Working with partners in The Netherlands as part of the CoSIE project – a three-year programme of work that looks at the co-creation of public services across Europe – the People’s Voice Media team have been using Community Reporting techniques to support employment services in Houten Municipality in better understanding experiences of the existing services and what could be improved. This comes after the municipality saw data to suggest there was a skills mismatch between those seeking employment and the needs of employers. Community Reporting techniques were used to understand this further in order to inform the co-creation of new or improved services. As part of this process, a number of stakeholders from the pilot project – jobseekers (including Dutch nationals, immigrants, refugees, and those living with disabilities), employers, and employment agency workers – came together in a workshop to share their own stories of their experiences, and review these stories to generate key understandings for the pilot, learn from each other’s perspectives and have their voices heard as part of the co-creation process.
This feature article presents a short analysis of some of the findings.
The personal importance of work
Many of the stories told make apparent the personal importance of working and being able to work, and how significant this is to jobseekers of all backgrounds and abilities. One woman living with autism and an intellectual disability tells how “work adds to my life, that you make your own money, that I’m able to support myself.” Her positivity associated with supporting herself through working is echoed in other stories. A group of Eritrean refugees discusses the sense of pride that comes with working, telling how work is about self-respect and not depending on benefits: “We’re not here to depend on social services, but to work. To have our own home, build our own lives, not to receive money.” They also stress that work benefits their physical and mental wellbeing and, as long as they earn enough to cover basic necessities, it’s not strictly about the money earned. A Syrian woman who works as a medical assistant also echoes this sentiment when she explains that if she is working and earning then “I exist. I am here.” Another young Syrian woman – a student living at home with her parents – talks about her search for a job to support herself while studying. She had to give up her part-time job as it was not compatible with her internship but she says how she really enjoyed working as it meant she could do something for society as well as being independent and earning her own money. She describes working for her money as better than sitting at home receiving money from WIL, the local benefits agency. A Syrian woman who has lived in The Netherlands for three years and works as a classroom assistant in a primary school also iterates this by saying that “work means to be independent and self-actualize,” succinctly summarising the belief that comes across in so many of the stories, that work is not only a matter of pride, but forms a fundamental part of a person’s identity. This is echoed by a divorced woman, still living with her ex-husband, who says that the meaning of work is “financial self-support, being useful, and not being bored.” This is also echoed by Cleo, a jobseeker, who says, “What is the importance of work? To earn money, to develop yourself, and to keep in contact” There is a distinct sense throughout these stories that having the ability to earn money and support oneself is a vital part of one’s identity and the feeling of pride that comes with it is an important motivator. While money is available through benefits to help people survive, this is meaningless if the money has not been earned through work. It is perhaps telling that the majority of stories actively speaking of this sentiment come from refugees (or people who began life in The Netherlands as refugees), a group for whom the ability to work might be seen as a privilege earned over time, not available to all. The sentiments expressed suggest work as a positive influencer on self-esteem and good mental health.
‘Keeping in contact’, as Cleo puts it, is also a theme that regularly comes up with many people describing co-workers or contact with the public as an aspect of work that’s important to them. The first woman adds to her story how having colleagues is a part of what work gives to her: “It’s nice to have contacts that are different from your family.” Meanwhile, a Syrian student talks about enjoying work because she comes into contact with other people. Another Syrian woman, working as a classroom assistant says "I also like having people around and communicate with people. In the class I like to talk to people and give them information. I like this and it is important.” Stories like these suggest work as a route out of isolation, giving people who might have a limited social network an opportunity to regularly meet and communicate with people outside of their immediate circle, again suggesting employment as a positive influence on mental health. If work and employment is a positive influencer, it stands to reason that the lack thereof can have negative consequences. As we see in the next section, these broadly come from poor experiences of the existing jobseeker and benefits system in the municipality.
A broken system
The stories gathered in many cases tell a story of a ‘broken’ benefits and jobseeker system that leaves people scared, confused, in unsuitable jobs, or even in debt. Marian tells how she currently has a job but it doesn’t suit her as the caseload is so big that she can’t complete her tasks satisfactorily and she doesn’t know if it’s sustainable in the long term. She did have a job that she enjoyed, but it was less hours so her income was supplemented by the UWV (the national social service). However, these benefits were due to stop and would have left her without enough income to run her car – which was essential to her job. This left her in the position of having to move to a more unsuitable job, which was unfortunate as the job she liked would have been able to offer her more hours if she had been able to wait six months. She describes the UWV legislation as “discouraging and counterproductive,” and the UWV itself as “a necessary evil” which she felt offered her no support. This idea of having to take ‘any’ job is repeated by the young Syrian woman working as a medical assistant when she says how she felt pressurised by the WIL to accept any job that came along, rather than waiting for one that suited her experience and qualifications (she was a teacher in Syria). Stories like these suggest that the existing system treats people as ‘numbers’ rather than human beings and doesn’t take into account less tangible concepts such as happiness in work, that can’t easily be quantified in a database. Instead it seems to be about getting people out of the benefits system as quickly as possible, regardless of an individual’s personal feelings about the work.
Another big factor is the complexity and bureaucracy of the system. A group of Eritrean women point to it being overly confusing. One speaks of her experience when she was 22. She was given a house to live in as well as benefits, but a year later she received a letter demanding she repay €3,000, an amount of money she did not have. She eventually managed to get help from a local welfare organisation but this took a lot of time and effort. She blames the lack of information available at the start of the process: “You find out because it happens to you, but you really should have this information in advance.” One of the others in the group suggests the language barrier is an issue as the information that is available online is all in Dutch. The language barrier also makes fixing the problem a slower process. Another adds that they wait in fear for what might happen with their benefits. She says her community understands that earning a certain amount causes you to lose rights to certain benefits, but they have no idea what that amount is or how it works in practice. An Eritrean refugee who is a single mother shares a similar story. After three years of working every day in order to have independence for herself and her children, she received a letter saying she should reimburse a huge amount of money that she did not have – all because she did not have the rules properly explained to her. She felt that no one would take responsibility, and when she explained to the tax office that she couldn’t afford to pay rent or buy food, she was simply told to go to the Food Bank, rather than being offered practical solutions. “Nobody has a voice only those in power at the unemployment services. With one strike of a pen they mess up your lives.” She now believes it’s better not to work. “You remain dependent but you stay out of problems,” a sentiment that goes against the intentions of the system. A male refugee who had a similar experience after finding a job describes receiving a letter demanding reimbursement of benefits as “traumatic”. A Syrian woman who was an English teacher in Syria but now volunteers as a classroom assistant because she is unable to find work, demonstrates this break in the system. If she started paid work, she would only earn what she currently gets in benefits, so it suits her to volunteer as it keeps things less complicated – she often doesn’t understand the rules around taxes and child benefits but knows some people often have to pay back money they were given but now no longer have. She believes more information should be given because people would rather just live on benefits rather than having earned income supplemented as it causes stress and fear. This story and the others like it suggest a real disconnect between the benefits system and those who use it – particularly those from the immigrant and refugee communities. It seems as if simple solutions such as multilingual information resources and accessible online income and benefits calculators are being ignored and causing the system to work against itself, forcing people who want to work into staying on benefits so they don’t inadvertently get ‘caught out’.
These issues with a lack of information on benefits regulations are not just confined to immigrants and refugees. Sander is a man living with autism who works for the municipality in a participation job – a job supplied specifically for a disabled person as part of the Dutch Participation Act. He also receives benefits to supplement his income.
“In August last year I got a letter from the tax authorities: I had to pay back rent benefits. I also had to pay back a part of my UWV-benefits because I had worked part time and they didn’t deduct my salary from benefit. They do that after two or three months. That made me feel like in 2004/2005 when I had a lot of mental health problems. A friend told me not to file the tax return so I didn’t. I didn’t know I had to check my income with the tax authorities every year. I had serious financial problems so I went to the Food Bank for help. Infospreekuur and someone from the diaconate helped me with the financial issues at the tax authorities and UWV. They called the organizations and explained everything to me. That gave me peace. The church loaned me the money for UWV so I could pay back in a longer period of time and without interest. … I find it difficult when people talk to me in a clear, formal and direct way. That and to have little time stresses me out. I understood the fact that I had to pay back money but I didn’t like the way they talked to me on the phone. They show a lot of distrust and that hurts. A family member helped me to submit an objection to the tax authorities and request a postponement. Now everything is paid back."
Sander’s story suggests that he was his particular circumstances were not considered by the tax authorities, and that he was not treated as an individual with individual needs by them. This feeling is echoed in the stories of others who express a fear of the benefits services, such as Karin, who was a jobseeker during 2012 and 2013. During this period there were not many vacancies and she struggled to find a role. “Circumstances were hard but weren’t taken into account [by the UWV].” She felt she was being blamed for not being able to find work, rather than being supported. In the end, she started her own initiative, De Krachtfabriek, to help those who want to work feel empowered, but out of fear she did not tell the UWV of her activities. Sander and Karin’s stories again suggest a disconnect in the system where those who run it fail to see those using it as humans with individual needs and circumstances and, because of this, it instead intimidates and causes stress to benefit claimants and jobseekers.
This sense of the system being broken also comes through powerfully in one man’s story of his business failing, leaving him broke and homeless. He feels the lack of support from the system at the start made his situation worse and has left him a “ghost citizen”. At first, he was refused support because his case wasn’t considered “bad enough” but then when his situation escalated, he could not access support because he wasn’t then registered on the system. He was put under pressure from employment services to accept a job in a factory despite not having any means of getting himself there, but was told he would not be allowed any benefits if he did not accept it. This situation angered him and made it difficult for him to engage with the benefits system. Now he is in a position where he needs a postal address in order to engage further with the system, but cannot get an address without benefits to pay for it. He wants to work but is unable to because of the system. This sort of paradox is another example of a system that works against itself, causing individuals to be forgotten because they do not fit neatly into one box or another.
The stories here demonstrate incredibly negative views of the jobseeker and benefit system in the Houten municipality and show how the system appears to put up unnecessary barriers to people finding work and living independently of the system, despite its purpose being to help people into work.
Although this is only a short analysis of some of the findings of the Houten pilot, it shows that there are clearly issues within the system as, in general, people want to work as it gives them a sense of identity, value and pride. However, it is the system itself that often prevents this by being overly complex and bureaucratic, as well as being inaccessible to those who don’t speak Dutch or who live with a disability. It often works against itself as people would rather stay on benefits than get into trouble.
All of the problems raised come back to one main issue: the system tends to treat jobseekers and benefit claimants simply as things that need to be got into work – any work – and off benefits. Meanwhile it treats employers as empty boxes to indiscriminately put jobseekers in to. The solution to this is for a three-way dialogue to be created between the municipality, jobseekers and employers so that the needs of all are heard, understood and then can begin to be met on an individual, tailor-made basis.