Saturday, 3 December 2011

Punishing The Precariat

Imagine my joy. I thought I had invented a word! An intoxicating reverie pictured me immortalised in the dictionary (perhaps even garlanded with laurels. Or worshipped like a word goddess…) Fame beckoned. Precariati! I did that!

Of course, reality pierced my dream. ‘Precariat’ has been used elsewhere, a social group identified by author Guy Standing (although I prefer ‘precariati’ and yes, I am sulking.) Sometimes overeducated, on short-term, low-pay employment, dipping in and out of stability, with only the safety net of benefits to occasionally save them (us) from penury and the streets, as they (we) stagger on from day-to-day.

Many people I know live in rented housing and work under short term contracts, doing their best, trying for long-term employment with the phrase permanent becoming increasing exotic, as once your CV says the phrase of doom freelance, you are stuck there (it means you are less likely to find a home to rent as freelancers are popular.) Life is uncertain. Signing on, or claiming Housing Benefit is an ever present, undermining inevitability for we, the precariati. And it’s no fun: the current rate of Jobseekers Allowance is £67.50, not enough to live on short term, and utterly impossible long-term. People do not sign on for laugh, or because they need a holiday from work. They claim benefits so they can eat.

Housing Benefit (or Local Housing Allowance) is being abolished. The self-employed, or new business start-ups could at least hang on to their rented homes while trying to make a living. I’m not noticing much opposition (at least not from anybody important ie a celebrity – you know, from a soap…) and so ‘Benefit Claimant’ has, like the terms ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ been corrupted and now implies scrounger, when this is far from the case.

Housing Benefit helps the precariati stay housed, in turn allowing them to work. Looming, ever present rooflessness takes up all your energy, and it’s hard to be a young entrepreneur or diligent jobseeker when you can’t pay rent. It’s exhausting.

The precariati are debilitated by uncertainty, especially in housing. People in new found jobs can be fired within the space of one year without much excuse (and those cuddly, cuddly condems are thinking about dropping even that requirement). It’s like wandering around with an axe hovering over your head, ready to chop off your prospects. But at least you can receive housing benefit, so you won’t be out of a place to live, right?

Wrong. Unopposed the new regime are hacking away, undermining an already tenuous existence. This is a government following an economic philosophy advocating low regulation and minimal intervention (well, alongside welfare for bankers who are bailed out, but that’s not the same as Housing Benefit, right?)

The precariati endure the imposed uncertainties caused by a wrong-headed philosophical system of cuts. When in certain areas of the country there are no long term jobs, what are they supposed to do without housing benefit? Grimly shuffle to the work-house, perhaps? Corralled into the precariat - punished for being a member of the precariat. There’s no way out.


Ben Reeve-Lewis said...

Love the term.

I worked for years 'Dahn the Cahncil' and always dreamed of being a freelancer. The very phrase carried with it a whiff of Errol Flynn, the self motivated, living by their wits character and in 2001 I took the plunge and spent the next 8 years on a financial rollercoaster, living permanently one misplaced invoice away from the job centre.

Swallowing anodyne apologies from salaried finance clerks for having mis-placed my invoice for the third time and only doing one cheque run a month so it will be another 4 weeks until I get paid.

Eating shit rather than complain because although they are late payers they are your most regular client and you dont want to lose the work.

As so many offices look to contract workers to save on desk space costs and office rental more and more are becoming freelancers with a sense of dread, as opposed to a sense of proud self-sufficency. Becoming a pariah in the home rental/ownership world at the same time.

Some letting agents in my manor stil have small stickers in their windows saying "No DHSS", not even, "No DSS" the relevant department having dropped the 'H' almost 2 decades ago.

A poster on another site where I wrote an article about the demonisation of tenants on benefits pointed out that benefit tenants are the modern equivelant of the "No blacks, no dogs, no Irish" signs in bedsit windows of 1950s Notting Hill.He was spot on.

The same respondent also said he wouldnt let to benefit tenants because in case of default there would be no secure liability upon which he could claim. I think this is why so many landlords wont touch "DHSS". Believe it or not I understand that business decision. My article was about prejudice, not fiscal considerations.

This week's public sector strike saw our office with more people in it than a normal day. Not because people necessarily disagreed with the strike but because they couldnt afford to lose the day's pay 3 weeks before Christmas.

I used to be our department's shop steward and deputy housing convenor, a member of Militant in the 1990s and I led more strikes than I care to remember but with my rent swallowing over 60% of my take home pay, Council tax, utilities, food and phone taking care of the rest. If I had lost a day's pay to a strike I would likely lose my home and having no kids or disabilities, would be in cardboard-box land.

You're right RG, freelancers and temps are also tossed to the winds now. Pretty soon the only people who will be able to rent in London will be staffers earning a minimum of £75k and who have been in work for 10 years.

My partner, a grown woman who works as a freelance travel agent for corporate business clients had to get a guarantor before we could rent our flat, simply because she is a freelancer - as if she is an 18 year old renting for the first time instead of booking Lear Jets and £4,000 a night hotel rooms for celebrity clients.

RenterGirl said...

Excellent response, and one i agree with. Apart from the but with No DSS. I know what you mean, but claimants, like freelancers and the working poor will have only portable personal possessions. And guarantors are a fresh tyranny, excluding people from housing. I've also used the hated old poster 'No..etc' as an analogy. It's true. And when they do say DSS welcome, well you wonder at the flat. Thanks Ben.

RenterGirl said...

NB: technical question. Do you use blogger? How can I link to twitter. I am so inept...

Ben Reeve-Lewis said...

I'm so technically inept I dont even understand your question.

What grates on me more than anything is the government's linguistic obssession with 'Choice' and 'Flexibility'.

Tenants have no choice and flexibility is forced on us by Assured Shorthold tenancies. I dont want to move. I like where I live (although I hate being a tenant) I dont buy decent furniture because I dont know how long I will be allowed to live here and cant guarntee re-homing it. We are in a converted victorian flat with high ceilings, If I bought something to fit I might have to get rid of it next year and I cant put any pictures on the wall for fear of losing my deposit.

there are times in a person's life that flexibility in your choice of home might suit but not many. Most people want a home that they know they can live in 3 years from now. Not be living constantly with one eye on the end of contract term, and whether you are going to have to borrow the deposit money to move because even an uncontested deposit a landlord can hang onto for 10 days leaving you in limbo or on a friend's settee waiting for it to clear before you can move in and start the whole charade again

RenterGirl said...

It is the insecurity that makes life so hard. A culture change is needed. People need stability. And yes, the deopist thing, when rent is devouring such a high proportion of income is unsustainable.

PleaseExplain said...

Hi Renter Girl

Can you explain something for me?

you say: The self-employed, or new business start-ups could at least hang on to their rented homes while trying to make a living.

What are you saying here? Are the self employed or business start ups exempt from the changes in housing benefit?

And, don't many freelancers have limited companies and are therefore also self employed or business startups?

Or is it that it is too early on Sunday morning (with a hangover) for me to understad simple English?

RenterGirl said...

Please Explain: Some of your comments appear to have been deleted by yourself.
Anyway: Business Start Ups - I mean unlimited companies, small sole traders, who when things are tight and no money coming in find it hard to dip in and out of the system. They are not exempt, but will suffer.

space cadet said...

Excellent post. This sounds exactly like my life, for the last 4 years. I had a stable job and a stable home once. Then I stepped off the roller coaster, sold a home I owned (a decision I stand by) and eventually relocated out of London. (best thing I ever did) But trying to find a steady job and a steady home since has been like looking for gold. (I'm no executive, either) I now think of relocating again, because, frankly, what have I actually got to lose.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing isn't it. And I do shudder now when I hear home-owners talk of selling up and renting. They're might be a brighter future for them on the other side of the water, but the water is just full of sharks - who can say if they will actually make it to the other side.

RenterGirl said...

So sorry to hear that Spacecadet. It's so hard: buy a home and worry about paying your mortgage and being repossessed when you have little access to housing bebfit when unemployed. Or short term work and renting, and all the insecurities that brings. An impossible way of life has been created. We can't go on like this.

space cadet said...

For sure RG. The city I live in now has two major employers, one of which (mine) is an increasingly big fan of employing on fixed term contracts. Here I am, juggling the balls of job and home, hoping that at least one of the balls stays in the air if the other should fall. I can't relax of course. Or plan for much. I'm always thinking about the next job app, the next move, the next landlord, the next conversation I must surely have, to secure my next abode. Mustn't leave it too late, mind. Not if I desire to live in something I actually LIKE, something I might dare to call home. (For every desired wish on the list, drop the odds of finding said 'home' accordingly). It's all so utterly draining.

RenterGirl said...

Apply for your own job again...apply for your home again. A lifetime of uncertainty with a system that punishes those imperiled by the doubt, refused credit, needing guarantors as Ben Reeves Lewis above says. Hope you find some peace, Spacecadet.