This morning, the BBC reports that:
Long-term benefit claimants could be forced to do compulsory manual labour under proposals being put forward by the government, it has emerged.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is set to outline plans for four-week placements doing jobs like gardening and litter clearing.
So let me get this straight. And let’s imagine the situation. A city up north somewhere. You know. The sort of place where the government is pulling out all the stops (or not, as the case may be). You’re a public sector worker – a leech on the economy in fact (as per government propaganda): maybe you’re a teaching assistant or a nurse, or perhaps even a doctor surplus to requirements. Or just someone who does their best to do the job of two people in an already overworked back-office operation in some council or other.
Let’s say, then, that you lose your job due to Coalition cuts. Mainly through no fault of your own – though if we’re to be brutally honest you did vote Lib Dem, as per the Guardian‘s enthusiastic recommendation. But so did many others who had absolutely no inkling that politicians lie (more here).
Unfortunately, and due to the very same cuts, as well as yourself a whole swathe of your locality’s highly skilled workforce also loses its jobs at the same time. Remember the steel towns which depended so much on their main industry to survive? Well, this is that story all over again.
It’s not that you don’t want to work. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s that, actually, there isn’t any work to be found.
So anyhow, eventually, in spite of your degree (for which you were still paying off the student loan whilst you still had a job), you go for an interview as a gardener for a company called Serco (more here). With photos of your beloved garden and certificates from your village’s annual garden festival, you are able to demonstrate an active interest and capacity in gardening and you duly get the job.
It’s only for six months, mind. But then Serco’s like that, didn’t you know? Socialism for the advantaged, capitalism for the disadvantaged.
You then proceed to do rather well at the role. You even begin to see the upsides of working outside instead of sitting in front of a computer all day. You look forward to proving how constructively you’ve integrated into new operational structures, how you’ve adapted to change.
The six months fly by and you fully expect to have your contract renewed.
Only for your team leader (or whatever they call them these days) to announce the week before your time is up that your contract will not be renewed as result of further spending cuts to public services – though not, curiously enough, to Serco’s contract with the council.
By that time, all your ex-colleagues able and willing to adapt to the new regime of minimal public services have already taken up the slack. There are blessed few jobs now available in your locality – certainly nothing along the lines of professional gardener.
To cut a long story short (for only those who suffer in silence should deserve our approbation and understanding), you are eventually classed as long-term unemployed and become a part of that population of the lowest of the low, which Iain Duncan Smith describes in the following way:
Mr Duncan Smith said his plans were designed to reduce welfare dependency and make work pay.
He said: “One thing we can do is pull people in to do one or two weeks’ manual work – turn up at 9am and leave at 5pm, to give people a sense of work, but also when we think they’re doing other work.
“The message will go across; play ball or it’s going to be difficult.”
When you read this, you splutter a little (though very much under your breath – you don’t want to upset the neighbours). You even remind yourself that, at one point, you tried to get a job as a groundsman for the local football team. Now if that isn’t playing ball …
Finally, you find yourself called to a tape-recorded interview with an officer at the local unemployment office (or whatever it’s called these days) where you are informed that you have been identified as one of the many long-term unemployed and that you need to break the cycle of dependency you have acquired over the past year or so.
You respond constructively and openly to the suggestion, saying that you would be most happy to take on any job that might help your family move forward and out of such dependency. Your officer (or maybe they call them caseworkers these days) says that actually they have something else up their sleeves: in the light of your recent experience, you’re going to be asked to volunteer as a gardener at the local park, where you’ll be working with other workshy individuals on a 30-day placement.
Hopefully, your prior experience as a middle manager at your local NHS trust will hold you in good stead – and if you are prepared to take on a leadership role during your placement, this would clearly help with updating your CV in preparation for other placements you might be inclined to accept over the next year or so.
This, of course, is just me weaving a silly tale where I indulge my penchant for seeing the worst in everyone. Things like the above don’t happen in real life – nor will they, even under this government.
Or will they?
I do wonder sometimes, don’t you?
Whether this is “Alice in Wonderland” or actually – even – Kafka we’re beginning to realise that we’re suddenly terrifyingly up against.