Tuesday, 24 May 2005

Working Man

I don’t know Ali Mbomba, but I detest the blighter. At the time of his birth in the war torn jungles of Angola, it was by no means evident that our paths would cross. Then he made the decision to leave, and somehow made his way across the dark continent, sailed the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean sea and arrived on the shores of Britain. At the end of this long journey Elizeu ended up amongst the red brick terraces of Rottingham-on-trent, far from his native land. Having tried unsuccessfully to find work he decided to apply to the Council for funding. Meanwhile, in another corner of the same city, a lowly temp by the name of Humphrey Clarke struggled unsuccessfully to input his badly drafted personal information into a poorly designed database. The form before him looked as if it had been filled out by Guy Fawkes after a lengthy session with the torture rack. Having stared quizzically at this illegible document for a good hour -partly in an attempt to decipher its contents, and partly to waste as much of the working day as possible- I concluded that I had incorrectly spelled his name when I had entered his records earlier in the day. This meant I was going to have to go back through the entire system and painstakingly correct every single entry.

Fate had offered a limited range of options, either stay unemployed and lose brain cells watching ‘The Trisha Show’, find some explosives and blow myself up in the name of Islam, or whore my services out to a temping agency and earn some much needed cash. I now work in the Economic Department of the main council building.

Working for Rottingham-on-trent council provides a startlingly relaxed atmosphere. Looking around my office I can see a half dozen people whose only role in the team is to play solitaire and read ‘The Metro’. However, the work does involve a hideous amount of bureaucratic nonsense. In the real world, if I fancy going to the pub, I simply pick up my coat and my wallet and head down to the local brewery for some much-needed sustenance. Were I doing this as part of my employment with the council, I would first have to submit a ‘Pub application form’ to the economic department stating my reasons for this action and a financial breakdown of all the money I intended to spend. This form would have to be produced in triplicate and sent to other departments on special headed notepaper, with one photocopy retained for filing in the records. The entire request would then have to be logged in two separate computer databases in case of an Audit, and could only be acted upon after being the subject of a departmental meeting. By the time the request had made it back from head office, it would probably be closing time and too late to go to the pub anyway. Newton’s third law of motion states that ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’; when you work at the council, every action creates a mountain of paperwork the size of the Eiffel Tower.

In theory, my job is to help people with no skills or qualifications find employment; in practice, I tend to sit around looking baffled and confused, attempting unsuccessfully to avoid becoming the ‘Office bitch’. This isn’t easy when you have an Admin role, as part of your job description is to perform any task that a member of permanent staff feels is too demeaning, dull or downright futile for them to do themselves. The aim is to train ‘disadvantaged people’ by offering courses in an area like Admin or Taxi driving, at the end of one of these courses we guarantee them a job interview and hopefully get the poor buggers into employment. Easier said than done. Despite offering them free travel to the college, complete funding for their course and £100 gift vouchers if they make it to the end, even then, some of them still can’t be arsed to turn up. This leads me to conclude that Jesus was a tad naïve when he said ‘blessed are the meek’, some of them are clearly scum.

Last week I attended an employment assessment day. The aim of this event was to put some of our clients through a series of tests to determine whether they would be offered a job interview later in the week. I found myself sitting awkwardly in a meeting area, surrounded by unfriendly faces. I began to wish my colleague hadn’t left the room; years on the dole had seemed to foster a demeanour of resentment amongst some of these people and they looked on at me with distrust and antipathy. I realised with horror that I was running out of things to staple. This had been my pretext for avoiding eye contact, now I was going to have to take the plunge. Looking up from my files, the whole room appeared to be staring at me, as if they expected me to juggle for them or perform an assortment of amusing card tricks. A rather twitchy looking chap was sitting close to me and I decided I should make some sort of an attempt at conversation. ‘Where have you come from today?’ I said. By the look of disgust on his face you could be forgiven for thinking I had asked ‘are you in the habit of fornicating with your sister?’. ‘Where..have I come from?’ he replied. It had seemed a simple question, It wasn’t as if I was asking him to reveal his entire ancestry. ‘Er….what part of Rottingham?’ I replied, seeking to clarify what I had said. ‘Brexstowe’ he said, as if he were delivering a cutting insult. Conversation is a two way process, if the other person isn’t willing to play ball then there’s not a great amount you can do. After saying ‘Oh…’ I decided not to continue talking and looked for other things to staple.

My colleague returned, ‘Humphrey is just going to take your photograph for our files’ he informed the assembled company. I, looking embarrassed, picked up the camera and motioned the first person over to the wall so I could take a Polaroid of them. To my dismay, I tugged on the film too hard and the contents of the camera spooled out onto the floor. ‘You should take that out of his wages’ said the twitchy chap, helpfully; deciding to stay professional I contented myself with muttering, ‘I hope you never get a job you bastard’ under my breath.

The day having drawn to a close we began the process of selecting which candidates had made it through to the final stage. This yielded a chance to see affirmative action at its very best. Having spent a while sorting the candidates into ‘yes’ and ‘no’ piles based on their test results, we came to the sudden realisation that most of the ‘nos’ were ethnic minorities. A swift reshuffling, and political correctness was restored. A tad unfair perhaps, but very ethical.

There was one fellow on the assessments who I could tell was slightly mad and this fact became steadily more apparent when looking over his in-tray exercise. In reply to the question ‘A female co-worker has cut her hand badly, what priority should this be given?’, we were expecting our candidates to simply regurgitate a load of health and safety stuff. The mad fellow had written ‘this situation may require some personal diplomacy, but all will be right in the end, at any rate it is not in the least bit urgent’. Beside the scenario ‘The chief executive has arranged a meeting, what priority should this be given’, he had simply written ‘You ignore the word of the chief Executive at your peril!!!!!!!!’. We decided, on reflection, to let him through to the interview stage. Sadly he failed to make it through because during the interview he refused to discuss the questions at hand and instead went on a bizarre rant about ‘crystallisation’ and ‘energy flows’. I don’t think he is the maddest person to ever be on one of our courses. Whilst flicking through one of the files the other day an application form drew my attention. It was filled out in a large, erratic scrawl; under ‘why should you be considered for the course’ it read ‘I WANT JOB’; under disabilities it read ‘SCHIZOPHRENIA’. Attached to the back of the form was a letter, which read ‘during the course, this students behaviour has been unusual. He sits in class, writing on himself in biro and mumbling, some of the student have complained that he often tries to steal their chocolate’. Getting such miscreants into work is going to be challenging to say the least.

Disclaimer: All characters and events in this story are fictitious, and any similarity to a real person or city council, living or dead is entirely coincidental and unintended by the author.

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