Day 12 of the Austerity Uncovered tour took us to the town of Swindon. The wet weather meant we got off to a drizzly start but this didn’t dampen the spirits of shoppers and local residents who were keen to share their stories.
At first glance, the town didn’t look like a victim of the recession. Making our way to the bus, we joined a busy high street with a selection of well known department stores and coffee shops. Behind the hustle and bustle, however, it soon became apparent that like everywhere else we’ve visited Swindon has its own problems.
Once considered a “boom” town, particularly in the advanced manufacturing and engineering sectors, job opportunities in Swindon are now few and far between.
First up, Kieran and his friend Joseph (both 20) approached the bus; eager to share their frustrations at the lack of opportunities in the area.
Kieran has been unemployed for 6 months and is desperate to find work. He has recently been put onto an eight week unpaid work placement and threatened with the removal of his job seekers’ allowance if he doesn’t attend. While he’s happy to be gaining more experience, Kieran feels like he’s being made to work for peanuts as punishment for not finding a job despite the lack of positions available to apply for. After paying his rent, he is left with just £25 a week to live off and has to make this stretch to cover his food bills and travel costs.
It seems somewhat ironic that a town that housed the UK’s first lending library and was once considered a hub for growth now offers little hope in the way of opportunities for its next generation. However, the lack of jobs growth is hitting people at all stages in their career.
Peter, 58, is a civil engineer. When he lost his job in 2009 he signed up to an employment agency who asked him to register as a private limited company so they could “pass business his way”. Desperate for work, Peter agreed. It soon became evident that this was a sneaky way for the agency to avoid paying National Insurance contributions and from providing basic employment rights. On top of this, as a “contractor” he has had to pay VAT for his “agency work”. Peter has since found a job, miles away from Swindon, but he is still struggling to pay off the PAYE contributions he owes. When asked how he feels, he describes himself as “depressed” and “exploited”.
Peter’s story is not uncommon and shows how unscrupulous employers are all too eager to take advantage of the tough economic times, exploiting people who have no choice but to seek work with them.
But what about the people that can’t work? Pete, 48, worked as a mechanical engineer for almost 20 years until he had a car crash in 2002. The accident left him with a brain injury resulting in memory loss, back problems, an inability to stand up for long periods of time and limited use of his left arm. He was signed off work immediately and received Disability Living Allowance which, he says, “covered the basics and allowed me to have a decent quality of life”. However, a recent ATOS assessment has deemed him ‘fit for work’ despite his doctor signing him off again. Pete is now appealing against the decision but his benefits have been cut by £30 a week. In addition, he’s been hit with a £12.50 weekly bedroom tax bill on a house he’s lived in for years. In short, Pete worked all of his life until he was forced to give up a career he loved and he’s now paying a hefty price for it. He describes feeling guilty about claiming benefits and wonders whether it would have been better if he hadn’t survived as he’s now being made to feel, “like a drain on resources”.
These three stories highlight how people who want to work are being punished when they can’t, whether from disability or a lack of employment opportunities. So, while Swindon may not have at first appeared to be suffering as badly as some of the places we’ve visited, it echoed the same worrying theme we’ve heard throughout the tour: austerity is hitting the most vulnerable hardest & allowing people to fall through the growing cracks in our society.