In these recessionary times, we're all very interested in unemployment. Newspapers and commentators pore over unemployment figures, whether they're up or down and reflect on what this says about the state of our economy. But nobody seems to care much about the unemployed. Apart from Iain Duncan Smith, of course - or so he would have us believe. In a speech last May, in which he introduced his ideas for welfare reform, he announced, 'We must be here to help improve people's lives, not just park them on long-term benefits. Aspiration, it seems, is in danger of becoming the preserve of the wealthy'
One of the proposals in IDS's welfare reforms which are currently being pushed through parliament is to involve more private companies in getting the unemployed back to work, who will then be paid for their successes. It's hardly an original idea – Jobcentre Plus already has contracts with hundreds of such organisations ('training providers' they're called in a classic example of New Labour-speak ) whereby claimants of Jobseekers Allowance are forced to attend 'employability training', which often involves little more than them being sat in a room with some newspapers and the Internet for 5 hours a day (if you care to search the web, there are a fair few ranting forums and blogs devoted to these places). The providers have various targets, for getting people into work or onto work placements, and they are paid according to their results. This was the New Labour version, so one can only assume that the Tory version is going to be even more wedded to free market dogma.
I worked in the employability sector for a while in the mid-noughties and have friends who still do. I can say fairly confidently that it is run by a bunch of cowboys. A4E, one of the government's largest private contractors, was investigated by the DWP in 2009 for fraudulent practices, including falsifying employer signatures. It was brushed off by A4E as an aberration, but it is symptomatic of the way that many such companies are run; I know of many cases, from my own and others' experiences, in which signatures have been forged, paperwork falsified and evidence faked in order for targets to be met and money to be claimed from the Job Centre. One such instance involved a bewildered client being asked to pose for a photograph standing by a photocopier, only to find out later that this was being used as evidence of an office work placement that she had never done.
These organisations treat their unemployed clients with contempt. People are regularly put on unpaid work placement schemes, usually with unglamourous high street outfits like Iceland or Poundstretcher, sometimes with the vague promise of a job at the end but just as often not, and expected to be grateful. One man I knew, a 50 year old from Sri Lanka, began a 2 week placement as a shelf filler at a high street chain on the understanding he would be offered a job at the end. The period was extended to 4 weeks and then to 6 weeks, at the end of which he had sustained a bad back injury from the heavy lifting and the offer of a job was withdrawn. 6 weeks of slave labour for a crappy minimum wage supermarket job that never materialised and which gave him a bad, possibly long term, back injury. Is this the kind of aspiration that IDS wants to see more of?