Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Square Pegs in Round Holes

So, I have finally been referred to the Back to Work Programme under the aegis of Triage, one of the private organisations tasked with forcing square pegs into round holes. I have my first appointment tomorrow but if the phone call I had a week or so ago is anything to go by they are not so passionate as they claim to be on their website to:
"It's a proven formula we are passionate about because we believe that people receiving benefits are a loss of talent, skills and experience to the workforce"
 I got the distinct impression that they are eager to feed empty call centres. I don't get the impression that they are particularly interested in my talent, skills and experience.

Jobs in Perth

It's a tough time to be looking for work. There are precious few jobs available as it is but when the employment websites are flooded with jobs which are not actually within the geographical area you live, it is grossly frustrating.

Apart from the Job Centre website, there are three main websites which advertise jobs in Perthshire:

The Courier
Scot Careers
Jobs in Perth (part of Jobs in Scotland)

Searches on all of these very Scottish sites for jobs in Perth return jobs based in Perth, Australia. Scot Careers and Jobs in Perth are by far the worst offenders - often more than half are in Australia. I have contacted the administrators of these two websites who have both acknowledged that this is completely unacceptable and have both assured me that action would be taken but in the months since I contacted them the situation has only deteriorated.

Incidentally, it isn't limited to these two sites - jobs in Perth, Australia appear on the Job Centres website under the job source search option of 'External Partners'. Would it be fair to infer that the term 'partner' means that there is a certain amount of mutual back-scratching between these sources and the Job Centre? And probably at the tax payers expense.

Don't all these incompetent agencies realise what a disservice they are doing to their clients, both advertisers and employees? And what does it say about them as organisations if they cannot even filter out such spurious results nor even bother to address the situation.

The Turning of the Screw

Although much of the past year I was tied up with my Employment Tribunal, I was told recently by the Job Centre that my geographical job search must now cover a travelling radius of 90 minutes, i.e. 180 minutes per day - three hours!

I think that if you are a high flying executive or other top earner, a 90 minute commute may be of little concern but if you are expected to work for National Minimum Wage for say, 40 hours per week, these factors have an unsettling effect on the actual numbers.

For example, in my car, I get about 40 miles per gallon on a long journey and if I am lucky enough to be able to average 50mph, I would be expected to travel 150 miles per day using about four gallons of petrol at a current cost of about £28. Over five days, that would be £140. On National Minimum Wage, 40 hours work would gross £243.20 or about £210 net. After paying for fuel, that would leave me with £70 per week. Well, my rent is £90 per week! Supposedly, if you are earning National Minimum wage, you ought to be independent of benefits and they would not factor in travelling expenses anyway.

But, if you were to include the three hours commuting in the working week, the hourly rate then falls to £4.42. Alright, I know that travelling time does not count as working time but it is an important perspective from which to view the situation. In my last job, I travelled an hour per day to work and my hourly rate was over £11.00 - so my effective hourly 'away from home' rate was still a very attractive £9.78 per hour. This may not mean much to bean counters or Daily Mail readers but the effect on morale is profound.

Scottish Business?

Despite having applied for over a hundred vacancies, I had my first interview for a job a couple of months ago, as a proof reader for a company who provide services nationwide for people who are about to marry in a small rural Perthshire town - except that they didn't really need a proof reader, they needed a copy writer. The job was advertised as having a salary of £1400 per month except that in the interview I was told in a very matter of fact way that the salary was national minimum wage, i.e. £6.08 per hour for a copy writer!

When asked if I had any questions, I asked if there was any scope for doing any graphic design work (the company has several websites and relies heavily on printed materials) and I was told that all their design and web work was done in India. I looked around me and realised that the only people employed in this 'Scottish' business whose feet were on Scottish Tarmac were those who were necessary to present a Scottish public image, the manager, the few people who answered the phones and one person who would write the copy for their publications and on their websites. Everybody else was in India. And so effectively, this 'Scottish' business was acting as a funnel for money out of the country. And the newly weds it catered for were, in effect, financing their own flailing.

This was an eye opening moment for me. I have observed the migration of jobs in manufacturing and services and naively never expected graphic design to follow suit.

Out on a Limb

Throughout the preparation for the Employment Tribunal, I had to continue looking for work and maintain a record of my job seeking for the Job Centre as does everybody who receives JSA.

Having moved from Blackpool to a remote part of Perthshire, employment prospects are thinly spread compared to urban areas. The Job Centre always demand that the three fields on a job seekers file (which state the kind of work they are looking for) are completed - but it is not permitted to say 'any'.

So, here is the first paradox of job seeking; My skills are quite specific, i.e. graphic design and filmmaking and I have experience in another field, care management but have no qualifications. The opportunities in graphic design are few and far between. If I put 'graphic design' in one of these fields, I am told that there are no jobs in graphic design around here. If I put 'care management', I am told that I won't get that kind of work because I am not qualified. And I am not allowed to put 'any'. But when I look for jobs I am not limiting my search in any way, I am willing to consider most things and have applied fro a more diverse range of jobs than I ever thought possible. So, why am I forced to limit the kind of work I am looking for in the fields I have to complete. It just results in an idiotic Kafkaesque dilemma which the poor civil servant behind the desk cannot comprehend and I end up having to pick three random dead end careers out of thin air in order to escape from the meeting.

Look North

I became disillusioned by the Christmas and New Year consumer fest many years ago and always left it too late to plan an escape. But when a friend and I spent a few days on a remote beach in the Western Highlands of Scotland, a seed was sown. I decided to kit out my Land Rover and spend the month between sign on days over the Christmas period on this beach. It was hard going and, with my digestive problems, fraught with complications but I got through it.

On my way back down south, I called in to see somebody with whom until this point I had only been in e-mail contact and who is now my girlfriend. She works in a community for adults with learning difficulties and at this point I am required to start restricting what I say for legal reasons - which should become clear. We started visiting each other and when I visited her, I would often go into work with her and help out on a voluntary basis. Eventually a job came up there which I felt suited me and I applied. I was unsuccessful but when another position arose, they approached me and offered it to me.

The position was essentially as a junior care manager. I expressed my reservations about accepting the job but I was assured that I would receive plenty of support and training and that after a three month probation, I would be given additional part time duties which would allow me to use my creative skills.

I accepted the offer and moved, lock stock and barrel to an unfurnished rented house in rural Perthshire. I put my heart and soul into the job and worked single-mindedly to furnish and equip the house. I am not permitted to disclose specifics of what transpired but suffice to say that the promise of a part time creative role never materialised. There were other issues of breach of trust and demands put upon me which took their toll on my health both physically and mentally. I was later forced to work with somebody with whom it was impossible to get on. The stress had a debilitating effect on my digestive system and I eventually became so unwell, I could not work. They seemed reluctant to address the situation in any reasonable way and flatly denied any assurances that they had made.

Fifteen months after I started work and about a two weeks after I started sick leave, I sought legal advice, I decided that the only course of action open to me was to resign and make a complaint to an Employment Tribunal on the grounds of constructive dismissal. My resignation gave me some immediate relief but the case took its toll on me. As with any case against an employer, it is nigh on impossible to get any current employees to give evidence against the employer. But I was fortunate in that I had retained every e-mail and text message sent and received and that one employee was prepared to testify that they had been asked by the manager to lie about a certain crucial aspect of the case in their statement.

After four days of hearings, two lengthy adjournments and several offers from the employer, I was so mentally and physically exhausted that I decided to accept the final undisclosed sum. I felt relieved that I would not have to go through the last two days of the hearing and for the first time in about a year I had a decent night's sleep. However, the next day, I was called by my solicitor's secretary who informed me that I would not receive any of the damages offered as the Legal Aid I had received was subject to clawback. I was asked if I still wanted to accept the offer. Having climbed the mountain and experienced the relief of rolling down the other side I was being asked to climb another one. I couldn't do it. I had expended my last vapours of energy. And so almost a year of stress and anxiety was for nothing. The only ones to benefit were the solicitors on both sides. Somebody told me of a painting that they has seen on a solicitors wall which showed a peasant and a nobleman fighting over a cow, the nobleman tugging on the horns and the peasant on the tail (the end where the shit comes out) and there was a solicitor under the cow milking it. I have had three occasions to employ the services of a solicitor and this one mental image sums them all up perfectly.

In Business

Having worked as a graphic designer for many years, in 2001 I went into business with a partner and within a few years I decided to go it alone and had diversified into filmmaking as well. I had several excellent clients and was doing alright for myself.

I had a minor health issue, a hiatus hernia, which required medication that had undesirable side effects and was advised that I could have keyhole surgery to rectify it. So, at the end of 2006 when I had completed the year's main contracts, I went into Blackpool Victoria Hospital to undergo a Nissen Fundoplication. I anticipated being out of hospital within a couple of days and was looking forward to a major new assignment in the New Year. Unfortunately, things did not go according to expectations and on the evening after the operation I was experiencing pain across my abdomen and chest which was more severe than I had ever felt before. The self administered pain relief was exhausted, the nurses could not find replenishments and I was directly told to shut up because I was upsetting the other patients. They refused to attend to me and left me in agony. I requested that they call my girlfriend but they refused as it was after midnight. I eventually called her myself almost falling out of bed finding my phone. I had to call her mobile phone and my home landline (she was staying in my flat as she had taken time off work in Scotland to be with me) quite a few times before she answered. I have very little memory of what happened next. I was anaesthetised and woken up to sign a consent form. The next I remember waking up feeling like I had been hit by a bus. I had tubes coming from everywhere, two from my arms, two from my abdomen one from my penis and one from my neck. I was barely able to move.

It was clear that the first operation had gone wrong and I was later told that I had been stitched up with a hole in my stomach so when I had been fed, the food was leaking into my abdominal cavity. Over the next few weeks I was subjected to the most painful and humiliating treatment from the surgeon who had performed the original operation and was in excruciating pain. I had pneumonia in my left lung and mass fluid retention in my lower body. My scrotum had enlarged to the size of a very large grapefruit. My penis was engorged by my scrotum so that the catheter just disappeared into it. I was unable to get out of bed for two weeks and when I finally made it to the bathroom for the first time, I was shocked at what I saw in the mirror. I looked like an old man and my mouth was green inside. I was told that I had a systemic fungal infection and was prescribed quite nice tasting but evidently extremely powerful anti-fungal medicine which I later believed had destroyed all the bacteria in my digestive system.

When I was just about able to walk unaided, I was allowed home. It was the day before Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, I went to my sister's house to have dinner with her family and my Mum. The smell of food made me feel nauseous. I pleaded for a tiny portion but got a full plate. I was able to eat a single sprout before I felt sick.

I was unable to walk more than a few yards without becoming totally exhausted. I had chronic diarrhoea and was glued to the toilet foe most of the time - probably going over forty times per day. Ridiculously, I still had the new project in my sights and in early January, I made an attempt to start work. I needed to visit the client but could not drive so I took the bus. It was pretty evident that I was going to be unable to do the work and the job went to somebody else. Worse still, I was not able to do any of my regular work feeling that I was letting clients down I eventually had to close the business.

My savings were depleted and reluctantly, I had to ask my doctor to sign me off so that I could claim benefits not realising that I could have done so months earlier.

I made several attempts to walk into Blackpool town centre, about a mile from my flat, but was defeated by my need for the toilet before I made it half way. And so it continued for most of the year until the boredom of my digestive imprisonment drove me to despair. I managed to find work with a company who provided transport for children with special needs. It was about two hours work in the morning and two in the afternoon. I explained my situation to all the parents and each assured me that their bathroom would be available should I need it. I was probably too proud to ask and somehow managed to hold on every day until I got to the school. I was given the security code for the main door and once the children were safely unloaded I would dart to the toilet.

Whilst this was far from my preferred line of work, I found working with the children very rewarding and the modest responsibility was extremely satisfying. But economic factors were to interfere. Fuel prices were rising dramatically and only about six months after I started, I was made redundant because the contract my employer had on the route I drove was losing money. Explaining my circumstances to the Job Centre was not easy. I did not want to be considered too unwell for work but I was definitely not well enough to do a full time job and most of the jobs on offer were well out of my range at that time.