Jobcentres accused of 'Friday' antisemitism

Two Jobcentres in Greater Manchester have been accused of institutionalised antisemitism after cancelling jobseekers' benefit payments to Jews who keep Shabbat.

Professional Jewish employment advisers and Salford's Citizens' Advice Bureau have admitted an ongoing problem at the Cheetham Hill and Prestwich Jobcentre Plus branches. They say efforts have failed to stop Jobcentre managers from refusing Job Seekers' Allowance (JSA) to Jewish claimants who will not work on winter Friday afternoons.

In one high-level decision letter, Jobcentre's senior district manager demanded of a claimant "not to place any restrictions on the days or times you are available to work". Michael Posen, senior benefits adviser at London's Agudas Israel organisation, said such discrimination contravened legal rules which regulate Jobcentre Plus, the government's employment agency.

"Jobcentres in Manchester are saying that restricting yourself for a few hours on Friday afternoons for three months of the year is unreasonable in itself," said Mr Posen, whose expertise has been sought in Manchester to resolve a number of cases.

"We have not had this issue in London. I can't put it down to ignorance, therefore it is institutionalised antisemitism," he added.

To qualify for weekly JSA payments of around £50, one must be available to work 40 hours a week. JSA regulations officially recognise Shabbat as an exemption from working at certain times. But Jewish jobseekers have said Jobcentre staff have advised them to omit mentioning their religious requirements, to avoid having their benefits reviewed.

Susan Cohen, (not her real name), was told that payments would be stopped immediately by the Cheetham Hill Jobcentre because all available jobs required her to work on Friday afternoons. She had been claiming JSA for only two weeks. Her case is one of four recently reviewed by senior Manchester Jobcentre managers after independent employment advisers became involved.

"I was willing to work on a Sunday. After they stopped the payments I was still seeking jobs to see if they would reverse the decision," Susan said.

Stephen Rosen (also a pseudonym), a qualified teacher and father-of-five from Prestwich, said JSA payments were "vital" to his family finances. But, he said, the Prestwich Jobcentre "told me 'we can give you this Friday leeway now, but in future you may not have that luxury'."

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions, which runs Jobcentre Plus, said Manchester branch managers had "categorically denied" advising clients to omit religious requirements.

"Nobody should worry about stating their religion and we will look into any suggestion that job seekers have been advised not to. Jobcentre Plus and its staff have close working relationships with the local Jewish community in Prestwich and Cheetham Hill, and we would not want that to be undermined in any way."

However, Norman Younger, chairman of JCom, the Jewish employment agency in Manchester, said: "Shabbat-observant Jews are at the mercy of the whim of local Jobcentre managers".

Last updated: 2:51pm, February 17 2012