Stuart Crosthwaite is a member of the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group. He wrote this article in response to Boycott Workfare’s call for sanction stories. If you would like to contribute some writing on sanctions or workfare, we’d love to hear from you, please get in contact with us: firstname.lastname@example.org
If your aim is to reach targets for numbers of people sanctioned then you’ll pick on the easiest targets. Understanding the language of Job Centre Plus is hard enough if you speak good English but if you don’t, you’re in trouble. Evidence from South Yorkshire shows that refugees claiming JSA are being disproportionately sanctioned by JCP.
“Most of them get sanctioned at some point” a refugee support worker told me. From interviews with refugees I estimate that at least 50% of refugees on JSA are sanctioned. For women, particularly older women, the figure is higher still.
Why and how are refugees particularly vulnerable to being sanctioned by JCP?
- For most refugees English isn’t their first language. Many are sanctioned for not demonstrating jobsearch activities, verbally and/or via jobsearch records. Some JCP staff accept that other people help with completing forms – I saw one Job Seekers Agreement which explicitly recognised this, although the person who helps record jobsearches is often not allowed to accompany the claimant at interviews. Other people receive sanctions when they explain that they have had help filling in “Looking for Work” books.
- Interpreters are supposed to “always available” to those who need them according to JCP, though refugees are rarely told that they can request one. Some refugees told me that JCP staff have lied, claiming that an interpreter was present when important forms like the Job Seekers Agreement were signed. Others complained that interpreters were of poor quality, though understanding the difference between “mandatory” and “compulsory” isn’t easy or anyone.
- Low quality English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision. Refugees have been sanctioned for not attending JCP-recommended ESOL courses (run by A4e etc), complaining that they are of lower quality compared to community-based, non-commercial ones.
Language problems also make appeals against sanctions and applications for hardship payments more difficult. Support workers frequently had to go back to JCP with refugees to find out the reasons given for sanctions so that an appeal could be made. A lack of familiarity with “the system” and fewer support networks meant it was less likely that sanctioned refugees would seek support in appealing. They were more likely to lose housing benefit when sanctioned, not knowing they had to tell the local authority about the change in their circumstances.
Cultural differences often made sanctions more likely and appeals more difficult: most refugees come from countries where there is no official welfare system. For many, particularly men, there is a social stigma attached to claiming benefit. So when problems arose through sanctions they were less likely to discuss it and therefore be able to receive support.
It’s worth remembering that those refugees on benefits have struggled to achieve refugee status, often after years of having their asylum claim dealt with by another bureaucratic and cruel organisation: the Home Office/UK Border Agency.
It’s important to recognise that many of the measures which are now used to punish unemployed people were tested on those people seeking asylum during the last decade: enforced destitution as an “incentive” and the payment of some benefits with non-cash vouchers redeemable only in certain shops to be spent on certain items. People seeking asylum are not allowed to work while their claim is determined. In 2007 the government abandoned attempts to force them to “volunteer” after widespread protest and boycotting.
So, the next time you hear someone at the JobCentre complain about “them” who “come over here just to claim benefits” you might want to have a word.
Case studies (anonymous by request)
Ahmed from Iraq speaks little English: his JS agreement requires him to apply for jobs “using body language”! When sanctioned for failing to verbally explain what he’d done to find work he applied (with help) for hardship payments. He was assessed as “non-vulnerable” and received no payment for 3 weeks. Soon after he was hospitalised with TB, assessed as unfit for work and now receives ESA
Aida from Somalia was sanctioned for 4 weeks after she insisted that she wanted to do “any kind of work”. Her JCP advisor (without the use of an interpreter) told her that she had to specify particular “job goals” on her JS agreement.
Louis from Cameroon has a prosthetic leg and speaks virtually no English. His Job Seekers Agreement requires him to visit packing/food preparation factories in person to find work. He was sanctioned for 4 weeks for not being able to explain the steps he took to find work despite having completed his jobsearch record in compliance with his JS agreement. His JCP advisor claims that a competent interpreter was used at all times but Louis says he did not understand the French translation.