(A/N): Let me just clarify that I am NOT going to speak to any media. Please stop contacting my neighbours. Everything I have to say is written here. Also, please ask me if you want to use my pictures.
Like a lot of people who’ve spent the last 18 months hopping around the world and teaching abroad, soaking in the sunshine, and spending their days off sucking up cheap cocktails in a seedy beach bar, I’ve returned to my homeland unemployed.
Within hours of announcing I’d be returning to the UK, my social media dashboards were hit with a flurry of messages, all wishing me luck, some asking to keep in touch, others wanting to know what my future plans were. But what stuck out the most were the nuggets of advice from all of my British friends; Their notes were left with one common warning – “Don’t come back, Cez. There’s nothing here anymore.”
Knowing that job opportunities are pretty limited isn’t something new to me. I graduated in the middle of a recession in the summer of 2008 with very little work experience and a bachelors degree that was quickly reduced to nothing but a wasted scrap of paper. (“Oh, you’ve got a degree? Who hasn’t?” one coworker of HMV asked me the following Christmas.)
And, like that dismal summer that I was thrown into the “real world”, I’m out of money and am currently asking the government for help: In short, I’m back on the dole.
(For those of you who aren’t British, I’m claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (which I’ll refer to from now as JSA) – an unemployment benefit the government gives to people who are looking for work.)
I’ve been back in Britain for just over two months now and it’s dire.
It’s really fucking dire.
I underestimated the warnings people threw at me before I came back. No-one is hiring.
And that bullshit people tell you about how “having travel experience gives you the edge” over every other potential candidate? Nothing but a joke.
Even the fact that I have eight years experience working in customer services (call centres and retail) do nothing to butch up my CV.
I’m not truly qualified for anything except jobs that take me out of this country. And the reason I can’t do that? I have no money for a plane ticket and I have no money to live on for the month before my first pay.
Right now, I’m applying for anything; I just want to be off JSA and back into the working world. I’d much prefer to be doing something I hate than nothing at all. And I’ve been pretty lucky with the few job interviews I’ve managed to score over the last few weeks.
But it’s also where my problem began.
My ‘signing on’ day is a Wednesday. Every other Wednesday at 2.30pm I have to attend the Jobcentre, a place stocked full of bored-looking over-worriers, to sign my name on a little piece of paper that entitles me to £71.70 a week.
In the past I’ve been victim to how scornful and mean the people who work in these places have the potential to be. However, having now returned as a qualified English language teacher, no-one even bothers to check the ever-growing list of jobs I’ve been applying for in the past fortnight and seem more inclined to discuss things like the weather and how wonderful last weekend’s episode of The Voice was before ushering me out the door with a “I know you‘ll get something soon.” Nothing about my job search.
The elitism is almost too much to comprehend. As a graduate, I was sneered at; As a teacher, I’m royalty. It’s disgusting.
As an “older person” (over 25), I now qualify for a little bit more than the standard £56.80 young adults receive every week from JSA and, as I’ve said before, receive a whopping sum of £71.70 instead. Having parents letting me stay with them rent free until I get a job and letting me steal everything in their kitchen is one thing I’m forever grateful for; Having rolling credit card debts and a phone bill to pay off every month leaves me with an average of £35-£40 a week to spend on myself if I’m lucky.
Needless to say, my social life is non-existent these days. That £35-£40 a week is spent on nothing more than train and bus travel, constantly taking me to and from job interviews and ensuring my CV is thrust into the hands of every temping agency in the county.
And it was one job interview I had a few weeks ago that has been coming back to slap me in the face since.
Having already interviewed with an English language school in Cardiff, they emailed me the following day to ask if I could come back on the 5th June to give an observed lesson so that they could see what kind of teacher I was.
I agreed and, on the morning of 5th June, knowing that it was a Wednesday, I contacted the Jobcentre first thing in the morning on the number written in my signing-on booklet, to tell them all about my 2nd stage interview and that I wasn’t sure what time it would end. (The director was going to give me feedback after the class.)
The man on the other end asked the address of my local Jobcentre, took my name and my national insurance number, and told me to go and sign on the following day (6th June) at the usual time (2.30pm).
I went ahead to my job interview, taught the class, everything was hunky dorey.
The following day on Thursday 6th June, I biked into town to go and sign on at the Jobcentre, just as I’d been told to do.
As I approached, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of sullen-looking people and crossed the threshold with a puzzled look.
A bright-faced woman stood next to a security guard.
I handed her my signing-on booklet wordlessly.
“Oh, didn’t you know?” she asked, her smile frozen in place. “There’s a strike on today. Didn’t they tell you?”
“No. No-one said anything about that.”
“Well, don’t worry. All claims should go through as normal so you’ll get your money as usual.”
“OK … Thanks.”
When Monday came around with a fresh batch of credit card bills, I had no money.
I quickly phoned the Jobcentre to find out what was going on and they asked me to come in that afternoon.
What I was met with was yet another bored-looking girl (someone I recognised from school – the final humiliation) who gave me a disapproving look.
“So you mixed up your dates and missed your signing on date, then?”
“Uh, no. I had a job interview and couldn’t come in-”
She opened a drawer to her left and slapped a form down in front of me.
“Fill this in with all the details about the interview.”
I blinked and attempted to fill the form in as best I could with everything I could remember on the spot (names, addresses, times).
When I finished, I handed it back to her and she took a deep breath to continue her reprimanding.
“So what we’ll do now is send that off to our higher office where they’ll look at your reasons for missing the appointment and determine whether they’re happy with them. If they’re not happy, they could put a sanction on you and you’d lose your money for two weeks.”
“Wait, what?” I exclaimed, my voice unintentionally rising.
She arched an eyebrow as if to say, ‘Oh, wonderful. Another kick-off.’
“So, I might get penalised for trying to get work and going to a job interview?”
“No, they’re going to look at your reasons for missing the appointment and determine whether … ” she repeated, monotonously.
I sat bewildered, the frown etched on my face.
“You need to tell us beforehand when you have a job interview-” she continued.
“I did!” I spluttered. “I called you guys on the morning of my interview and you told me to come in the following day. It’s not my fault that you guys were on strike!”
“What number did you call?”
“This one!” I pointed frantically at the number on my signing-on booklet (which, incidentally, is next to the sentence “Contact us immediately on 0845 … if you cannot attend”).
“Ah, well that’s the contact centre. You should have contacted us here,” she said, playing around with her computer. “There’s nothing here that says you called.”
“That’s not my fault. This is the only number I have. I did what I was told to do.”
She gave me a look before standing up.
“Give me a moment.”
I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself down.
A few minutes later she returned with a number scrawled on a post-it.
“Next time you have an interview, call this number. I’m not supposed to give you this but that’s the one you call. Okay, now have a good day.”
I left the jobcentre in shock, unable to comprehend what had just happened.
This week, I was back in the jobcentre, signing on as usual, not a word uttered about what had occurred at my last meeting. I didn’t care anyway: I had a couple more interviews coming up which I hoped and prayed were going to take me out of the benefits pool.
Then, three days ago, a letter arrived from the benefits centre.
Going to a job interview is not good enough reason to miss a signing-on appointment.
I could completely understand their reasons if I hadn’t told them I had an interview and just missed signing-on without warning anyone.
I can also understand their reasons for looking at the time my job interview finished (1.00pm) and thinking, “Hmmm, she can probably make it back from Cardiff and sign on on time at 2.30pm”.
But they told me NOT to come in on my regular signing-on day and to go in the following day for my new scheduled appointment.
Not only that, but I’ve been sanctioned and left without money for a month. A whole month.
Never mind the fact that I have job interviews coming up and no way of getting to them now. Never mind the fact that my phone is due to go out of service from lack of payment and every employer who has my CV has no way of contacting me.
No, no. I must be punished. I have been too productive with my time in trying to get employed and, as a result, I must learn what life without money is really like.
Thank you, government. My lesson has been learned.
Looking for jobs = Bad + No money.
Of course, I’m appealing this decision. I hope the benefits office enjoy the way I filled out their ‘reconsideration form’ with an essay that could put my university dissertation to shame.
And, as a last desperate attempt, I’ve also applied for ‘hardship payments’ which, by the looks of things, I don’t qualify for anyway because I’m lucky enough not to worry about food and accommodation.
Of course, there’s the whisperings from a friend or two who’ll send a text asking, “Can’t your parents help you?”
They’re already helping. They let me live here rent free, use up their electricity and gas, and eat all their food.
I’m a 26-year-old adult who was not brought up to rely on “Mummy and Daddy’s money” to get my way in life. I was taught and shown first hand that good things do not come to those who wait; Good things come to those who work fucking hard and earn it.
This is a situation I’d never thought I’d find myself in: Having to ask my baby brother whether he could lend me money so that I can buy shampoo and deodorant this week while borrowing my mother’s bicycle to ride 30 miles in the rain in my best formal attire to another job interview.
I’m grateful for the fact that I have my family here to help me. But they’re not exactly rich and, even if they were, I have my pride.
I can’t quite believe what I’ve come home to.
As I said before, the only thing I’m qualified to do takes me out of the country. But I can’t afford to do that with debts still piling high and barely a penny to live on for my first month.
So the next time you ask me why I don’t want to live in the UK, why I’d prefer to be anywhere but the land I was born in, there’s your answer. What reason is there to stay?
(24/06/13 – Author’s Update: I just want to clear up a few confusions that people seem to be having. I did not go straight from “school to university to travelling” and use JSA to fund my travels. I worked every day either in call centres or in shops ever since I was 16. I worked while I was studying in college and university and I worked for the three years after I graduated until I left the UK. Even after I left the UK I worked for 14 of those months while I was abroad.
I earned every plane ticket and every teaching qualification that came my way by working and saving for it with the help of no-one. I resent being told that I shouldn’t have gone travelling and don’t know anything about the “real working world” and refuse to publish any comments from people who haven’t bothered to read the full story.)