Who Made Your Pants?

Gorgeous Pants. By women, for women.

Feeling hopeful….

Since December, I have been trying to support the women the project is working with in understanding what happens to their benefits when they work.  The thought that someone might be so keen to work they don’t realise they could lose benefits terrifies me. But getting calculations done, and working out which benefits each women gets and the impact of working.. it’s a minefield.  The benefits trap in bonkers, and the system sometimes impenetrable. And that’s without even getting into conversations about immigration status, which I am learning a lot about very fast. But I am hoping there is light at the end of the tunnel.

We have been awarded £11,550 from the European Social Fund to train the women, in English and then in sewing.  We have to start invoicing for this money by mid May else it goes back into the pot and we have to bid again. Which takes a while. And would delay us.

So. Today, I had a fantastic conversation with a Neighbourhood Advice Centre, and they have been brilliant. We have a meeting set up with them to go through it all, in one place, at one time, and I have started the process of getting in touch with the women.

I can’t describe how convoluted and complicated this all is. Contacting the women by phone is hit and miss, and many speak little English so calls have to be remade when there is a partner or English speaking child around. Trying to explain where a venue is can be really hard when the person speaks little English, or is new to the area. Some of the women have had no information back in response to the forms they sent in, and so we are still in the same sort of place we were four months ago. But this has to stop – we cannot afford to lose that money and we need to make a proper start. I think I might have been too accommodating, and perhaps I need to be more firm – todays’ calls have included the words, ‘The meeting is very very very important, and only women who come can get training and jobs. And we have to start at EXACTLY ten o’clock as the adviser has to leave at 11.30.’ Punctuality is viewed differently by some of the women, and so I really hope they understand and the meeting can start on time.

I’m hoping that by the end of the meeting, there will be a clear idea of who can work, for how many hours, and what impact that will have on their benefits. A lot of benefits are sort of gateways – if you get X they you can also get Housing Benefit, kind of thing. The thought that someone might inadvertently lose the gateway benefit, and then their housing as well brings me out in a cold sweat. But I am feeling hopeful.

It’s galling to think that these women are so very keen to work and there seem to be so many obstacles in the way. The systems are just not set up to help marginalised people take the first step. I’ve had to learn that being angry won’t help, but using that anger to make changes will.

And here’s a really galling thing. The fabulous Advice Centre that’s coming to help us is being closed down. It’s Council funded and works well because it’s in an area of high unemployment and economic inactivity, lots of refugees and other often excluded groups. The people who use it like it because it’s local – they don’t have to go into town, where many of them report feeling very nervous – imagine how you might feel if you were in the middle of a big city in Afghanistan, or somewhere in Africa. Everyone looks different, the clothes are different, the behaviour, the social mores and norms, the language, even if you speak some, is so fast you can’t keep up. It’s little wonder that people prefer to stay with people they know, in enclaves they are familiar with. So the Advice Centre has been brilliant. Close, convenient, friendly. But the funding is going. It breaks my heart.

I really hope that by the end of this, I understand more about the benefits system so I can maybe learn to give advice, or bring people into our building regularly to do so. I refuse to accept that our civilised society wilfully excludes certain groups from routes to progress and betterment. But in the meantime, we need to get making pants. Which I hope can start in the summer. Samples will be trialled by all of us in the co-operative, and we might even ask some of our friends to try the sizing out for us. So if you’re up for some wonky seamed trial run pants…watch this space.


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3 Responses

  1. zan says:

    What your doing is ever so impressive. I feel very proud of you, going so far for everybody. Can’t wait to try on some pants! z x

  2. Mr Stuff says:

    Good luck with the benefits stuff, I know it’s been a pain but there must be light at the end of the tunnel. And if you’re making any go-go-gadget pants then I’ll give them a go, just remember to put the helicopter blades at the back

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