The Work Programme and The Erasure of the Value of Women’s Work

Last Friday, I came home, shouted at my son, and promptly burst into tears. This, for anyone who knows me, is a rarity. But just 40 minutes beforehand, I had felt emotionally destroyed.

As many of my readers know, I am a lone parent. And, as many of my readers know, when I say I’m a lone parent, I mean that I am lucky to have more than three nights away from my son a year. At this current moment in time, I’ve had two nights away from him this year. Two days away from the label of being ‘Mum’, and no-one more.

Yet a mother is not all I am. A frequent writer, a learner, someone who takes every opportunity to read something new, in the hope of gaining knowledge. Someone who returned to college with a two year old child, and further embarked on the first year of a degree. I later left the course due to poor health, something that sadly couldn’t be avoided. I am, as many of you know, a campaigner, a fighter, and someone whom sets their sights on a greater aim.

Yet, as I fall into the category of the long term unemployed, battling to find my way back into work, a large proportion of who I am is erased and minimised. To those who run the work programme, those who see me week in, week out, I am little more than a statistic. Someone they believe hasn’t worked for five years.

My time as a student is erased, due to my inability to complete my degree. My time as a mother is erased, due to my status as being legally unemployed. My time as an activist is erased, and I couldn’t tell you why. Is it because I work to make the world a better place for women? I couldn’t tell you.

Since January this year, I have repeatedly asked for help in improving my CV. To date, none has been received. On Friday, it became apparent that my CV had never been seen before by my advisor, given that, upon asking for help from her, she finally noticed an error on one line. A line I had corrected ten weeks beforehand, when she had asked me to email the CV over. For some reason, my corrected CV was not on file.

When asked of ways to improve my CV, I found my questions dismissed. As I asked for ways to make my CV more appealing, due to the lack of interviews I seemed to be receiving, I was dismissed with a comment about being unable to lie on CVs, as if that was the question I had asked. No advice was given that day. Instead, who I have been for the past five years was replaced with a sign that said ‘unemployed’.

I have asked repeatedly for help in obtaining a basic IT qualification. One that proves my claims of being more than slightly capable of navigating my way around any computer are true. These requests have been greeted with empty promises repeatedly since October, and as I was told last Friday that there were no longer any relevant courses available, another step into work was removed. Details of my work can be verified. The fact I’m self-teaching myself HTML and CSS can, as far as I’m aware, not.

And then came the voluntary position debacle. Some of you will have read my rant on Saturday morning. This was an exchange that had continued to upset me almost eighteen hours later, as the stress prevented me from sleep that night.

It seems that my advisor had intentions of forcing me to take a voluntary position, starting during the summer holidays. As the issue of childcare was raised, I was patronised and told to stop using childcare as a barrier. Not once prior to this, during my entire time on the work programme have I raised the issue of childcare. But when you face an expense you cannot afford as the result of an action you’re expected to undertake, it is reasonable to question how you can afford it. It is not avoiding work if you point out you would have difficulty paying for childcare during school holidays if your income remains at its current level. I have already found myself chastised for bringing my son to an appointment as childcare for the duration of the appointment could not be found. But yet raising genuine concerns about affording the expense of childcare, whilst knowing extra help would be unavailable from tax credits due to the unpaid nature of the work, earned me the threat of sanction and the label of work-shy. It was ignored that I had attended every available interview that I have been offered during my time unemployed. The fact I had childcare planned for had I received any of these jobs was also ignored. And the Work Programme wonders why just 2.7% of the lone parents it ‘helps’ find themselves in sustainable, long term employment. 

I could tell you why. It is because, in ignoring the work that parents do in raising their children, in ignoring their requests for help and guidance, and in pretending their achievements no longer exist.

The help I have received in my time at the Work Programme so far has amassed as follows:

  • A one hour course on how to apply for jobs. This provided me with no new details, beside the fact that the course leader considered telling a room full of JSA recipients that if they were complaining about the lack of permanent employment available in our town, they should consider moving to another town. 
  • Repeated agreements from my advisors to look over my CV either before or during my next appointment. As of yet, I have only found myself told it would get overlooked. I was then told it would be discussed further at my next session. 
  • Criticism for forgetting to write out my jobsearch twice, despite the fact I had handed in one copy just minutes beforehand at the Job Centre. Had they asked, I could have likely retrieved it from said Job Centre for the sake of that appointment alone. 
  • Promises of help in obtaining a basic IT qualification, in order to make moving into work a little easier. 
  • A four day course that was supposed to focus on improving your chances of finding a job, but instead focused on Problem Solving for Idiots. 
  • Criticism for bringing my son to an appointment having previously been told by another advisor that it would be acceptable to do so, due to a lack of childcare. 
  • Threats of sanctioning for asking if it would be possible to take on a voluntary work experience placement during term time, as opposed to during school holidays. 
  • An email that demanded I applied for a pot-washing job that started at 8pm and finished after public transport in our town ended. 

No-one enters the benefits system, expecting a job to be handed to them on a plate. What we do expect, however, is to receive the support we need to find our way back into work. And while the achievements and the work people do outside of paid employment, particularly lone parents, goes unrecognised as such, is it any wonder so many people struggle to find themselves leaving benefits behind for good? 

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