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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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war