When bosses say “we don’t need you today”

Pauline Smith

Too many people abusing benefits? More like the benefit system abusing us! It’s hard getting used to being unemployed: hard not to feel humiliated and broken. There was a time when choice was about which film to see in the cinema or where to eat out.

Now the choice is: “Should we put the heating on, or cover up with a blanket?” or “do I buy a newspaper, travel into town by bus and walk back – or can I afford a return ticket?” Somewhere in the back of my mind I imagine some Tory saying “walk there and back”.

Charting the unclear waters of the benefits system is tricky enough but it’s a nightmare when you find work with an agency. Two days after signing on with my husband (we were told to make a joint claim) he found work, which meant signing off.

A week later this work finished, so my signing day changed yet again and it was back to a joint claim… until a week on when he got another job…and then another. Shifts of eight hours, sometimes ten, sometimes 12. Late shifts weekdays; earlies weekends.

This is not workers choosing flexible hours but brutal exploitation resulting in irregular income and havoc in one’s everyday life (and sleep patterns). Often the shift leaders phone to say “half a shift today”. My partner frequently looks exhausted which makes me feel guilty as I’ve had virtually no work.

It’s impossible to plan, impossible to assess how much is coming in… just the knowledge that too much is going out. There are days when the dark folds of depression seem to envelope you and you just wish the world beyond your home did not exist.

Not your fault

But it’s there and impossible to ignore, not least because it’s not just you and him, but millions of others. Not that this fact offers much consolation, but it serves as a reminder that none of this is your fault. You’ve always worked, you didn’t create the recession.

Some people are raking the money in even if – or possibly because – hire and fire is becoming the norm again. Wages are sinking to rock bottom while people with children to keep, mortgages to pay and debts to clear, are faced with the uncertain prospect of whether they have work today – or not.

Text messages sent a couple of hours before the shift begins state curtly: “don’t need you today”. My husband arrived home four hours early yesterday: “I was lucky,” he said “some people were sent home as soon as they arrived – one man drives 40 miles, the other 30 to get there”. One colleague has had work on only one day this week.

Workers are being walked all over – it’s a case of “forward to the past” – yet it’s obvious there will be a breaking point. Everything this government says and does is about cowing people into submission, breaking the will to fight even before a fighting spirit has emerged.

Tory work and pensions minister Duncan Smith’s words about ‘restoring dignity’ and ‘mending broken Britain’ by getting people back into work are hollow and cynical. Cameron’s compassionate capitalism – the next step along the route to the Big Society – is an insult to our intelligence.

The words of a song spring to mind “… of those who are forced to choose, some will choose to fight”.

Last year we saw dictators felled. This government is not invincible, these bosses can be beaten. The unemployed have few choices but personally, I prefer walking like an Egyptian over the prospect of living like a Victorian.