What community organising can teach workfare

The left can't afford to seem snobby about opportunities, but employers have obligations too.

The left can't afford to seem snobby about opportunities, but employers have obligations too.{C}

"I'll be part of history," says twenty-seven year old Jesus with a shy smile. He's just landed his first job as a caterer for the Olympics, but he didn't get it through conventional channels. His college told him about it, and the interview was held in his local church. Community organising is stepping up to the unemployment challenge.

"It was way different to a job centre," he says, "They just give you paper - these guys gave me a chance."

News that unemployment benefits might be cut off if claimants don't do unpaid work experience has infuriated the left this week. But the real crisis is not conditionality.

The biggest problem is that if you walk into a job centre, you often face a cold, bureaucratic system that treats you like a number rather than a human being.

London Citizens has found a way of doing things differently. An alliance of faith, community, union and civic groups, they have managed to place 1,200 people in jobs at the Olympic site in Stratford at a fraction of the cost of most corporate workfare giants.

They started by making announcements from the pulpits of churches, in classrooms and through their other member institutions. If you were looking for work, you were invited to screening events where local community leaders offered training and advice. If you were ready, you were given a formal interview.

The hollow transaction people were used to having with a stranger in a job centre was replaced with a conversation with someone they already knew and trusted. Holding the interviews in familiar locations meant that people performed with extra confidence.

"They were coming in with groups of friends excited to be in places they owned and belonged to", says Tricia Zipfel, a member of London Citizens who helped organise the scheme through her Hackney Parish, "There was a kind of ripple effect that went out when people told their friends they'd found work, and more kept coming."

In the end some 1,280 people got jobs out of 1,747 who participated. Many were in the "hard to reach" category, but London Citizens said it cost them an average of just £60 a place.

When employment contractors like A4e are facing corruption charges and the government's workfare programme seems expensive and non-transparent, this is a refreshing change.

Of course the Olympics are something of a special case. Employers are desperate to recruit, and the jobs they offer are often low skilled and time limited. Jesus said he was working "in catering", but he didn't know more than that. London Citizens succeeded in making sure all the jobs were living wage, but we need more information. At the moment their report for the IPPR is startlingly thin.

But as David Cameron's speech today shows, the left can't afford to seem snobby about opportunities. If the alternative is loneliness and under confidence in the home, there is a case for making work compulsory for those who are able. Responsibility is something all humans need to flourish; it's degrading to expect less.

What the right misses is that conditionality shouldn't stop with the claimant. Employers have obligations too. If you force people to work, it's fair to pay a living wage, and to offer genuine meritocracy. Few people mind going in at the bottom if there's a genuine chance of making it to the top. Employers should invest in their workforce and offer more than tick box training.

And government has certain conditions to meet too. We need to make sure that those at the bottom are given dignity in work and some kind of say over the bigger decisions in the company through genuine worker representation. The state also needs to provide the best investment, infrastructure and policy environment for businesses of all types, so we don't just have a low wage economy with low skilled jobs to offer.

When those conditions are met, conditionality on the claimant won't just cease to be a problem, it might not even be necessary.

Rowenna Davis is a councillor, journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot