Saturday 29 December 2012

Maxine Peake brings the Pendle Witches to Preston library

And here's some more christmas easy-reading for you:

Panic on the streets of Timperley! Frank Sidebottom statue moves closer

Here's a link to a recent article I did for the Guardian's Northerner section:

Reporting on Traveller and Romany Gypsy communities in the British media: "The last acceptable form of racism"?

Headlines have branded them as “pikeys” “nimby gypsies” and “mobs.” Tabloids have demanded a “Stamp on the camps” whilst regional press tells tales of whole communities coming together to fight the “gypsy war.” They’re also the subject of one of Channel 4’s most watched series, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, a show which homogenises disparate ethnic groups under one loaded term and portrays them as marriage-obsessed and prone to violence. 

It is not surprising then that coverage like this has caused journalist and campaigner Mike Doherty to claim that portrayals of these communities represent “the last socially acceptable form of racism in Britain.” Yet are these examples really symptomatic of an industry-wide prejudice and bias? Are journalists taking enough steps to ensure fair coverage in their reports on communities who are the subject of ingrained hostility in some sections of the public?

“My sister and I don’t go out alone now because we’re afraid of what might happen to us.”

Shannon O’Donnell lives in her family’s caravan in an area of Scotland with an un-newsworthy crime rate. Yet she and her sister will now only leave their home when accompanied by others, even if it’s just to go to the local shop. Her reason?

“It’s because of the way we get reported on by the newspapers and in Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.”

She has come to the annual conference organised by the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain (ITMB) along with 200 others to discuss how to combat the prejudice they as Travellers and Romany Gypsies face on a daily basis.

 “When we were on our way to a convention recently a group of men approached us at a Road Chef and told us that they were going to “grab” us.”

Speaking of the incident, she looks distressed.

“It’s not something that Travellers do, it was a few individual people but we’ve been blanket labelled. Luckily our parents were there to warn them to back off but it was frightening that they thought they had some sort of right to do that to us because it’s apparently “what we do”.

“Journalists just don’t realise the physical impact their stories can have on our community.”

Despite living in Britain for over 500 years Traveller communities who share long histories and common traits have only recently been officially recognised as ethnic minorities under the Race Relations Act. This includes Irish and Scottish Travellers and Romany Gypsies, who altogether number around 300,000 people in Britain.  Under common law rulings this means that they are now covered by the same anti-discrimination legislation that protects other ethnic groups from prejudicial treatment.

Consequently this means they should be protected against discriminatory and unfair practices in broadcasting under the sanctionable ethical codes of practice adopted by the BBC and Ofcom. It also technically warrants their inclusion in the Press Complaints Commission and NUJ guidelines, unenforceable yet moral self-regulatory codes, the latter of which is currently subject to wholesale overhaul following the Leveson Inquiry. But could this apparent need to overhaul the ethical regulations of the print industry alongside anaemic responses of broadcasting regulators to allegations of hurtful discrimination within My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding suggest that no top-down system of regulation is currently working well on its own?

Much anecdotal evidence suggests that most people have never knowingly met someone of ethnic Traveller descent.  David Enright, the solicitor who helped ITMB file a complaint to OFCOM against Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, thinks: “There’s only one place people can get these views from and that’s the media.”

This could make the role and responsibility of the media, as one of the few points of contact between non-Traveller and Traveller communities, increasingly potent.

Like Shannon, ITMB reports suggest that media impressions are often stereotypical and negative and influence real-life interactions.
In a letter to the Leveson Inquiry it stated: “prejudiced reporting creates the perception that the cultural difference between ethnic Travellers and the rest of society are so wide and glaring that Travellers will always be outsiders.”

This year’s Big Fat Gypsy Weddings provoked criticisms from viewers. It was only in November, eight months after it was last broadcast, when OFCOM decided to launch an official investigation into the series. Lord Avebury, secretary of the all-parliamentary group for Gypsies and Travellers, in a speech called the series “extraordinarily immoral and powerful to society.”
Enright appeared perplexed when asked at the conference about the programme’s messages and the use of the tagline “bigger, fatter, gypsier.”

He said: “You wouldn’t use it for any other ethnic group: Imagine saying “Bigger, fatter, Jewier."

“It shows the deep-rooted nature of the prejudice we’re dealing with.”

Georgia McCann, a Scottish Traveller who hosts seminars to educate non-Traveller professionals about the communities, knows first-hand the effects media coverage can have.

“A lot of people who come to my training seminars watch this programme for background research. They start to look us over to find stereotypical elements to visually identify us as a Traveller such as jewellery and then make other assumptions about us based on the show’s characters.

“Since it was on TV I no longer wear any because I don’t want to be picked out of a crowd and have these links between my appearance and my personality made. People tend to lump Romany Gypsy, Traveller and Roma groups together as one; totally overlooking the differences between the different communities.

“Anything like the OFCOM investigation is good but there’s just not enough being done: it’s like trying to plant a couple of seeds in a hurricane.”

It would be overly-simplistic to say all or even a specific section of the media is biased or uncompromisingly prejudiced. The Sun is notorious nationally for its “Stamp on the Camps” and “war on the gipsy free for all” campaigns. However even it has run a couple of articles which attempt to highlight discriminatory efforts to re-enforce stereotypes within Channel 4’s series. Then there is the BBC, which at the national level at least appears to have made efforts to enshrine its charter obligation of impartiality, with shows such as the two-part documentary, Travellers, offering a more honest look at Scottish Travellers’ day-to-day lives. The Guardian has adopted a more analytical view, digging deeper in its reports than some in other sections of the national press.  Its journalists find stories that go beyond shallow preoccupations with 14 stone wedding dresses and bare-knuckle fighting.

For the editor of Travellers’ Times,  Damian le Bas, and out-going NUJ president Donnacha DeLong it is in regional media outlets where unsatisfactory reporting on Traveller communities can be more apparent. Wracked by owners’ cuts to staff the financial and time constraints on reporters and their research are implicit.  

Donnacha says: “We’ve seen lots of cuts in local media where most stories surrounding these communities take place. The problem is that there are fewer journalists who now have to cover larger areas. This means they don’t always know the story well so the easiest aspect for them to cover is the crime aspect given to them by the police.

 “I’m not blaming the journalists; I’m blaming the people who won’t hire enough journalists so they can properly do their job.”

Yet le Bas believes that “you can only make so many excuses.

“Gypsies are categorised as being part of an environmental problem in a lot of local paper reports. These appear to be echoes of hostile public opinion. Rather than being talked about as genuine human beings who need a place to live we’re likened to being blights on the landscape that lower house prices in areas. I don’t think it helps that it’s also reflected in some local authority policy-if you call certain councils you’ll be directed to their internal environmental section.

“There’s a failure amongst some journalists to approach Romany people to get a quote from them or a humanising picture. I’ve noticed that pictures of Traveller and Romany communities are often taken from a long way away, like how you’d take a picture of a flock of sheep, it’s almost like they’re livestock. You don’t often see close-ups of individuals or even their faces which could imply to some people that we’re dangerous.

“As a journalist your job is to get both sides of the story of a conflict but quite often journalists report on issues as questions of ethnic strife; them against us.

“All we want is the same crack of the whip everyone else gets.”

He also believes that some article focuses represent a “very twisted set of values.”

“The number of the crimes carried out on ethnic Traveller communities and their severity when compared with the petty crimes of which they are often accused are so disproportionately and wrongly focused on in some parts of the media.”

A Bolton News article printed in September could be one such case. Titled “Burnley MP hits out at massive clean-up bill as travellers set up illegal camp” it seemed to allege that legal and clean-up costs involving a group of Travellers was costing “tens of thousands of pounds.”

It linked them to “illegal” activities, a trend spotted by Donnacha who states: “they are the last group defined by their ethnicity who are targeted by biased coverage which includes an increasing crime focus.”

The actual truthfulness of the article's focus was also disputed by a local councillor.

Howard Baker, councillor for the Trinity ward said: “The headline is a severe exaggeration. I looked into it and found it cost in between £130-£200 to move them through court.”

Whether the journalist had verified his source remains unclear.

“I think journalists should always check their sources then double check them. There are always concerns from the local communities about Travellers which come with stereotyped images. I think articles like that one can fan the flames of distrust and dislike.”

 Much of the paper’s recent coverage concentrates on land disputes and efforts to keep Travellers away from sites. A solitary article and a few letters from readers consider the underlying issue of a lack of legal site provision whilst a comment from the communities was found only in one story. All the reporters also failed to identify them as proper ethnic groups by not capitalising “Gypsy” or “Traveller” within their articles.

A failing to adequately critique public perceptions and produce well-informed reports in the local press is a claim that Westmorland Gazette news editor, Mike Addison, strongly denies.

“I think our paper is exceptionally fair and accurate. We have the largest amount of Gypsies and Travellers coming into the area due to the Appleby Fair. We do features, interviews and take pictures to try put their viewpoints across as there is a lot of ill feeling from the communities that they pass through.

“Our reportage is never criticised by the public for being unfair. Local papers can only present readers’ opinions then try to get an opposing view to ensure fairness. We as the press challenge their views.
“I think newspapers generally take a responsible attitude on the whole to what they report.”

Accounts of the inadequate quality of some reports do not essentially mean Traveller communities are being deliberately attacked. Le Bas believes it may be more a matter of “ignorance, lack of facts and fear that drive continued prejudices” in articles.

Maybe this goes some way to explaining McCann’s contention that she has never been approached by a journalist for a quote despite being a community awareness-raiser.

It’s an issue Manchester Evening News Editor, Rob Irvine, readily admits exists.

He said: “The relationship of journalists with Travellers is almost non-existent. It’s an unacceptable form of racism but there’s almost no communication between the two. I know that reception to us can be hostile- the problem is there aren’t any intermediaries. It’s a real weakness we have.”
Yet Addison again states that such an issue doesn’t exist in his area. He said: “They tend to put up a spokesman who we normally consult if there are any problems and to balance news stories.”

To ensure consistently fairer coverage Donnacha believes it is important to make sure spokespersons from these communities are available to talk to journalists.

He suggests it should be part of a several-pronged effort to make sure satisfactory reporting is standardised despite cutbacks.
 “The challenge is to rebuild journalists’ knowledge about these communities so they can report intelligently and accurately about a story.

 “Newsrooms should get in touch with organisations which are trying to educate them and invite them into the newsroom. I think if people actually begin to properly think about the story there are a lot more interesting things than people being arrested or doing something illegal or controversial.
“My fear is that any efforts will be undermined by fewer local journalists so informed knowledge could be lacking. It will mean people will avoid areas that are likely to cause problems in reporting, such as Traveller communities.

 “It’s also important that we start rebuilding local media. If big owners are no longer interested in sustaining it then people need to take it back. We need to rebuild a sense of community media that belongs to them and reflects the community.

He is also fairly optimistic that the explosion of social media sites like Twitter will create more opportunities for members of discriminated-against communities to produce their own published content.
“It could mean they don’t have to rely on big news agencies’ reports of them; they could produce them themselves. I expect in the next few years more people will be able to tell their stories in a way that is engaging to audiences.”

 Le Bas would simply like to see Travellers gain the respect that comes with knowing that somebody’s ethnicity does not dictate their personality. He says: “This is the end result but how we get there is the complex issue. At the moment it seems that attitudes seem to be going backwards.”
Lord Leveson’s report commented on the continued negative representation of Traveller communities within the mainstream media and the significant influence these institutions can have over community relations and societal perceptions. It stated that whilst newspapers are entitled to express strong views on minority issues, immigration and asylum, it is important that stories are accurate.

For some like Donnacha, le Bas and others, this does not go far enough. They feel that reports should be supported by properly-informed contexts to challenge popular myths and deep-rooted prejudices held by some sections of the public. To them it is apparent that top-down legislative change only does so much when challenging allegations of discrimination. It is not the reactive powers of regulatory bodies but the grass-roots-led efforts that hold most hope for permanent and progressive change.

What effect Leveson, cuts and new technologies will have on these efforts to end substandard reporting and allegations of prejudiced reporting, coupled with the problems of an uncertain economic climate, remains to be seen. 

Saturday 20 October 2012

A lifeline amidst a sea of destitution: Oldham Unity's Asylum Seeker Project

Here's a piece that got published on the Quays News website: 

At a time of increasing attacks on the British welfare system I spoke to the organisers of one of the few places of shelter for destitute people attempting the turbulent and uncertain path to asylum in Greater Manchester, who this year are celebrating ten years of crucial work in the community.

“Hold on, someone else has just turned up” shouts Mike Luft to the team of volunteers about to drive back to their storage centre with the project’s left-over food of the week. Late for the weekly drop-in service, the man in question has walked for four hours in icy winds and rain from Salford to Oldham to get to the project and collect the items that will help him survive for the following seven days.

The desperation of the 70 or so people who attend the Oldham Unity (Destitution Project) from around the region each week is stark. Founded in 2002 by Luft and other members of the local community action network that grew out of the aftermath of the 2001 Oldham riots the project is now one of the largest frontline services for asylum seekers in Greater Manchester, with around 20, mainly retired volunteers helping out each week. It provides subsistence for those awaiting asylum appeal decisions who are struggling to survive on the weekly living allowances granted by the government and others who find themselves completely without aid after their appeals have been rejected.

Luft explained: “We realised at our community meetings with local refugees and asylum seekers who live in the area that there was a massive need for day-to-day help. Many of these people were not allowed to work, couldn’t afford food or pay for accommodation so we decided to do what we could to help.

“People can sometimes have a very distorted view of the realities of asylum seekers in Britain. Not everyone knows about the meagre amounts of £37.50 that adult asylum seekers live on each week, which sometimes only comes in the form of a voucher that can only be used at certain shops.”

At the two hour drop-in visitors are given thirty “points”, or roughly seven pounds, to spend on food and other essential items including clothing that are bought with donations to the project and given by a mixture of religious and secular organisations. A hot meal and refreshments are also provided by a mix of local interfaith groups, such as the Baptist Church and Planet Mercy whilst the British Red Cross covers their travel costs for up to one year. Although recently having secured a deal with Fairshare, who distributes food from local supermarkets to charities the project must still find around £1500 each month to continue to run.

Whilst an integral part of the project, food is not the only service provided by Oldham Unity. The drop-in acts as a crucial social space for this part of the community for whom isolation and confusion are daily occurrences. They provide practical legal advice to help people navigate the complex asylum application process, access to free medical care, mentoring and a safe space where people can socialise and share their experiences.

Luft himself is no stranger to the frustrations and hardships surrounding claiming asylum, his grandmother a Jewish refugee from Russia and with a past rooted in neighbourhoods of Manchester with large refugee populations.
“The people who come to us are not economic migrants, they come to the UK in fear of their lives and the government should accept that and actively help them. People have given up absolutely everything to escape traumas and find a place of safety but sometimes I think the way they are dealt with here is a complete affront to them.”

The lives of asylum seekers in the UK are ones epitomised by being in a state of constant limbo. Fleeing to the country, they are met with a disorientating, drawn-out asylum application process to become a refugee.
Although the UK receives fewer claims than the European average, the following decision-making process is arduous, with rulings sometimes taking up to several years to be made. Oldham Unity are aware of situations where applicants have literally been forgotten about by the home office, including one individual who waited more than ten years for a decision to be made on his case.

Changes to legal aid paid to immigration lawyers, which has introduced flat rates for some cases regardless of complexity, now means that more people are losing access to some key advice services. This has made the system a lot more bewildering for the many people who have no knowledge of the UK’s legal process.

After such a lengthy process, most decisions only serve to shatter asylum seekers hopes of acceptance, with 74% of cases being initially refused according to the latest official data released in 2010. The decision to make further appeals often wields little more success yet even these final, outright rejections do not seal their fates.

“We have this crazy situation where people are turned down for asylum but the government doesn’t deem it safe for them to return to their own country. We see some people from Palestine, who because their country doesn’t legally exist, they can’t be repatriated. They’re just completely ignored, unable to live either here or in their home country”, said Luft.
“They can’t work and are only sometimes entitled to temporary benefits under the government’s Section 4 asylum support.”

The realities of those who are successful are in many ways no more secure. The general granting of an initial five year refugee status makes it difficult to plan for the long-term, consigning refugees to a foreseeable future of uncertainty and fear that is intensified by governmental ability to have cases reviewed at any point during this time.  

At the centre the volunteers are all too aware of the red-herring that successful applications can signify. It can take up to six weeks to be issued with a national insurance benefit number, in which time families are left in virtual financial limbo, unable to claim state benefits such as job seekers allowance or housing benefit and at the same time not legally allowed to find employment. At this point the work of the project becomes even more crucial for day-to-day survival.

Hopes for suitable and permanent housing are also far from easy to ensure. One case the project is dealing with involves a family with six children who upon being granted leave to remain in the UK were moved from the temporary accommodation they had been living in for around four years to a house in a different town. This has ignored the fact the family must now make almost daily, long and unaffordable bus rides to take the children to the school they enrolled in when they first moved to the country. They have since had to move again due to receiving abuse from children in the area to a house that some members of the project believe is not fit to live in. The delay in processing the family’s national insurance numbers has meant that they have only just been added to the social housing list, where they face tough and lengthy competition for a house big enough to comfortably house the whole family.

Nasreen, not her real name, is still waiting to hear a decision from the government about her bid for refugee status. She spoke about how the project provided her with a strong support network.

She said: “I had been living in the UK for about nine months before I found out about the project. It  has helped me to understand and get access to the support that I’m legally entitled to. Coming here has also helped me to meet lots of other people in similar situations to myself and also form supportive relationships with people who’ve been living in Oldham for a long time. I think it shows communities working together at their best.”

Donations can be made to the Oldham Unity (Destitution Project) c/o Baptist Church Chaucer St.Oldham OL1 1BA. Those wanting to donate food and clothing should contact Stewart Bailey on 0161 652 2379.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

"Invisible families": The difficult realities of kinship care in the UK

A Greater Manchester grandmother bringing up her grandchildren has highlighted concerns over what she believes is a lack of substantial state support for kinship carers.

Linzi, who cares for a relative’s two 10 year olds and is one of 200,000 kinship carers in the UK, claims that local authority support available for them is often confusing and not always easy to find.

Kinship carers, also known as family and friends carers, are the grandparents, other relatives and close contacts of children at risk of being taken into care who agree to look after them for a substantial amount of time.

Some, including Linzi, whose grandchildren are within the remit of Stockport Council, are now voicing their concerns that the amount of financial and other support they are entitled to is not always as substantial and as clear cut as what foster carers receive.

Foster carers are paid an effective wage paid by councils who consider foster care a self-employed, working role.  In Stockport, for example, they can receive up to £345 per week plus additional allowances for birthdays, Christmas and holidays per child. However, no standardised, equivalent payment system exists for kinship guardians.

Whilst foster carers are not eligible for child tax credits, which other guardians including kinship carers can receive, they are eligible for other payments such as working tax credits due to being recognised as self-employed by local authorities. They are also entitled to respite, carer and child trips and training courses.

The lack of a substantial, easy to understand nationwide policy for kinship carers has resulted in a situation of payments and services available at the discretion of individual local authorities. Most kinship carers get no help at all from their local authority. This has also led kinship carers to be informally referred to in the UK as “hidden” or “invisible” families.

This situation persists despite the fact that, according to the Grandparents Plus charity, these families are often in great need of state help.

The charity has published numerous reports to back up its campaign to ensure better and more standardised support systems be put in place for kinship carers. The reports have revealed that most kinship care families say they have experienced financial hardship due to bringing up relatives’ children, with two thirds reporting low household incomes. A large proportion has had to cut their working hours or give up their jobs entirely due to child care responsibilities. 85% of children in kinship care are also reported to have emotional difficulties when they move in with their carers.

Linzi, 50, who has cared for three of her grandchildren along with her husband, is amongst those attempting to raise awareness of kinship carers’ struggles in the UK to ensure that they all have access to substantial and easy-to-navigate support services within local authorities.

She said: “We do the same job as foster carers but we don’t always get the same support and what help we do get is generally means tested. We are also not entitled to parental leave despite having the same role in our children’s lives.

“I’ve had to give up my job to look after the children so I’m not entitled to JSA, income support and my partner and I don’t qualify for working tax credits because neither of us works the minimum 24 hours per week and as kinship carers we are not recognised by the government as self-employed carers like foster parents.

 “I get £129.15 a week kinship allowance which is the maximum that they will pay for my two children and £33.70 in child benefits. I also get annual child tax credits but that is all the income support our family gets. It’s just not enough to compensate for the changes that we’ve had to make such as buying a bigger house and taking out another mortgage to have room for us all. It costs a lot to raise a child, especially when it’s the second time around. I think there are many kinship carers out there who feel like they’ve been left in limbo when it comes to getting support from local authorities.

“I don’t think many kinship carers would say they would prefer their grandchildren to be placed in care but at the same time it is a very demanding task. I’ve already had my own children but now I’m in a situation where I’ll be 60 and my partner almost 70 when my grandchildren will probably be still living at home. It’s a lot of commitment at that age but being a kinship carer is something that is hardly talked about in public.

“Just because we are all family that should not imply that we can easily afford to look after them; that a link has been made between the two is ridiculous. The government has not taken into consideration that most kinship guardians don’t expect to find themselves looking after their grandchildren so haven’t put any money aside. It seems like emotional blackmail to me.”

Only 36% of carers are currently working despite almost 3 quarters being in employment before taking on the children.  Over 65% have been described as living in poverty, with around 41% of kinship carers predominantly dependent on welfare benefits.

Linzi said: “The amount of time it takes to look after the children means I’m unable to get regular employment yet I’m not treated as working by caring for them fulltime like foster carers can be. A lot of kinship carers really struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes you just feel like you’re really on your own.”

Sarah Wellard, policy and research manager for Grandparents Plus, said: “The whole entitlement system for kinship carers is a complete nightmare and varies widely from council to council.  Most kinship carers get no help at all, either practical or financial, from their local authority. Often they are given poor information and are sometimes misled.

“The whole system of support from local authorities is incredibly complicated, and where kinship carers do get support, this is usually discretionary  and means tested.

“We need whole system reform to ensure fairness in access to financial and practical support based on children’s needs. We also want to see carers able to get proper advice and information so that they are fully aware of what they are entitled to. Many are left in the dark about services, benefits and support that does exist out there for them.

“Some kinship carers are even hesitant to contact social services to ask for help out of fear their child will be taken away from them. The government must do more to reassure families around this issue.”

Grandparents Plus offers advice and information to kinship carers to help them access welfare benefits and support from their local authority. They also run a peer support network and provide details of local support groups and other relevant charities on their website To contact the charity call the confidential advice line on: 0300 123 7015 or email:

Sunday 23 September 2012

Beauty and the Beast: the side of apprenticeships the government tries to hide

They’re constantly cited as a priceless first rung on the employment ladder in an economy with few jobs and one of the few, true saving graces that could stall and even reverse the escalating youth unemployment situation in Britain. 

Modern apprenticeship schemes have made a dramatic comeback in the last few years. Since 2006 the number of apprentices more than doubled, reaching  453,000 by the end of 2011. They’re the government’s palliative to a programme that hinges, in a seemingly oppositional way, on cutbacks instead of investment for growth.

That the coalition is advocating apprenticeships at a time when redundancy rates are high and the ratio of job applications to available jobs is in some cases over 50 to one could seem an attempt to tackle unemployment especially amongst young people, of whom the number now classed as not in employment, education or training (NEETS) has skyrocketed in the last year.

Apprenticeships have obvious benefits both to applicants and wider society. They provide the opportunity to learn a trade and develop skills that in theory should be a stepping stone to a stable, mapped out future career and ensure that countries retain a substantial amount of industrial experts and that knowledge of key skills are not lost.

The government believes that many apprenticeships lead to better chances of secure employment upon completion. On the Apprenticeship website they also state that on average apprentices earn around £170 a week, well above the minimum rate of £97.50 for 37.5 hours of work.

Yet there are growing concerns about the way some apprenticeships are operating in the UK, in the context of a recession-ridden economy. Some have suggested that motives for companies to hire apprentices in reality sometimes fit less with the idealised images. Instead of recreating the celebrated old-style German apprenticeships and implying that employers understand the need to adequately equip future generations with the knowledge to continue to provide key skills to society apprenticeships could serve a more self interested cost-cutting and profit-saving intent. 

The elephant in the room is the government’s current dismantling of the welfare system, whose focus on “workfare” is part of an enormous scheme to radically cut government spending. By pushing the growth of apprenticeships the coalition pays less in JSA and a reduced amount to apprentice employers in grants and learning fee costs, thereby serving their aim of spending cuts quite well. On top of this is the problem of how to ensure that apprenticeships equal secure employment at a time when industries are cutting back and shedding jobs. In this way, could apprenticeships be a sop thrown to make us think something is being done to tackle unemployment when in reality it is just masking the problem?

Michael, 16, from Liverpool, is currently employed at a large charity shop through the retail apprenticeship scheme which he enrolled on in July this year. He is concerned about the pay, his conditions at work alongside the value of his apprenticeship and is considering leaving the course due to financial worries that have worsened for himself and his family since starting as an apprentice.

“I work 37.5 hours a week for £100 a week with around 20 other staff, most of who are on some sort of work placement or volunteers. My auntie, who I live with, has lost around £70 a week in benefits due to me going on this apprenticeship because I’m now classed as being in full-time employment. The council has done things like deduct £3 per week from her housing benefit which I’ve been told I must now pay. I don’t get any separate travel expenses so I’ve also got to pay for the two hours travel per day out of my wages. By me going on this apprenticeship we’re worse off than when I was in college so I’m considering leaving the scheme and going back into education. People who are on an apprenticeship should be paid minimum wage because they are working for and benefitting the company. £2.60 per hour is pure slave labour.”

Michael’s concern over low pay is not alone. Searches on social media sites such as Twitter reveal pages of criticism over having to work for up to 50 hours a week on pay drastically below minimum wage. Adam Fisher, 18, wants to start an apprenticeship as he believes that in the long run the qualifications and training will be beneficial to him but is reluctant to leave his current job due to doubts over whether he can afford the large drop in income.

“Getting paid £2.60 per hour is ridiculous.  Skills training and practical experience could help me start a better career but I don’t know how I will survive off £97 a week for doing 40 hours at the moment” , he said. 

My cousin took an apprenticeship in gardening in 2006, earning the then minimum £80 per week. Yet after he qualified he continued to be paid the same rate even though he was legally entitled to at least minimum wage, arguably more considering he’d undertaken a two years skilled training course. Six years on, long after he completed his initial training and specialised in one area as well as now occasionally taking charge of the day-to-day jobs when his boss is away his pay is well below what it should be, to the extent that he is still sometimes not even being paid minimum wage.

Michael is not just worried about his pay. He thinks that after he has completed his 12 month apprenticeship the company won’t keep him on as a full time staff member.

“It’s been suggested to me that I won’t be kept on after I’ve qualified because they don’t have it in their budget. So basically the low pay now isn’t really justified because the company, like other apprentice employers, has no obligation to offer jobs even if apprentices successfully complete the course.  I think I’ll find it hard to find a job after the year with just this apprenticeship qualification because competition for jobs is so tough in Liverpool.  I think they’ve started taking on apprentices because we’re cheap labour. There hasn’t been much talk of creating actual jobs for people off the back of this.”

Losing your job to make way for another apprentice seems common practice in certain workplaces. Michael spoke of a friend who had undertaken an apprenticeship in hospitality and catering at a restaurant, only to be told there were no jobs for him after he successfully completed the course despite continuing to hire apprentices.

In some cases companies have even been reported to have gone so far as sacking staff members to replace them with the cheaper rate apprentices. In Manchester, Tom (not his real name) was employed full time as an estate agent until his boss told him that he was closing the business to move away. It was only when his dad drove past the same estate agents a few weeks later he had been made redundant to find not only that the shop was still open but that the team had been replaced with apprentices. Lacking sufficient former staff members, the potential for the apprentices to benefit from the scheme was also doubtful.

Earlier this year the Guardian reported that despite the haemorrhage of jobs from British manufacturing and engineering firms such as BAE Systems and Bombardier apprenticeship figures in the same industry had risen by 25%. One explanation could be that companies are safeguarding profits in the short term by taking on apprentices over already qualified members, instead of taking on both, a strategy that could be short-sighted for the company and risks dividing apprentices and existing employees.

It’s not just in these ways that some apprenticeships have come under fire. The core component of apprenticeships is adequate training to ensure that apprentices come away from their placement with adequate training and skills to do a specific job well. Employers, with financial help from the government should have an adequate training programmes in place for apprentices. However in some instances this has led to situation in which training providers, instead of focusing on the highest quality content,undercut each other to provide the cheapest service possible to employers to secure contracts.  Without substantial monitoring by the government to make sure this doesn't happen this means that apprentices can sometimes come away without adequate training to work their way up in their chosen field. In Michael’s case he believes that the training in his apprenticeship has been inadequate.

“The training I’ve been given has been pretty minimal; they trained  me up to work on the shop floor then stopped and college has said that they will just send me a work pack out to complete at home to obtain my NVQ in retail and functional skills. I applied to be a retail assistant; working on tills and focusing on customer service but the manager is using me to do all the odd jobs that no one else really wants to do, like cleaning the toilets and washing up used cutlery in the staffroom.

“There are good apprenticeships out there but I don’t think mine is one of them. If I had the opportunity to move around different shops, work in the head office or even in the fundraising department I’d have a much more rounded experience and a lot more opportunities to specialise and progress in retail. It seems like the managers haven’t bothered to create an adequate learning programme for the apprentices which makes me question their motives behind offering apprenticeships. I don’t think they took me on for the right reasons.

“The apprenticeship could help me quite a lot in terms of getting an entry level job because it proves that I have some experience but I’m missing a lot of the skills I’d have liked to have gained to work my way up in retail. I think after a few weeks of working at the shop I’d gained all the worthwhile experience it seems I’m going to ever get whilst working there so now I just feel like I’m being kept on as cheap labour. I don’t think that the qualifications themselves are that important in themselves either, it looks like they just added the paper qualification on to make it sound more official.”

Even Justin King, CEO of Sainsbury’s parent company (J Sainsbury PLC), has commented on the ambiguous makeup of some schemes doled out as “apprenticeships” to potential applicants.        
He said: “I believe the word apprentice has become hijacked. A lot of things masquerade as apprenticeships which are not what you and I would recognise as an apprenticeship – learning a skill over an extended period of time.”

Apprenticeships can be an invaluable platform into a skilled career, if they offer the right sort of training and prospects. Yet in some instances in Britain the term acts as little more than a cover for government-endorsed cheap labour that struggles to ensure secure employment for all those who successfully complete the courses or even substantial training. The existence of unscrupulous, self-interested apprentice employers suggests that the government is not actively ensuring that apprenticeships are offered for the right reasons.

 Apprenticeships should be equipping people with adequate practical experience and knowledge to become future experts in their fields. They should also be financially practical, which the £2.60 rate is not, especially to those with existing jobs and who have people who are dependent on their income. To make someone choose between practical skills development and continuing their existing job with which pays enough to make ends meet denies many people the opportunity to become specialists in a certain role.

They should not be a tool to reduce companies’ overheads, threaten existing employees jobs and offer false hope of secure, long term employment to apprentices. They should also not act as cut price JSA which could keep people in a continuous apprenticeship cycle in a society bereft of jobs or as an indicator that the government is doing something to tackle the UK’s unemployment problem. Without investment to create long-term jobs and develop industries apprenticeships can’t resolve this issue. What they are doing is hiding the reality of joblessness, particularly the real levels of youth unemployment in the UK. 

Saturday 15 September 2012

Community unions could offer a lifeline in the real "broken Britain"

Manchester’s unemployment rate is at its highest in 12 years. 84,600 people are now claiming JSA in the city, almost 30% of whom have been unemployed for more than 6 months. For young people, those without jobs have spiralled in number since 2000, with almost 900% more 18-24 year olds now jobless and not in education or training.

Yet unemployment is only part of a bleak picture that has been etched onto our contemporary landscape. Talk of the all too real possibility of a privatised health service, the accelerated marketisation of education and the obliteration of welfare support is now so widespread that they have become national clich├ęs.

It’s also an almost grotesque, parody-type situation where ATOS, the company driving life-changing cuts to disabled people’s benefits are seen, if only by a small yet powerful few, as a responsible sponsor of the Paralympics.

For increasing numbers of people in Manchester and across the UK, the ability to fight back en mass against regressive attacks on their lives is complicated by the fact that they exist outside secure employment. Employment brings with it the opportunity for union organisation and all the resulting benefits such as easy channels of communication and organisation, even if this sort of organisation is facing more difficulties of its own today.

At a time when more people are vulnerable due to existing outside the scope of this form of organisation, whether they are unemployed, students or retired, the emergence of another sort of union in Manchester is even more relevant than ever.

Unite’s community union scheme, launched earlier this year, brings people outside workplaces together and offers a concrete platform on which to organise and access support services. Encouraging groups to become established around the country , Unite have in a way reignited interest in the idea of community unions that dates back (on a major level) in England at least to the 1930s.  This was when the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement formed amidst mass unemployment and poverty to improve the conditions of the jobless galvanising the support of hundreds of thousands at its marches.

Although created by Unite, this sort of union is different in that it operates on a more grass roots level, allowing people who may feel pushed to the margins of society to come together and find a strong political voice of their own. For 50p per week the community unions give members the chance to come together to form strong communities which take a stand and push for co-ordinated, bottom-up action to create a better and fairer situation.

They also offer support services such as legal advice, cv and letter application writing, interview tips, debt counselling, welfare benefits check up and hardship grants.

Manchester is one of the cities with its own branches of the community unions, Since being created in June the Manchester and Salford branch now includes subgroups in Salford, North, South and East Manchester.

Tom Barlow, one of the organisers, thinks that Unite’s community unions are especially important in our current time of recession and reactionary political policies.

“community unions have always been a relevant idea but im glad that a major union is now fully behind them on such a large scale basis. These unions are comprised of some of the most vulnerable people in society who are without a stable workplace and thus the potential for organised representation that comes with that. With growing unemployment these people need this representation now more than ever.

“We’ve got a lot of people in our groups who were active in unions whilst in work but have lost their jobs. Lots of people who were formerly employed who just can’t get work at the moment. The response we’ve had so far is positive. The union isn’t allied to any specific political project which I think helps it to have a lot broader membership base that’s made up of a more diverse set of people who despite whatever differences they may have in some ways all believe that action needs to be taken to stop what is happening at the moment in Britain. 

“We know there is a lot to campaign about but  we also understand we need  to be focused so that we have a better chance of achieving change. At the moment we are concentrating on building around the ATOS campaign, the healthcare company whose work assessment is threatening the lives of those with disabilities. Recent national studies have claimed that numerous people have committed suicide as a result of ATOS's decision made about their benefits and suitability for work. At the moment we are concentrating on ATOS's attacks on those who receive disability allowance. The cuts are absolutely devastating people’s lives. We hope to start focusing on fuel poverty, council tax and housing benefit cuts as well as focusing on the TUC demo on the 20th October.

“Community unions allow the unemployed, elderly and students to focus on issues at a local level then build out and link with other branches and unions around the country so that we have and feed into a strong web of support that can’t easily be picked apart, for example, by governmental policies, like what happened in the 1980s.”

The Greater Manchester Unite Community Union will be holding a public meeting on 18th September at Friends Meeting House. More details can be found here and via Unite.