Social purpose

Female ex-offenders find route to work

When the human resources department of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, London’s so-called super sewer, contacted Working Chance, the UK’s only dedicated recruitment service helping female ex-offenders find work, offering a catering assistant role paying £15,000 per annum, the charity’s founder and chief executive Jocelyn Hillman OBE was not impressed.

She explains: ‘You just can’t live on £15,000 a year, not if you’ve got to pay rent and pay your fares, so we said What do you do?. We looked on our database and found a woman who had ten years’ experience in project managing utilities projects. We put her forward, and they hired her at £32,000 per annum. A lot of our women are highly capable women who happen to have got a criminal conviction, but want a decent job when they come out.’

Indeed, more than eight in ten women placed into work by Working Chance are still in their roles six months later. ‘Just like Gandhi said Educate a man, you educate one person. Educate a woman, you educate a family. We very much believe the same thing,’ says Hillman.

The term ‘ex-offender’ might conjure up the image of a serial criminal, but the reality is somewhat different. ‘We don’t judge the crime. A lot of women have stolen for their drug habit or their boyfriend’s drug habit. A lot of women have got into trouble through doing stupid things for men,’ explains Hillman.

‘We get a lot of fraud, there’s more violent crime now and we even get sex offenders now, which we never used to, but basically fraud and theft are the most common crimes.’

Fraud can take many forms. Hillman finds potential employers ‘don’t really care’ about benefits or student grant fraud, but can draw the line at corporate fraud. ‘I very much understand that. But we don’t try to get an employer to take anybody they don’t want. We have one chap with a factory – he won’t take arsonists. I completely understand that,’ she says.

‘But we’ve got a lot of companies who will hire ex-offenders, who send us their list of who they will and won’t take, and when it boils down, it’s people with driving offences.’

A lot of women have got into trouble through doing stupid things for men

Hillman founded Working Chance from her kitchen table in 2009, which has since secured more than 1,300 placements for female ex-offenders. She previously ran Dress for Success, a charity that helps women back into the workplace by providing professional clothing. So many clothes were donated, that Hillman started to look for other outlets.

‘I thought Who can I give these clothes to? and I thought of Holloway Prison. We set up a shop in the prison called Glad Rags, where women could get something to go to court or to a funeral, for 25p or 50p. The governor asked if I would come in and run a workshop on how to get a job, I went in and that was it – I was hooked,’ she explains.

‘Society is so ridiculous. When people are in prison – men and women – they are told Come out, go straight and get a job. And when they come out, we do everything we can to stop them doing that. And then we wonder why they reoffend. They have nowhere to live, and we don’t really let them have a job, so what are they going to do?’

Working Chance’s candidates have a consistent re-offending rate of less than five per cent, against a nationwide average of about 45 per cent.

‘People have the right to work. Just because they have a conviction, why can they not work?’ asks Hillman. ‘People like Jonathan Aitken [the former Cabinet minister convicted of perjury] and Vicky Pryce [the leading economist convicted of perverting the course of justice] come out and they are straight back in the world they were in before.’

Working Chance starts working with women while they are still in prison. ‘We work with them as they come out of prison, with women who are on probation or who have cautions. We get them work ready. They’ve been institutionalised, they’re so full of shame and lack confidence,’ she explains. ‘We teach them how to make eye contact, for example. These are women with a past looking for a future.’

Every potential employer is aware that the candidate has a criminal conviction. ‘I don’t believe in Ban the Box [the campaign to remove the tick box that asks if candidates have a criminal record] and the women don’t like it. It just puts the moment off further down the line, and if they don’t get the job, they think it is because they have a conviction.’

‘We find out what their skills are. Some women do have to do entry level jobs, if they’ve been crack or heroin addicts all their lives, say, and then they must work their way up. But a lot of our women are 35 to 40-years old, they have degrees and they’ve had good jobs in the past. Why should somebody be a street cleaner just because they have been in prison? We match them with employers.’

These are women with a past looking for a future

She adds: ‘Only recently we had a candidate who is an ex-heroin addict. She was absolutely poverty stricken. We got a seven-week job to be a runner for a film company. The guy was so impressed that he has hired her as his personal assistant. That is an enormous success story.’

While Working Chance has built some great partnerships with major organisations – Pret A Manger, for example, has hired more than 90 women to work in its shops, with one now working in the head office – some betray prejudices in their approach.

‘We get people who say We’ll hire your women, and when we ask what jobs they have, they say Just send them to us. Well, they’re not animals. We have people coming to us and saying We’ve got to increase our diversity ratios, so we’re coming to you. I had one man say I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel,’ says Hillman. ‘If you tell me that you have a vacancy, I want a job description, a personal specification and a salary. We mirror commercial recruitment consultants.’

Working Chance does not offer any training. ‘The employers are looking for attitude. Are you going to show up? Are you going to smile? Have you got the personality? They can do the training. It is the willingness to work and the work ethic they’re looking for,’ she adds.

Hillman concedes it was ‘very difficult’ when Working Chance launched, with little support from the Ministry of Justice or the Government. ‘There wasn’t a lot of support for me and what I was doing at the beginning. There was a lot of voluntary work – getting women working in charity shops sorting out dirty clothes in the back. For vulnerable and damaged women who can’t hold down a stressful job, voluntary work is often a steppingstone towards paying work.

‘But every focus group that I do with women I ask What could you change about Working Chance? They always say more paying jobs. That’s what they want,’ she says. ‘Employers are changing. Gradually. I always say, somewhat facetiously, that the women aren’t our problem, it’s the employers and the Daily Mail. That’s why we take employers into the prisons, that’s when they see that these are normal women. I brought about 20 employers, including Apple, LandSec and Honest Burgers, into a prison recently. I was talking at the end, and I said I look at over you and I can’t tell who are the prisoners and who are the corporates. And that is how it is, and that’s what you have to get them to realise.’