.
Many of the interviews are cancelled when you arrive.
“Bloggs is not here today. We’ll have to re-book the interview”.
At the second attempt, on one occasion, I see someone with a name I can barely pronounce.
He’s a quarter of an hour late. Other staff have to be sent to locate him. The impression he
gives is that he’ll do as little as possible to get the wages. I can't entirely blame him.
But he urges the need to be keen and positive on the unemployed. I would not dream of
employing him if I were looking for staff. He’s got bone idle written all over him. Or maybe
the system has ground him down.
One particular interview was an important day for me.
The Government had recognised the problems many people face in getting jobs and started a
special scheme to help. I have visions of getting a job through the New Deal.
The advisor tells me that the scheme is ‘client led’. This, she explains, means “We don’t
help you to get a job”.
Well, at least there are going to be some jobs set aside for New Dealers only. I find two
I can do in the next two years. I'm told I can't apply for either. One is for refugees, and
the other under-25s only.
A Labour MP says on TV that stories about immigrants being given any priority are myths.
So I write to him about the job I can’t apply for but refugees can. No reply. Now if you are
thinking that the job paid the minimum wage you would be wrong. It was an accounts job for a
publisher and paid £14k. Not for a humble unemployed Briton like me though.
A telephone call at home from someone at the Job Centre who does not speak English too
well. The message asks whether I knew that I could stop signing on and still enjoy the
benefits I’m entitled to now I’ve reached 60?
Yes I did. It’s called fiddling the unemployment figures.
I go in to the Job Centre and speak to Shez. She tells me that when people reach sixty
they have to stop signing on. Not true. I asked a direct question as to whether I had to stop
registering as unemployed.
I won’t have to be ‘hassled’ by Job Centre staff any more, she says. An interesting
comment on the nature of Job Centres. She’ll give me a
booklet explaining it all. The booklet has no relevance whatsoever to stopping signing on,
or to our conversation. She’s just picked up any old piece of paper.
I might as well give up looking for work, Shez tells me, because firms "don't want to know"
about people who are over 60. But the law will soon be changed to prevent them doing this
legally. In fact, she's just heard that Labour is bringing forward the new rules by a year
in their enthusiasm to help. Untrue.
I know what they are up to, and I’m not helping the corrupt Labour government to fiddle
the figures. And they’ve tried to trick me into it. I'm sure they try this strategem on
they reach sixty. Can't be much fun for the staff who are ordered to do it. Telling someone
that their working life is over against their wishes is a lesser version of informing someone
that they've got terminal cancer.
Read the Number Ten web site and you get a different tale. The Government is committed to
getting people into work whatever their ages.
I write to the manager asking why they are employing such tactics. After a second letter,
I get an evasive reply.
As David Willetts has pointed out, Job Centre managers are under huge pressure to remove
people from the unemployment figures. If every Job Centre in the country can dispose of one
or two persons down the oubliette a week, a very satisfactory announcement can be made by
the minister each month about ‘falling unemployment’.
Concerning the work of the official oubliette, we must not omit mentioning one of the
most nefarious and cynical practices used by Job Centres to maintain the illusion of jobs
for all. A practice which now seems thankfully to have largely been dropped - the ‘work trial’.
The idea was that the unemployed should work unpaid. But fair-minded employers would be
impressed if their unpaid staff were diligent in carrying out their duties, and, in
conscience, start to pay them. Why anyone would wish to pay staff when they can get them for
nothing with official approval is a question best not asked.
One of the Job Centre staff told me that an unfortunate client had worked filling shelves
in a supermarket for six months unpaid, and never been given a paid job. When he had the
effrontery to ask for wages he was sacked.
But, of course, he
no doubt disappeared from the unemployment figures for six months.
Some time during the 1990s, I read in the Job Centre about 'volunteering'. This is
represented as a more
sophisticated version of the 'work trial', with an organised system for working free to lead to
actual paid employment. The hook is that the free work is for charities, so the participant
can enjoy a warm glow of personal satisfaction about doing good even if there is nothing
to rattle in his wallet.
I go to a place off Oxford Street which appears to be paid for with government money.
What isn't! They give the impression of being very busy sending out people to work in all
manner of charities.
I ask how long you have to volunteer for in order to become eligible to work for actual money.
From the reaction of mild disapproval, this is a 'how long is a piece of string' question
not asked in polite circles. You can't get even an indication. We're here to care not to
They send me to an address in the City for an interview.
It's a charity working in the Third World with a yoghurt knitter name. There are several
English staff who appear to be
immensely happy with their lot. Then there are umpteen people, who appear to be immigrants,
mooching about with their heads down. The body language spells misery. I figure that the 'happies'
are on huge salaries, and read the Guardian because they feel others' pain. The 'sads' are
The director, who has an even bigger smile of satisfaction that the other 'happies', tells me
that the job is doing the books. She leaves me alone with Ahmed from Iraq, who is leaving,
to discuss the details.
He's got a giant cash book he's filled in neatly. I ask him how long he's been there.
Five years. All the time as a volunteer? Yes, but he's off for a paid job elsewhere now.
So volunteering leads to paid work? Well if you wait five years it might. Reminds me of some
sick version of Monopoly where you work for naught for five years rather than going to jail.
The top 'happy' returns and we have another chat. She says that the building we are in was
once the London headquarters of an African colonial business empire. Lots of cash made on the backs
of the natives, I expect. Still is
- by some.
We’re from the government and we’re here to help…..
6.‘You’ve got the job!’
I’ve only ever been offered one full-time job in ten years of looking for work in Job
Centres. Is it my fault? I don’t think so because I’ve met too many other people past about
forty in the same position.
“Plenty of work for those who want it” say the cynics. In the narrowest sense that’s true.
Offer to work for a penny a day and you’ll get offers! But the point of work is to support
life at the least. The wages are of some importance, and that is where the ‘plenty of work’
saloon bar theorists go wrong.
The correct question should be “Do you want to work for a living?”. That is a very
different matter from “Do you want to work?”.
Peter and Sanji run a small accountancy firm. Neither are fully qualified but the office
looks professional, and they seem to know what they are doing and to try hard.
You can usually tell the moment you walk into a job interview whether you’ve got the job.
If the employers seem anxious to approve of what you say it usually means they are stuck for
your skills. In their minds, the decision was made before you even arrived.
I think I’ve fallen on my feet. It’s the late 1990s and the job market has picked up after
the doldrums of the big recession. The firm’s work is regular, and seems normal. The usual
small shops, plumbers and so on, as clients wanting their tax done.
Once a week, a blousy middle-aged women appears in the office who is treated like royalty.
Most small firms of any kind are heavily dependent on one or two key customers. Mrs Bell runs
a hotel, they tell me. I get to do her books. It’s really a DSS hostel called a hotel but it
seems honest work. I rib one of the bosses about his visits to pick up the paperwork. He’s
been drinking cocktails in the palm court. Very lucrative client, I’m told, so take it seriously. Seems odd for the type of job.
Tel is a new client. He runs a wholesalers in a run-down area notorious for mugging. He
does not want his paperwork taken off the premises so I’m dispatched with a laptop to go to
the office and try to organise a mound of paperwork into books for his overdue accounts.
Walking through the streets from the tube I feel I’ve got a sign on my back: ‘Laptop computer
worth a lot. Please mug me’.
The premises are a run-down building under threat of demolition for a big redevelopment.
One huge room is full of junk, with just a little clear spot with a desk to work on. The
weather’s boiling so I open a window. Part of the frame falls off in my hand. The tenons have
rotted, but since the building is coming down what does it matter? I wedge it together and
get working. An hour or two later the client appears. He closes the window. If I open it
again he’ll have to charge my firm £400.
It’s all clear now. The guy is what is called in the building industry a ‘knocker’. He’ll
use any excuse to complain he’s not been served properly. That’s why he does not want the
records taken off the premises. They could be held hostage.
Several months pass peacefully and the wages are paid on time. You can’t take anything
for granted with Job Centre work.
Then one day I arrive at work to be told that Mrs Bell has been arrested. Arrested? For
running a hotel?
The Curse of Job Centres has struck. No job advertised is ever with any firm which is
entirely legitimate and respectable. Or so it seems most of the time.
The firm told me about Mrs Bell’s hotel. What they did not tell was that she also ran a
chain of brothels. Mrs Bell, it emerges, is a Cynthia Payne persona well-known in the brothel
business and to the police. Obviously my broader education has been lacking because I’d never
heard of her. The firm has been doing the accounts for her massage parlours which conceal a
vast black economy brothel business. It appears she has advertised her firm’s services in the
The big accounts fees were for a reason.
I’ve just spent five years struggling through accountancy exams, and I did not bargain
with being mixed up with this sort of thing. I give in my notice. We agree I’ll leave straight
away. A big relief. I expected the press at the door before long asking anyone leaving why
they are working running brothels.
Why do they do it? The accountants knew perfectly well that the massage parlours were
brothels, and that the accounts they were producing were a tissue of lies even if they had
not been told so directly. They were not
naive. But they took a chance for the big fees.
The case of Mrs Bell has sharp echos of a fellow professional who operated a chain of
brothels in Chelsea during the 1880s. Mrs Jeffries, or the ‘Empress of Vice‘ as the papers
called her, seemed to enjoy the favourable gaze of the authorities much as a brothel madam
might presume to do from being able to advertise in the police newspaper. Even the Home
Secretary refused to act against Mrs Jeffries.
But, against both ladies, eventually official action arrived - but with varying results.
At Mrs Jeffries’ trial, the reluctance to act by the police was soon explained. No less than
the Prince of Wales was in the frame as a customer at Old Church Street, and it turned out
that the King of the
Belgians had contributed £800 to the establishment in a month. Mrs Jeffries was fined only £200.
A year later, I hear that Mrs Bell has been sentenced to pay a £2 million fine, or serve
five years in prison. Being able to advertise in the police newspaper did not it seem offer
quite the same legal privilege as entertaining royalty. Even in today’s money £2 million is
very great deal more than £200 in the 1880s.
I’ve got a Saturday accounts job as well. From the Job Centre again. From no job to two
jobs a few months ago. A double falling on the feet.
But the day after I leave the brothel accountants the Curse of Job Centres strikes again.
Jamie has a building business, whose books I do on Saturdays. He told me a while back that
he’d been “done” by the Inland Revenue for £40,000 in back tax, interest and penalties. He
now says he’s short of money, and asks would I fiddle his VAT return by £3000. I point out
that VAT fraud is a criminal offence.
“If you are working for me you should do what I want even if it’s illegal” he says.
There’s no answer to that, as Morecambe and Wise used to say. I leave never to return.
I apply for a job as an inspector for a firm doing repairs for housing associations The
firm seems legitimate. They often do! The pay is good. I know what’s required and it’s full
time. I’d not intended to return to the old trade but this is inspection not crawling round
on your knees all day.
Ed, the boss, is there when I arrive to start.
“Can you answer the phone” he says, and disappears into a glass fronted office.
The phone soon rings. A voice says “Where’s our money”. Ed waves through his window.
Pretend I’m not here is the sign language. He knew who would be calling. There is the same
sort of performance a couple more times during the next hour.
Is this a firm that never pays the bills, or a one-off dispute? Would I get my wages?
Unpaid bills spell despair among all with an interest as much as going to your bank and
being told it's run out of cash.
A lady soon arrives who appears to be the boss’s wife. Smartly-dressed and smooth. She
remarks that the employer is a ‘bit of a so and so’. Why is she telling me that when I’ve
just started working there?
She soon casually mentions that the last person to have had my job as office manager had
lunch at one and was paid dot dot. Office manager? I applied for a job as a building work
checker at near double the wages. It’s a switcheroo job. After a month, they would have tried
to tell me I had misunderstood what job and salary I’d taken up.
I make my excuses, and say I’m going to lunch. I have to think that the lady was
kindly tipping me off.
The woman in the Job Centre does not seem surprised.
“They let it slip” she says.
It’s not clear whether she’s come across this firm herself but she’s certainly come
across the trick. Some firms of this dubious type advertise over and over again
When I suggest to another member of the staff, Gita, that people like this should not be
allowed to advertise she says: “No advertisement is ever removed unless the employer murders
the applicant”. Not quite right. There is something called 'suspending an advertisement'. It's
back a couple of days later.
I say to Gita that I can barely recall coming across a single genuine job in a Job Centre.
found one herself, she tells me. Her job in the Job Centre. An extension of the saying
concerning Job Centre courses that the only people who get jobs from them are the people
running the courses.
So firms can put a pack of lies in their advertisements, try to cheat job seekers and
carry on regardless. Welcome to the wonderful Kafka world of the Job Centre.
For the first and only time - after many years of posting mainly unanswered letters -
I’m asked to an interview through a newspaper advertisement.
The job is part-time, but the firm seems regular. Employer polite and seems keen. He says
he can’t get anyone to stay so things look promising. The work is doing annual accounts so it
figures he might have difficulty getting anyone with the knowledge willing to work part-time.
I get the job.
For the first time in nearly ten years I’m working for a reputable firm. It’s like a world
away from the sort of thing you suffer with those benighted Job Centre ‘opportunities’. I
hope to be able to stay.
The wages are not huge because it’s part-time. But the New Deal means I have a chance to
get some of my taxes back. £40 a week for a year tax-free is better than a poke in the eye
with a burnt stick.
I have to sign a form agreeing to pay the money back if the hours are less than sixteen
on average. And even if it’s not the employee’s fault.
Some months later, the work dries up. I’m short on hours two months running. The employer
tells me it’s not his problem. He’d agreed sixteen hours and gave me no warning he was running
out of work. But I’m now in the position of having worked less than sixteen hours a week on
average. I’m faced with a bill from the Job Centre for £1000 in repayment of the New Deal
money. Not much of a reward for working. No wonder some people don’t bother.
Rab C. Nesbit - Job Centre cynicism polished up - said that his son had the right attitude
to work. He prepared himself mentally for redundancy before starting the job. He had a point.
The Curse of Job Centres has struck again.
Some stiff negotiation, and the employer agrees to make up the missing hours and I’ll
leave at the end of the month.
7. Ten years hard labour exchange
A philosophical attitude is essential for the keen job seeker.
Whatever the frustrations of travelling round to firms in search of work, the peculiar
nature of Job Centre jobs does at least provide a frisson of interest about what bizarre
circumstance you will meet with next.
A pleasant young woman telephones to ask me to an interview.
I’m there on time. It's one thing you can do right whoever you are. A nicely historic
bit of Clerkenwell close by where my ancestor made clocks. And a few yards from where some
of those who signed Charles 1’s death warrant were tried. The building is yet another smart
new affair split into small units for a range of firms.
I ring the door bell. The woman who has telephoned says “I’ll come down”.
She’ll come down? They don’t want applicants coming into the building! But when I
go after a job it’s a two way street. I want to know who I’m dealing with, and especially
from long experience of Job Centres. It looks like a wild goose chase already.
Carole says that we’ll have to go to a conference centre across the road. So my firm
cannot seemingly use the conference room in their building. They all have one these days.
The firm writes software. I’ve checked their web site before leaving home. My guess is
that they do it on the kitchen table, and don’t even have premises beyond a corner of
someone else’s office as an accommodation address. That’s why I’m not let in the building.
Carole says that the finance director she mentions in a run-down of the firm is a
made-up title to make the firm look more substantial than it really is. This confirms my
view that the office is an accommodation.
She’ll let me know in a few days about the job. She’s got my CV passed on by the Job
A week later an e-mail arrives.
She’s sorry I wasted my time but the boss had not told her the job was already filled.
There would be no point in saying such a thing if it weren’t true. At the interview, it
turned out that the Job Centre had taken nearly a month to send on my CV.
The afternoon outing to the firm was not unpleasant. Nice area. Sometimes with Job Centre
jobs there is no one at the premises at all when you call. At least someone was there.
You cannot presume, however, that you will even be asked to the firm’s office when you
apply for a job through your local Job Centre. Do they even have one?
One job I applied for was advertised as regular work in the City of London. It looked
like a job in one of those faceless city firms which do something concerned with ‘finance’.
But when I applied, I was asked to meet the employer in a café in Bromley! Why does he not
want me to see where he operates from?
But the best of the ‘let’s meet in a café’ bunch was Steve Fitt.
His office is at home, he says, but he’d rather not meet there. He’s a solicitor and
wants his books and VAT returns done. How about Starbucks?
Now, in my view, people like this should not be bothered with. But in the spirit of
making a genuine effort to get work I suggest he visits my home to discuss the matter.
The evening before his visit Steve e-mails me to say he’ll be round tomorrow morning.
But he’s now going to march into my home and load his accounts and software on my PC,
and attach some kind of card reader. I’ve never met him and have no real idea who he is.
What is his game exactly?
He says the job is ‘self-employed’. In which case, it’s no job at all merely the
possibility of a bit of occasional work of unknown duration. My guess is that his VAT
return needs doing, and it’s to be done unpaid as a part of the ‘job interview’.
I mail him to say forget it. He ignores the e-mail and turns up anyway. Happily I’m not
in. I tell him home truths by e-mail about VAT returns being a legal responsibility. People
want to know who they are dealing with, and negotiate any job in the normal way. He does
not reply. But I’ve not wasted much time finding out that there was no job, and it’s another
story to add to my stock
But it’s difficult to be philosophical all the time.
I apply for a job which is not badly paid, and seems to be regular work connected with
a huge rail project.
Months later, I get a call from an employment agency in Leeds. I don’t remember applying
for any agency jobs. Let alone in Leeds. It’s the rail job. The advertisement did not make
clear it was an agency.
Later in the day a man rings. This is beginning to look promising.
He says there is a desperate shortage of people with qualifications like mine. Getting
warm! So can I apply for the job? No.
He explains that if I’ve been out of work eighteen months he can’t put me forward for
the job because the client would not want to know. I suggest asking the client. No he can’t
do that. He knows what the client would say.
Now I can see it from the client’s viewpoint. I’d guess that from the scale of employment
agency fees he’s got to pay about two thousand pounds to be sent someone. He expects to get a
person who’s well-qualified, and with a reassuring work record.
But I applied for the job through a Job Centre where I’m supposedly sent out for free.
Unknown to me when I apply, I’m caught up in the agency game where many of those perfectly
capable and qualified are not even given the opportunity for the employer to see their CVs.
The cry from the agency will no doubt be our old friend ‘We can’t get the staff’.
I feel in need of vomiting.
I apply for another job through the Job Centre. This time it’s clear that it’s an agency.
The woman tells me on the telephone they that want someone younger. She appreciates the
position because she’s over 50 and working on the New Deal. So she’s been excluded on the
basis of age and is now doing the same thing herself to other people.
I ask what the agency will do when it’s illegal to exclude people on the basis of their
ages after 2006. Lie is what she basically says.
I've got a page from the Evening Standard I found under some lino during my building days.
You never know when these things will come in useful.
The first lady manager of a Labour Exchange in Britain, Miss Rees from Fulham, says that
the war has taught employers an important lesson. Women are not finished at 40. It's dated
October 24 1944.....
Another day, another outing.
The leasing firm is in Battersea. The employer seems interested and will let me know.
He rings some days later saying he’d like me to meet the current incumbent, who is leaving,
and spend a little time familiarising myself with the firm’s accounts. But she works
somewhere miles away in Hertfordshire where she hires a corner of a local accountant’s office.
Would I travel there to see her? He’ll pay the fare. The moolah is not actually proffered.
And he’ll not be there himself.
Now I admit I’m taken in. It’s a little unreasonable to expect someone to do this before
they are on the payroll, but it sounds plausible. And in the famous words of Max Miller:
“I try, I do”.
A long train ride into Hertfordshire and I arrive at the firm. I greet the lady who’s
leaving. She has her PC turned on.
I say: “OK let’s have look at the books. Perhaps the trial balance first”.
She brings it up as a ‘thumbnail’ on the screen. Is this a test of some kind?
I say I can’t read the screen as a thumbnail. Would she like to bring the figures up full
“No I can’t show you the accounts” she says.
So what am I doing there? Why the charade with the PC?
Another woman appears with a copy of my CV, and who seems to work for the firm of
I’ve not given them my CV, but I see a glimmer of light. The story about looking over the
books was a lie to induce me to visit the accountants where a job interview can be sprung on
But why do such a thing? If I’d been asked to go to an interview with the firm’s
accountants I’d probably have agreed anyway. But how can you work for someone who tricks
you before you’ve even started?
I’m polite but never hear from the employer again. My guess is that the accountants knew
that if the Battersea firm did not get anyone to do the job they would get the work at a
vastly greater fee than the lady leaving is being paid. The firm has weekly PAYE so they
can’t leave the books for a year.
If that’s true, the lady who was ‘leaving’ would no doubt continue to do the job but now
for more money. Everyone apart from me is trying to outsmart someone else.
Can you think of a better explanation for these strange carryings-on?
Only at the Job Centre - unless you know better!
8. Closer to the edge
Who was the entertainer one of whose catch phrases was "The bells, the bells"? A reference
I think to Charles Laughton's hammy performance as Quasimodo in The
Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Sometimes warning bells threaten to split your ear drums when negotiating the many hazards
involved in Job Centre job seeking. These jobs deserve a special place in our story.
The vacancy appears on the face of it to be a basic bookkeeping job with a company
I've never heard of. I think of Sha and Tray shuffling invoices and talking about
makeup and their latest boy friends to relieve the monotony. I'm way overqualified but
it costs nothing to apply.
A lady rings from the firm who talks in a slightly overfamiliar manner about how the
job would be very suitable for me. Since I've never met her I wonder about it and what might
lie behind this unusual approach.
me to ring the next day. I'm then told that she's out on 'assignment'.
What sort of firm sends accounts people out on 'assignments' apart from practices and
it's not one of those? I begin to become curious. I do a search
on the web. The firm turns out to be a private detective agency. But it's not a one-man
gumshoe operation like in 1930s American films with a down-on-his-luck ex-cop taking
beatings and being leaned on by the heat. This one boasts umpteen former top detectives.
I recognise one of the names. Almost as familiar as Jack Regan in its day.
Now this firm specialises in company investigations. That spells fraud and fraud
spells accounts. But why would a firm like it be hiring from a Job Centre? Confidentiality
is, to say the least of it, make or break for a firm like this. And it's a substantial operation
so the fee for a private employment agency providing well-referenced staff can hardly be a
Several more inconsequential telephone calls and nothing further happens. I don't hear from
them again. I think hard what might be the explanation for this perplexing affair. The only
plausible explanation I can think of is that the work was somewhere close to the edge and
someone from a Job Centre might be thought stupid enough to become involved.
How do the general run of detective agencies get information on people you or I cannot get?
Not by being Sherlock Holmes reborn two centuries later. They have informers inside various
organisations to look things up for them. Easy if you have the contacts but not exactly a mark
I think I'm well off that the negotiations dry up.
Another, on the face of it, standard part-time bookkeeping job so many hours a week. But
this one is better paid - if you can
believe the advertisement. From the firm's name it looks like an outfit which sub-contracts one
branch of building work - probably on big developments. A small office somewhere where
the paperwork is done, and a site hut at the coal face.
A man rings from a mobile phone. Would I come to an interview on a site they are working on?
It's just about where Peter The Great did some ship building. Odd. Surely the books are not
being done on the site. Why am I not asked to the firm's offices? Perhaps they are too small to
have a formal one and do it at home.
My quick guesses about the firm are razor sharp except for one thing. It is indeed a subcontractor
working on a big block of
ghastly 1960s council flats being refurbished for the private market. I remember I've seen it
the Sunday paper property sections.
The interview is in a site hut. A man works down with me a list of items the applicant will
need to do. The alarm bells go off when he says that one of the jobs is to check that
his staff are working legally. Now London is jammed with foreign building workers, and there
is no official system for checking these things properly as close followers of immigration
matters in the newspapers like myself know.
But firms can be prosecuted for employing illegal labour. The official reason there are few
prosecutions is that firms claim they had no idea that staff were illegal. But I'm being asked
to become involved in making myself responsible for establishing whether papers are in order.
How would I check such things? Only a former Home Office immigration person would have a hope
in hell of detecting fake passports and work permits. I would not know a genuine work permit
from a fake turned out on a word processor if you bashed me around the ears with either.
I tell the man I don't know how to check this kind of paperwork and he'll have to teach me.
I don't think that's the right answer!
But now the plot begins to thicken like adding flour to a sauce. And this firm has no
shortage of sauce. The man asks whether I can provide a fully equipped office to do his
work in. The one thing I missed was assuming the firm had an office of sorts. Their office is to be
my home! But what was advertised was an employment for so many hours a week.
Turn up and get the wages cheque. No mention of providing premises and equipment!
The package is now clear. The big boy wants an outside firm to do his accounts - as and
when required - but does
not want to pay one of those thousands of small accounts firms, who advertise in newspapers, to
do the job at commercial rates.
He wants the service while only paying wages of the sort you get by turning up at
someone else's premises where you have no real responsibility and are just a cog in the wheel.
Better yet, if there is any immigration problem, our hero - in his clever plan - can refer
"We had a man checking things sir. Look, we can give you his address officer."
A Chinese gentleman was wandering round the perimeter of the building site when I arrived. He
asked me where the firm was.
I thought he must be another applicant. I was trying to find the way in myself at the time.
Eventually, I found a small door in a hoarding which led to the site huts. I would never have
seen it unless I'd had experience of building sites.
When I come out he's gone.
9. The deeper waters
Thirty years ago most jobs were regular. Most people expected to stay in jobs for decades.
The need for a system of matching people with jobs, and providing an easy way of advertising
them, was far smaller than it is today.
Then came the theory of the ‘flexible work force’. In my opinion, a system with a grossly
inflated reputation which is due for re-grading. The idea that, in a skills based economy,
people can be slotted in and out like printed circuit boards was sold to business no doubt
at considerable profit to some management gurus.
But anyone who has worked in a real business knows that real life is not like that. Real
enterprises are a maze of details specific to them. Until someone has learnt the ropes they
are not going to be particularly efficient. There may be a tiny gain from doing things this way
but a lot of anxiety as well. As an economist put it to me: “A point on growth and everyone’s
But business fashion being what it is, few are going to march against the tide, and risk
So the workforce, whether they like it or not, are often going to find themselves
regularly on the move and in need of a service to mix and match them with jobs. The fact
that many employment rights only kick in after a year also means that a lot of employers
who describe their positions as ‘permanent’ are really only offering eleven months work
(if one is lucky).
Levels of unemployment are also far greater than decades ago. There are no longer jobs on
every corner as in the Golden Age of the 1950s and 1960s. And many of the jobs there are
exist in a twilight world of semi-legality.
This is not only because of the fragmentation created by ‘flexibility’ in which here
today gone tomorrow staff are not organised to press any demand for legitimacy.
The twilight nature of much work has been vastly worsened by immigration, the lack of
underlying dynamism in the economy, and the degree of regulation which encourages flight
As economics teaches us, today’s profits come from those investing for tomorrow. The
post-war period was a period of vigorous investment. Now many firms no longer have confidence
in the future. The result is another serious temptation to move away from legitimate operation.
What all of this means is that the stress and difficulty of trying to work is a
considerable disincentive to doing so. It’s all too easy to decide that work is for horses
and another form of work is far easier - working the system. Some of those who have chosen
that route in life have scoffed at me for bothering with jobs. They have a point.
Now there is a real problem here which is particularly prevalent with Job Centres.
JK Galbraith joked that the view of wages taken by the better-off is that they need
higher wages to incentivise them. But the worse-off should have their wages lowered to
encourage them to work harder. They will have to in order to maintain their living standards.
The Job Centre system is largely concerned with pushing people into jobs where the pay
is inadequate to incentivise anyone.
And immigration has encouraged many employers - at least in London - to have unrealistic
expectations as to how low wages can go. The Job Centres have no concern with the level of
wages, excepting that the hourly rate should not fall below the legal minimum wage. But in a
world of part-time jobs and temporary jobs, the wages people have to live on are as much
affected by the hours as by the hourly wages. Pay a man the full legal minimum an hour a week
and he still cannot live on it.
It’s very easy to say of the reluctant faced with wages too low to make it worth bothering:
“We’ll whip them back to work”.
But in the real world, you cannot run an effective and civilised economy unless your
staff are motivated.
Slavery is not an efficient system in a modern economy unless those forced into labour are
reasonably willing hands - unlikely - or they can be continuously monitored. A skill-based
economy is generally not like that. Picking fruit in a field is one the last things left where
monitoring can be taken to the limits needed.
The economist Professor Robin Marris pointed out some years ago that the modern view
taken of how to assess social welfare is that one condition is better than another if
everyone feels themselves better-off, or at least as well-off.
But a large part of the work of Job Centres is in placing people into jobs in which
they would assess themselves as worse off than on benefits taking everything into account.
The writer on the world of work, Charles Handy, noticed that what is called 'work'
actually embraces two entirely different kinds of activity. Some work is absorbing, interesting,
well-paid and rewarding. Some is brain-numbing, soul-destroying and badly paid. Two different
words are really needed.
Placing people into work where they feel themselves worse off is not a scenario which
is really viable in a modern economy, and it’s led to vast
hidden unemployment on various benefits let alone those on the proverbial ‘dole’ for long
One solution to the consequent labour problem chosen by government has been immigration. But
this keeps wages down. A problem in the first place. It means accepting a vast unused
resource among the existing work force which will likely be permanent even if the state chips
at the difficulty occasionally with ‘initiatives’ which make good sound bites but little else.
A modern economy cannot really whip people into work, but this is not an issue being
The need for employment agencies has expanded enormously. But the government service
lags far behind the needs of an economy in which the word ‘job’ almost has an entirely
different meaning in a present world where there is little job security offered to workers.
But those many millions not on the tightrope of regular recent employment at good
rates have little suitable help when they need it most.
10. What has gone wrong?
The film director Michael Winner is said to have goaded extras, who did not shift at the
speed required, with the taunt: “Are you from the Job Centre”.
Why do Job Centres have a reputation among employers for being suppliers of people who
are not a lot of good? If they think they are unlikely to obtain staff as good as they
require then why do they use them?
Since Job Centres are at the bottom of the pecking order for jobs, and also function as
benefit offices, it’s not entirely unreasonable that firms should think it likely that
they will be shunned by people with good and regular work records.
But advertising is free in a Job Centre. The fees charged by private agencies are often
horrendous, and newspaper advertisements are not cheap. As job seekers quickly find out,
firms are lured by the fact that it’s free but, at the same time, often regard anyone who
applies for their job through a Job Centre as likely to be useless. So applicants often
find themselves regarded with ill-concealed contempt.
Worse, the fact that it’s free encourages an army of people to advertise who are simply
abusing the system. Worse yet, the sheer lack of professionalism in the way Job Centres
operate creates an ethos, not difficult to detect by employers, that this is not a serious
The job is in Camberwell. The Job Centre man rings the firm.
“They want you to go to an interview” he says with some enthusiasm.
A promising situation it seems!
But the firm has not even asked my name. Now why would a firm want to call a person to
interview for a skilled job before seeing a CV or even asking their name? If you are
applying for a job you want to know that the firm has already assessed you as generally
suitable before you go to see them.
Why do they do it? I don’t know - perhaps some internal political game - but this
sort of amateur hour nonsense is a regular event in Job Centres. Decline to pursue the
matter and you risk being accused of a lack of enthusiasm in seeking work.
I told one firm of this kind I’d like them to see a CV first, and then if they were
interested I’d go to see them. This did not seem to please. The
lady on the telephone said they’d hired three people in short order to do the job, and
sacked them all. Dismissal is being mentioned even before the interview. Encouraging!
I faxed a CV but mercifully never heard from them again
The employers are torn between greed in wanting to avoid paying a fee to fill their job,
and a reluctance to believe anything much good about anyone who arrives on their doorstep free.
It’s a most unhappy blend of feelings on the part of employers, which is inevitably inflicted
on the unfortunate applicants in some degree or other.
Adding bad luck to misfortune, the Job Centres themselves are not really employment
agencies but a tacked-on afterthought to the benefit system. When government officials press
those claiming benefits to get work they are able to point to specific jobs which the
unemployed can apply for, and , in theory, check whether they have done so.
But, as anyone who has ever claimed benefits knows, this is largely a ritual so that
Job Centres can tell the government they are ensuring that the unemployed are actually
trying to get work. Ministers can tell anyone who wants to listen that the government
provides a full service to the unemployed. But there is virtually no way of ensuring that
claimants are matched with jobs which are viable for them, or for the employer. No one even
cares. As with nearly all civil service activities, it’s making the paperwork look good
Add to the pot ministers’ anxieties that they should be able to claim that they are
providing plenty of opportunities for people to work - 'Job Centre vacancies up 8% so far
this year Minister tells press' - and you have the second big ingredient for what is
substantially a sham of an employment service.
The Job Centres’ priority is that as many advertisements should appear as possible, and
as many claimants should apply as possible. It does not matter whether the advertisements
are genuine or not, let alone whether job seekers apply for jobs for which they are suited,
or qualified, and have much hope of obtaining. We met earlier on Gita, who said that no
advertisement is ever removed unless the employer murders the applicant. No one cares if the
job really even exists. You can
apply for anything simply by saying you can do it.
A very large proportion of the jobs advertised in Job Centres are bogus in a range of ways.
Many are simply a pack of lies. The real job bears no resemblance to the advertisement.
Some do not exist at all, but are advertising scams for unviable or struggling private
agencies. Some expect people to apply when neither the wages nor the hours are given. Some
are simply placed by firms with no intention of paying any wages.
Many of the more attractive jobs, apparently with well-known companies, invite surprise
that they would be filled through a Job Centre. The same often applies to government work.
Mostly they are not being filled in any such way! The job is already filled but company
rules say everything must be advertised. It costs nothing to do so through a Job Centre so
it’s the obvious choice for managers who are simply going through a routine.
I once attended an interview at the Inland Revenue advertised in Job Centres. A bored
team of interviewers made it obvious that no one was going to get any job. But the
Job Centres, commanded by government to tell the unemployed that there are plenty of
opportunities and no excuse for unemployment, are not going to own up to the pretence!
Some advertisements are intended to offer comfort to overworked staff who might otherwise quit.
Help is on the way.
Except that it's not. Or not for as long as possible. If a firm can delay even a month or two
in hiring an extra person it may save £1000 each moon. For a small firm run by a sole
proprietor that is
£1000 more earned each month simply by placing a free advertisement and spending an hour on a
couple of charade interviews. Think about it! Far more profitable than working.
The unemployed could spend a demoralising lifetime travelling to interview for these
jobs and never get work. Perhaps the most disreputable aspect, and terrible indictment of the
Job Centre system, is that it is in the interests of Job Centre managers that the unemployed
should be ground down in just such a way.
All that concerns the local Job Centre is to get the unemployed off their lists. The
government wants to announce monthly falls in the numbers of unemployed. How this is achieved
is very much secondary. Many of those signing-on have little chance of work for a range of
reasons. From the Job Centre manager’s point of view, it may be far easier to remove them
from the list of the unemployed by their registering as sick than to get them a job.
With careers at stake, whatever will encourage the jobless to fall ill with perhaps
depression, or a feigning of it in the face of the futility of trying to get work, is not
going to be rejected. For the unemployed to chase jobs which don’t exist or are already
filled is unfortunately a positive thing for the system. A lamentable comment on the famous
‘joined up government’.
11. What’s needed
The current Job Centre system is an expensive to feed dinosaur which is far more
effective in demoralising the unemployed than getting them into work
At times, you feel you have been inducted into a subtle form of psychological torture
intended to break your spirit. A modern version of the workhouse, but with the innovation
that the unemployed are told in a variety of pamphlets that the system wants to help them to
build their confidence!
The employment service should be separated from the benefit offices, and run from different
premises. People looking for work do not need the image of a dole claimant in the eyes of
The job service should be run on the same lines as the private agencies. They are very
perfect, but do have a direct incentive to get people into jobs since they will earn no money at
all if they don’t. Where the current Job Centres are concerned, the main impetus is to show
claiming benefits are ‘looking for work’ defined in a way which means little in practical
Applicants should be matched to jobs and employers as the private agencies do - but
with one vital difference to which we will come - the basic requirements to be considered
A little psychology is needed to encourage employers to take seriously applicants from
the government job service. It’s an unfortunate fact of human nature that if something is
free people tend to think it sub-standard.
Job Centres are barred by law from charging for their services. This needs to be changed.
Many government agencies charge a fee for their services.
A small charge to employers - even £25 - would make a crucial difference to the way
employers view the unemployed, and go some way to putting off the worst of the chancers
whose presence in what purports to be a public employment service is a public scandal.
Anyone who has been able to compare the attitude of firms at interviews - depending on
whether one comes from the free Job Centre or from a newspaper advertisement costing even £30
- will have experienced the dramatic difference. You are taken far more seriously and
treated with more respect.
But if the government Employment Service is to operate like private employment agencies
then why have one at all? Why not simply close the government Employment Service and leave
the unemployed to look for work through private firms?
The problem with this is two-fold.
Employers pay the private agencies huge fees, and feel entitled to be fussy as to whom
they will accept.
In general, the private agencies will not put forward people for jobs who are either
older, or have been unemployed for some while. They know that their clients will not take
such people, and will lose confidence in the agency.
“You expect us to pay £2000 for a man of 55 who has been jobless for two years and has
But these are the very people who will have fallen through the net of regular employment,
and need particular help.
So for many unemployed people, the private agencies have a barrier in respect of fees,
and one in respect of work histories.
The fact of the matter is that there is not a single employment market embracing all the
unemployed. There are the readily employable - under 35, two references, solid work record -
and the rest who might be on a different planet in so far as they have any hope of being taken
on in the mainstream employment market. As with 'work', two separate words for the two groups might clarify
When Japanese firms want to rid themselves of staff it’s said that they place them in
front of a window with nothing to do. The ‘window men’ soon become demoralised and accept
their fate. Much easier than an interview! Perhaps we might divide the unemployed into
‘primes’ and ‘windowites’.
The gulf between the two classes of the unemployed is largely unknown to the great
mainstream of workers, who have little notion that they are on a tightrope, and that falling
off has severe consequences.
If the private agencies would waive their huge fees, or charge a token amount, then some
employers might be tempted towards some 'windowites' whose position in the labour market
may be because of circumstances not a lack of real employability. Become unemployed for a
while and you largely cease to be classified as a viable worker. Economists call it
labour market 'hysteresis'.
But the private firms cannot waive fees or they would be out of business!
Either the state must pay the private agency fees if they take on those more difficult to
place into work, or the government must continue to provide its own agency where the fees
are nil or a token amount. The money spent on the New Deal might be better spent paying agency
Or perhaps a combination of both approaches.
A decently run state employment service with token fees could be of real service to the
economy. Without the huge fees charged by the private agencies, the more mainstream employers
might be persuaded over a period to use it. People who are more difficult to place would not
be excluded so easily on grounds that no one will pay a big fee to hire them.
But the present policy is an endless rearrangement of the sadly deficient Job Centre
Every now and then it’s reorganised with new desks, ‘plus’ added to the title, and so on.
But the basic workings remain unchanged, and entirely inadequate for the sort of economy we
There is little but frustration on offer for the unemployed, and little job satisfaction
for the staff.
Copyright Michael Newland 2005
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