It’s November 2012 and I’m at the Job Centre on a cold morning.
I’m slumped in my chair listening to my advisor telling me to “give up” on my plans to look for a half decent job that matches my skills, and take the zero hours, short term contract I have been offered. I consider it, after all it’s not like I’ve never done pointless demeaning work before – treated like a pack mule by managers, expected to work long and hard hours for minimum wage, and getting shifts with only a few hours notice. But I say no. I’ve had enough of work like that – a standard since I was 16 – and I want something better. I’ve only been unemployed for 2 months, I’ve got skills and I know my rights.
That week I applied for over a dozen jobs and have plenty more on the horizon. I tell my advisor that if they are patient and wait for me to get a better and more stable job I’ll be out of their hair for longer than if I take the zero hours contract for a few weeks. My advisor accepts my argument and we move on. A week later I’ve been sanctioned despite being assured I wouldn’t be. I appeal, but it’s going to take weeks to sort out all the bureaucracy and I don’t have much food in the house. In the same week I also get three separate letters from the council about housing benefit, all with the same date on. One tells me I’m not entitled to anything, one tells me I’m entitled to half of my rent, the other tells me I get full housing benefit. I phone the council and get put on hold for an hour waiting to speak to a human being. A stressed member of staff curtly tells me it’s an admin error, but can’t tell me which letter is correct – it’s going to take a few weeks till I get a new letter telling me what is going on. I’m now back into what is left of my graduate overdraft to pay the rent and buy food. I haven’t looked at a cash machine without a minus symbol in front of my balance for a long time.
I’d been living in Bristol for around 2 months, after throwing all my possessions into the back of a car and driving down from Sheffield. I spent the first few days in the city crashing on a friend’s sofa, then on another friend’s floor, before finding a rented place with two strangers who are both decent, much to my luck. But they aren’t particularly close with me and they probably wouldn’t put up with me not paying my rent – and the landlord certainly wouldn’t. I’m deeply depressed, and wondering if things will ever get better. I’m recovering from an earlier suicide attempt which, at that point, I was still thinking about every day (a topic I have written about before.) I feel powerless and angry, both with the world and myself, and I’m anxious about rent, eviction, paying bills and being able to afford to eat. I feel like this for another three months until I land some work.
A couple of years later I am in a job that is both insecure and very high pressure. The funding that pays my wages might get pulled and the project cancelled at any moment. I think about being back on the dole after getting off it, sitting in the toilets feeling panicked, and angry. At the same time as dealing with the insecurity I know I can’t slack off on the project. If the funding isn’t cut I’ll still have to work hard to meet a looming deadline, and my manager tells me that the more I produce the more likely it is that I will still be employed. So I’m in a position of working incredibly hard at a job I might lose with a week’s notice, something that has been specifically written into my contract so the organisation won’t have to keep paying me if the worst happens.
Eventually I move onto the next job, where I have a short term contract which is renewed a week before it was due to expire. My current contract at work is still short term and will likely involve a similar level of uncertainty and stress. I am working towards becoming a freelance writer so that I can get out of this cycle and do something I really care about, but this will expose me to more risks around sickness pay, holidays and insecurity at work – serious risks of their own which I have to consider constantly.
This is a reality that many people have to deal with on a day to day basis. Millions of people work with no security, in jobs that feel pointless, for low pay. Millions live in poor standard housing which they can be evicted from at short notice. The UK is a country with a stagnating economy, a badly regulated, expensive and growing private rented housing market and increased automation in many jobs means that many more people are likely to end up without any work at all. Many people are in a situation where their mental health suffers out of work, being hounded by the media and benefit sanctions, and suffering in work with insecurity and stress.
If we want people to really have freedom of mind, we need to find a way to give them freedom from bad housing, freedom from being evicted on a whim, freedom from the rent suddenly being hiked up 18% in a year, as they were in Bristol in 2015. If we want people to have real freedom of mind they need freedom from terrible work and freedom from insecurity – something which needs a collective – and political – solution, not only a medical one. This is something that policy makers are still not willing to properly confront and accept, but tinkering with the edges of a broken system is not going to solve the problems. This is something which needs a huge change in our society.
– Dean Ayotte
We’re only a few weeks away from Freedom of Mind Festival 2016! We’re kicking things off with a launch party at the O2 Academy on the 30th September with The Rupees and The Mirrors playing us into the night, as well as films and art. It’s going to be a great night – grab a ticket here: http://bit.ly/2bJ2txF