The climb back: why welfare is not the antithesis of employment

By Andrei Savitski and Dora-Olivia Vicol - 28 January 2021

Daria first contacted our Employment Rights Clinic in March 2020. She had learnt about the Work Rights Centre from a social media group for Russian speakers, where our advisers shared a short infographic, as they do every week, in an attempt to inform and build trust among communities who often fall below the radar of local authorities.* 

When she first rang, Daria was desperate. Like thousands of hospitality workers caught in the grip of Covid-19 with precarious employment contracts, she had been left unemployed overnight. Her employer showed little interest in adapting their business model to life under lockdown, or in protecting his staff with the Government's Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Suddenly unemployed, a single mother, and a provider for her family in Russia, she felt trapped. 

This is the story of Daria’s climb back - with a great deal of personal resilience, and a little help from our advisers who assisted her in making the Universal Credit application that would eventually turn her life back around. 

The city that never sleeps

Daria first moved to London with her daughter and best friend Mariana. She was a qualified nurse and a resilient woman who spoke four languages, and had already learnt to start from scratch in Cyprus, where she had worked for just under 20 years. She loved the diversity of London, learning about the vibrant cultures of her coworkers and neighbours - Romanians and Filipinos, Croatians and Nepalese.  She found a job as a commis waiter where she helped serve food and beverages at a high-end restaurant in Central London. That is until the Covid-19 lockdown started, and she was let go.

Small steps up

We started by helping Daria and her friend Mariana decode the Universal Credit application. It’s hard to imagine for someone who is used to operating a laptop everyday, but making an online application for welfare is full of challenges. First of all, Daria struggled for many hours, trying to prove her identity. She attempted to do so online to no avail, not knowing that the process had been transformed into a phone interview.  She also found it hard to describe her circumstances accurately, owing to the fact that English was not her first language. 

We assisted Daria with her application over video chat, making sure that she understood all of the steps taken and the crucial task of reporting any changes in circumstances. Regrettably, she was unable to obtain the housing element due to the informal living situation at the time.

Next, we worked with Daria on her employability. Though well qualified and with years of experience, she found it difficult to update her CV in English. So we took our time to prepare a well-written CV that highlighted her strengths. We showed her where she could look for work online, and tried to find the few sectors that were still operating, even under lockdown. Above all, we took the time to remind Daria that she had a suite of transferable skills.

A stitch in time 

We called back at the beginning of December. We learnt that, not only had Daria been successful in receiving Universal Credit, she also found a full-time job using the CV we helped her draft. Furthermore, she moved out of the small cramped room she shared with her daughter, her friend Mariana, and Mariana’s own daughter, and found a flat where each family could have their own room. This was a game changer for Daria. We think it could be a game changer for anyone.

We live in a world that valorises self-sufficiency, and where benefit seekers are often regarded with suspicion. The moral order inscribed in migration regimes, and reaffirmed every week in the press, places so much emphasis on economic activity, that migrants themselves come to avoid the very idea of welfare. 

Daria’s story makes it clear that welfare is not the antithesis of employment. On the contrary, it is the lifeline one needs to avoid a financial crisis, and to retain a degree of normalcy until work becomes available again. Our colleagues at the Work Rights Centre help migrants make the first step - towards welfare when needed, and employment when ready. It is up to all of us to create a culture where welfare is accessible for all - without technical barriers, and without judgement. 

*Daria is a pseudonym.

← Case Studies