Does it pay to work under the Universal Credit system?
It is claimed by the government and DWP staff that Universal Credit always makes working pay. That is, you are always financially better off taking a job than staying at home. Whereas under the old established (and still at the time of writing primarily the default system) JSA you couldn’t work without losing your benefits status, the big boast of Universal Credit was that you keep some of your benefits and you can earn too.
It’s just not true. Even yesterday (Wednesday, November 1st) I witnessed a young mother in the job centre at Paddington Close, Salford, point this out in despair to a smiling, well-meaning DWP member of staff who was attending to her. His wry smile revealed his silent agreement and I discretely attempted to record the conversation taking place as the claimant became animated and began to say things like “Who brought this system in? Are they on crack?” Sadly, as I started recording other conversations closer to me flared up to drown out the evidence.
So here’s the maths from my own encounter; On Monday 18th and Thursday 21st September 2017 I did night shifts at a warehouse in Irlam. Irlam is a suburb of Manchester about five miles from my inner city block. The pay was £7.80 an hour and the shifts ran from 10 pm at night through to 6:45 am the following day on the first shift and a little later – 7:30 am for the second shift. This netted me a total of just over £136. Here’s my payslip from this work:
Here’s the wage slip I got for two night shifts;
You can see in the PAYMENTS column that the “Units” refer to the hours that I worked and the “Rate” is the hourly rate of pay.
The thing is, the DWP then reduced my Universal Credit payment for the next month by £86 because the deal is that they take away 63% of what you earn. Bear in mind that while I am in this position and interacting with the benefits system in this manner, I am one of the poorest people in the country fortunate to have a roof over my head at night. Yet I am single and healthy without any drug addictions and I don’t have any dependents. So it is very easy to imagine that many people doing this type of work are much worse off than me. Fathers. Family members. People with CSA liabilities. People who have illnesses and so who cannot work 100% of the time. People who have drinking and smoking habits. Workers who live far away and who thereby incur larger outgoing expenses than I did just to get to work in the first place. Yet this is the rule for everyone on Universal Credit. Think about that for a minute.
Below is a portion of the letter I promptly received from the DWP after I had undertaken the work mentioned.
In no time, the DWP write to me, deducting £86 of my £136.50
Let’s do a little math…
It was £4 each way on the bus. I couldn’t get a return bus ticket since I was traveling out on a different day to when I was returning – such is the nature of a night shift. So to even make attendance, the job cost me £16-00 in travel expenses. Considering that I have a 67 bus service running from right outside my block to within a couple of hundred yards of the warehouse in Irlam, I was one of the lucky ones with a direct public transport link.
Suddenly I have netted a total of £34.50 pence for two-night shifts. My final expense was food. I only ate a couple of tins of fish and a bar of coconut flesh and I also bought a couple of two-litre bottles of mineral water.
In the final analysis, I netted just over £20 for over 17 hours of work. That’s going on for one pound per hour. And if my expenses had been any larger – for instance – if I was a smoker or if I ate carbs like most normal people do, I would have been in arrears for my pains.
Recall my incoming and outgoing tally earlier in the book which left me with less than £5-00 per week from which to acquire both food and electricity? Now tell me that I would have to be a lazy job shirker for trying to avoid this type of “work” in the future.
It is no surprise to learn that people biting the bullet and taking any job available, such as that which I have described, for the sake of pride or the manifestations of the British work ethic are quickly in arrears with their rent and facing eviction. They are so mentally anxious that they are prescribed SSRI’s (anti-depressants) at the doctors. And the worse thing? The system and society at large allow these poor people to blame themselves for their acute situation. We as a society pile all the blame and shame and guilt onto the people who have all the odds stacked against them because we have loaded the system in this manner.
Enslaving people like this enables politicians to stand up on TV and proudly declare that unemployment is down. And you who know no better are primed to take their words and their claims at face value.
Behind the Scenes of a Household Name
Everybody has heard of Curry’s and everybody is familiar with Carphone Warehouse. These two brands are one corporate entity in fact. They are two branches of one commercial enterprise. You’ve seen their adverts on mainstream TV and no doubt most of you have visited their stores on the high street and made the odd high value purchase.
Profit rose 10% period-on-period to just over £501 million according to the latest financial re- leases from July 2017.
So I guess I am not alone when I imagined that working in the warehouse of the logistics arm of this company would be an experience in modernity and sophisticated state-of-the-art technology. There’s a clue that this might not be the case from the payslip I just declared a few pages back. £7.80 per hour is the night shift rate this £501M profit-making entity offered fully grown adult men in 2017.
It occurs to me that most people doing this type of work do not see what I see. Most of the guys that I worked with (we were a team of eight men) tended not to have done any other kind of work but hard manual labour for such a return. This type of deal and the conditions that come with it were normal to them. They have no context or tools of comparison. Most people in their world live similar lifestyles. Yet my experience of executive positions in media and tech companies in London after leaving university – my “normal” career conditions up until this point, in fact, have given me a sense of objectivity that enables me to see the Curry’s Knowhow set up for what it really is. I have the advantage of context.
I was earning £50,000 a year (see my salary slips in the first chapter) whilst working for media firms in London until 2008 and when I left Zen internet in 2014 my basic was £32,000. (again, refer to evidence laid out in Chapter 1) These jobs came fully expensed and with sick pay and pension rights and cars and all of that stuff. These kind of packages were normal to me be- cause they were what I had always known since leaving university and starting work in my early twenties. My salary packages were low-ball compared to most of the people I studied alongside at uni. My friends who went on to become lawyers and bankers would typically take a sum bigger than my annual salary in their Easter bonus each year. Nonetheless, beyond the money sums, there’s a distinct, almost palpable value in being an employee that is implied from an employer in office work and executive roles. A basic level of respect and gratitude are so commonplace they are taken for granted. Such things are entirely absent from the culture of low-paid manual work such as Curry’s Knowhow. It’s a world away from any office job you ever had and I am proud to be able to say a little more about this here. I suspect that most people in the UK have little clue what goes on. Everybody has a political opinion and many take advantage of their right to vote – but many of you don’t have a clue about how the people at the bottom of the pile are treated and how the system is skewed to subsidise rich employers and penalise those who can barely afford to put food on the table and a roof over their own heads.
My contact at the recruitment agency that placed me at Curry’s KnowHow – Ashley Thomason – texted me the full address of the warehouse. I typed the postcode into google maps and just after dark in late September – at about 8:45 pm – I headed outside to the bus stop to make my way to work. The shift started at 10 pm and I’d been told that the bus took about half an hour to make the journey. I had gotten hold of a pair of steel toe-capped boots and I needed to pick up a high- visibility bib and some heavy duty gloves from the warehouse before the shift began. I wore a pair of old jeans and a plain T-shirt under a black pullover. In my bag, I brought water and food and I had just enough money in change for the bus out and the bus back in the morning.
My neighbour, Les, from the seventeenth floor, had been working similar shifts for the past three weeks and I’d picked up a bit of basic information from him. But tonight, as I set off, he was out with friends and so wasn’t available to give me last minute tips.
Heavy manual work agrees with me. I’m from an industrial area of West Yorkshire and from a long line of working-class labourers on both Mum’s and Dad’s side of the family. I was the first generation to have an opportunity to opt out of such hard graft – go to college and pursue a career in an office, pushing pens, typing keyboards and wearing a suit. Mum came to England in her teens when her parents left Ireland to find work over here. They hail from the labourers that built the railways and suffered from various famines when the crops failed. Mum always held down three or four jobs at once whilst managing to raise three kids and keep an orderly house. Cooking and cleaning jobs in schools and cafes. At one point she was a dinner lady at one of my schools. My dad was a machine hand (it says “Machine Operator” as my father’s profession on my birth certificate) in the local textile mills of Dewsbury (the town in West Yorkshire where I was born) and Batley. These towns were the world’s centre for low quality types of clothing fabric known as Shoddy and Mungo in the industrial revolution. He was managing the shop floor when I was a teenager so from the age of sixteen, in the summer holidays and Easter breaks from school, I’d work eleven-hour shifts in the cotton cellar of Rest Assured Beds in the Smithies Mills near where we lived. Seven in the morning through to six at night, Monday to Friday.
It was 1988 and I must have been on about £2 per hour for this work because I distinctly remember getting paid over £120 per week. This was huge for a sixteen-year-old. All of my friends at school either had paper rounds, Saturday jobs in shops in town or they didn’t work at all. And you did get paid each week. Every Thursday, mid-shift, the team leader or one of the bosses (including my dad) would stroll through the factory floor with a tray of sealed brown envelopes. On each would be the full name of an employee handwritten in black ink. The whole place was literally a deafening din of Victorian style machinery: all needle boards and rollers so you didn’t see pay-day Santa until he nudged you and stuffed the envelope into your hands or into your pocket if your hands were busy working.
The envelope had a small window where you could count the notes by flicking their corners without opening the package, and you could up-end it so that all the coins within fell to the bottom and then you could finger them through the paper to identify each one and in this way complete the count. If you thought your pay was wrong (mine never was) you took it back. But once you opened the packet you were acquiescing to the contents as a fair and just payment for last weeks work.
The only women in the factory would sit at a line of what looked like heavy duty sewing machines and with a co-ordinated fast hand and foot action they would turn coil into springs. The springs would line up in a large rectangle and be fed into a super-hot oven. When the oven had baked them all together into a mattress frame my job was to get the mattresses out of the oven and pile them up to cool behind me before they were sewn with fabric and turned into beds. I wore two pairs of industrial gloves and a t-shirt because the heat was stifling. The mattresses would bend and fold as I lifted them over my head and where the metal came to rest on my upper arms would leave smart straight lines of burns. Within a dozen lifts, the gloves would burn clean through to my skin and I’d replace them just in time. Health and safety cultures were future generations away.
Having clocked on at 7 am I got a twenty-minute break at 9:30 am, a one-hour lunch break at midday and another twenty-minute break at 3:30 pm before clocking off at 6 pm. I was not paid for the rest periods and there was no such thing as sick pay so if you missed a shift you lost all the money you would have earned working it.
Even in 1988 it felt harsh but it wasn’t a thankless task. The camaraderie was palpable, Radio One boomed live over speakers which you occasionally got to hear at full volume when machines finished their cycle, and natural interruptions in work batches meant you could catch one or two minutes to chat with your colleagues about a dozen or so times throughout the day. Because everyone was full time and because you could earn enough money to build a decent life, all the people I worked with lived locally and had a sense of investment in the local community. We talked about our hobbies and interests. About crown green bowls and football and wedding anniversaries and moving into bigger, better houses with more rooms and bigger gardens and about buying new cars and plans for the summer holidays. We were working class men dreaming working class dreams. And living those dreams.
1988 Compared to 2017
Back to the summer of 2017, KnowHow is a ten thousand square feet warehouse space – open in style like an airport hangar, in an industrial estate down a side street behind Lidl in a run-down part of Manchester. Loading bays for vehicles of all sizes – from HGV’s to small vans, run along the two lengths of the site. At one end the open space gives way to a large office behind a glass screen containing a dozen admin desks, a check-in counter where you clock on, clock off and get the permanent members of staff to sign your time-sheets, a small canteen with a handful of chairs and tables, a fridge, a vending machine and a kettle with a hot water tank and some cutlery by a sink – and a toilet cubicle.
It’s not hard for me to describe the contents of the warehouse in earnest. Hundreds if not thousands of what used to be called brown and white goods in cardboard boxes. American style fridge freezers weighing over 100 kilograms. Cooking ranges. Hobs. Washing machines. Dish-washers and huge flat-screen televisions. Some over 70″ in diameter. And then ancillary bits, support stands and additional “parts” for each of these were so big that they came as stand- alone items.
Most items stood in a random massive assortment in the middle of the room and thirty yards to the right stood a double-length articulated truck that had been driven right inside the hanger, its side sheet dropped and its entire contents emptied onto the warehouse floor to produce the array of gear I just described. The truck was soon reversed out again. There were eight of us in high-visibility jackets and some of us wearing gloves if we wanted them. Grouped around distant loading bays were temporary sign-posts made out of wooden sticks and paper, giving each bay a “name” such as D3, followed by E3 then G3 – obeying a loose alphabetical and numeric order but with some inexplicable omissions. And at the foot of the signs were gangs of metal trolleys – small aluminium frames on two wheels with a fold down ledge – the type I used to hold my tabloid stash as a paperboy when I was twelve years old. The very type I still make use of today to bring my groceries in from the Click ‘n Collect van in the Tesco car park adjacent to my flat on the block in the ‘hood.
In 1988 Rest Assured was slightly more lenient in break times. Here at Curry’s KnowHow, having clocked on at 10 pm, we would get a forty minute lunch break at about 2:00 am with a fifteen-minute pause at either side of that to break the shift up. The structure of the shifts was not neat and the finishing time could roll back to fit the size of the work coming in. Shifts of indeterminate duration created an uncertainty that meant work was devoid of a rhythm.
There was no radio to listen to and a very post-modern, honest sense of non-camaraderie among my fellow workers – no doubt a direct consequence of a generation of zero hours contracted employees living insecure lives from one week to the next and never earning anywhere near enough money to build anything lasting – in an economic sense – such as a stable home life or a long-term financial investment or a steady and reliable work schedule or sleeping pattern worthy of building solid family and romantic relations on. Nobody was local. No workers here were from this town. Nobody knew each other from school. This employment didn’t gel a community together in any sense.
Winston was about 30 years old and looked rather like me. Bald. In shape. Attentive. But unlike me he was quiet and withdrawn. He lived near me in Salford and he’d managed to get low rent or “mates rates” off his mother by taking one of her flats down Chapel Street near Manchester city centre for a mere £50-per-week. By sticking out this job and that tenancy deal he was in clover for now and was grateful for it. You were meant to do five nights on and five nights off at Curry’s KnowHow – netting you about £300 a week before tax (about £250 net) but Winston kept working through his days off where the offer was there. While we were loading a van together he told me that he’d just completed twelve shifts back to back and had only managed to carve himself a weekend off by turning down the offer to keep that run going. “Before I collapse” – were the words he used.
Wes was just a little younger than me. In the smoking shelter out in the car park during our lunch break he told me that he was 42 years old. I liked this guy from the minute I laid eyes on him, for Wes was your typical northern working man. A slim build but all muscle. Manly without signposting it. He was quiet and of a humble countenance – of I type that I always find effortlessly charming. Throughout the shift, he worked continuously and without complaint. He concentrated on his task and completed it skilfully. Being new to the job I had to watch the other guys technique in a bid to imitate and thereby learn quickly. I soon decided to track Wes. To me, he had a momentum and a style that belied a good mental attitude. I sensed that he took pride in his work and I also sensed that this pride stemmed from a deep-seated personal pride. I didn’t announce to Wes that I had designated myself as his understudy. I wanted the non-complicit version of the way he went about his work.
Joseph was a man in his mid-thirties. He was of Afro-Caribbean descent and he wore a baseball cap and a big grin. On your football team, you’d want Joseph as your captain. Quite the opposite to Wes, Joseph was happy to keep an eye, not just on me, but on the whole team, and shout out words of guidance and encouragement as and when they were required, though never in a patronising manner. Joseph’s voice gave this motley crew of decent desperado’s a sense of team spirit and personally, I found his shouts and warnings an absolute life-saver. I need guidance in new jobs and when it is not forthcoming I tend to feel a little lost and a little sheepish. Fortunately, with a combination of Wes for imitation and Joseph for instruction and tips, I was beginning to enjoy what was at core a rather thankless and backbreaking piece of work.
Hamza was much younger than Joseph, Wes and I. We were all between five foot five and five eight in height but Hamza was a strapping young man in his late twenties who towered over all of us. What I loved about him was his tendency to come over and take a minute out of his busy schedule to offer a few words of advice on technique – say – on how to unload a fridge-freezer that was double stacked without doing myself an injury. Hamza would say “imagine you are dancing with a woman and hold her here – then turn like this” and he’d step forward to demonstrate his point. Wow! I thanked him profusely and in a half hour or so he’d be back to repeat the advice which I had demonstrably failed to take on board. I never detected one ounce of judgment or frustration in his voice.
All these men, complete strangers a few hours ago, were going out of their way to help me. Industrial manual work is hard but you know what? The struggle is a powerful bonding agent. It is the kind of experience that is all but extinct in the modern world and I felt lucky to have happened upon it once again – thirty years down the road.
The above is an extract from a new book on transcending hardship and surviving Universal Credit called From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill by Gary Knapton.