Last night, Twitter was in uproar after an advert posted on an East Midlands jobseekers’ website offered a permanent position working nights at Tesco. Everything was great, but for one little catch: the position was unpaid.
In fact, to be precise, it offered ‘JSA + Expenses’. Job Seeker’s Allowance, in other words, and a few measly travel expenses.
This is wrong, isn’t it? Working for no money is bad enough, but to be asked to actively compete for the chance to do so…it sends shivers down the spine. It’s as if Tesco backed over, pulled down its trousers and demanded that the poorest and most desperate compete for the chance to kiss its arse.
And the sad thing is that people will. Because we are desperate. We’re living in a climate where there are no jobs and, it’s looking increasingly likely, no chance of any. Yet at the same time we’re living in a climate where to be unemployed is to be a ‘scrounger’, to be somehow fraudulent, to be taking state money from people who really need it. The reality of our collective situation hasn’t set in for many of us yet.
In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell makes a point which was not only fairly accurate of attitudes at his time, but also scarily prescient of current attitudes, which really haven’t changed that much at all. ‘The middle classes were still talking about “lazy idle loafers on the dole”,’ he writes of the mid-Thirties, ‘and saying that “these men could all find work if they wanted to”, and naturally these opinions percolated to the working class themselves… That was the attitude towards unemployment in those days: it was a disaster which happened to you as an individual and for which you were to blame.’
Sound familiar? It should, because it’s an attitude surprisingly prevalent today. And it’s an attitude actively encouraged by the government. To quote one example of many: in October, Chris Grayling, Minister for Employment, was quoted cheerfully advising people that ‘it’s a great time to apply for one of the tens of thousands of Christmas jobs which are being advertised’ with all the gumption of a high school careers adviser. This news came shortly after the revelation that 80,000 people had applied for just 18,000 temporary Christmas jobs with Royal Mail.
Grayling seems to be implying that the main problem people have with finding employment is a stubborn refusal to get out there and look for jobs. Whilst this might be true of a small minority, it certainly isn’t true of the vast majority of people who are currently on benefits. Just look at the fact that Tesco very nearly got away with advertising a position for ‘JSA + Expenses’. People are desperate enough to work for nothing.
People – most people – want to work, in my experience. It beats sitting around watching Jeremy Kyle repeats and crying into your Weetabix, which can get a bit tedious around about the seventieth consecutive day. It beats the constant drum of worry in the back of your mind and the pit of your stomach about where this week’s money will come from and if you’ll have enough to pay for food. What’s wrong isn’t that people aren’t taking jobs; it’s that there aren’t jobs for people to take. And companies like Tesco are actively exploiting the most vulnerable by encouraging them to apply for jobs like the one that’s caused this outrage.
We need proper regulation to prevent this ever happening again. We need the minimum wage – a desperately important legislation, and one we’ve got for a reason – to be rigorously applied in all cases. We need the government to think about the poorest in society, their desperate daily struggle, rather than the profits of multi-millionaire corporations like Tesco.
We need change.