It would be dishonest for me to pretend I am not experiencing a touch of schadenfreude at the recent revelations concerning multimillionaire Emma Harrison and her so-called ‘welfare-to-work’ company, A4e. In 2003 I worked at two of their branches, teaching English to speakers of other languages. The one seemed OK, although I had brief and superficial experience of it. The other, where I worked for some time, was deeply unpleasant.
Asylum-seekers and racism
Many of the people I taught were refugees (asylum-seekers given permission to stay in the UK) and came from the most horrific of backgrounds, and now faced racist abuse in the deprived neighbourhoods in which they were accommodated and where they lived on a pittance. I seem to remember a story about the wife of one of them barricading herself in as racist yobs battered at her door. She had already been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. (I may have the details slightly wrong, but this was certainly the sort of thing they experienced.)
A con trick to channel taxpayers’ money into the pockets of the management
Despite this, I recall some A4e colleagues having a condescending and judgemental attitude to their students that would be hard to distinguish from tabloid-fed bigotry. The emphasis was on ticking boxes (there was extensive paperwork) with little regard to the individual needs and aspirations of the students. Without having any concrete evidence, I got the impression that the institution was to some extent a con trick, ostensibly helping people get on with their lives, but really doing the minimum to clear certain government-set hoops in order to channel taxpayers’ money into the pockets of the management. (We, the teachers, were certainly not well paid.)
One of my colleagues was particularly judgmental, I felt, but was nice as pie to his superiors and colleagues – all except me. He probably came across to most of the other staff as a lovely, camp, larger-than-life character, the life and soul etc. He was thoroughly nasty to me, the new member of the team. Possibly jealous of his position, or disturbed that someone should leave the veterinary profession to teach English (the latter possibly a career he didn’t value, despite being something I felt would be more in tune with my ethics and inclinations than performing caesareans on bulldogs so that the owners could make a fortune from selling pups that would, in turn, grow up to require caesareans…) He would rudely dismiss any contributions I made to discussions, and was vile to me when others weren’t around. He allowed me no role at all when we took our students out on a visit to a library. Small wonder I became increasingly depressed. When he accused me of ‘not being a team-player’, and I was hauled up before the management to answer this charge, I simply resigned.
Perhaps I was a coward
Perhaps I was a coward simply to go, but I was depressed after weeks of attrition, of waking up in the morning feeling sick about the day ahead, and I had no fight left in me. Besides, what would be the point of battling to hold onto a very badly paid job in a place where the ethics were antagonistic to everything I believed in, where there was not a snowball’s chance in hell of influencing anything for the better, and where at least one of my colleagues was a cunning bully who clearly hated my guts? I may have saved myself a load of legal hassle: I notice that Watching A4e says that,’ In the past A4e has been quick to threaten whistle-blowing staff with legal action.’
Satisfaction at Harrison’s downfall
To be honest, I still ask myself whether I did the right thing or not. One thing I have no doubts about, though, is the satisfaction I feel at Harrison’s downfall. Yes, a base emotion, and I should rise above it. All the same: hee, hee, hee! Now, if your firm is found guilty of fraud, let’s hope you have to give most of your millions back to UK taxpayers.
On a more general note, politicians play with fire when they outsource work to their cronies in business. The profit motive is no substitute for the public-service ethic successive governments seem hell-bent on destroying.
Further information on A4e: WatchingA4e
In no way do I wish to imply that all or even most A4e staff are or were unpleasant, dishonest, racist, etc. There were and are, no doubt, many good and honourable people working for the company.