Behind the three month long all-out strike by Benefits Agency and job centre workers lies the crisis which has been created by New Labour's draconian benefits system.
The government's onslaught against the poor has meant that people are falling foul of the raft of harsh new conditions and are left without even meagre benefits to live on. It is this crisis that has sparked the strike by 2,500 PCS civil servant union members in the government's new Pathfinder offices, which merge the old job centres and benefit offices into one office.
The ballot of 75,000 union members in every job centre and benefit office in Britain saw a narrow vote in favour of taking selective strike action against the removal of safety screens.
Union members voted by 16,770 in favour of taking strike action, with 14,659 against. The union's national executive were considering what action to take as Socialist Worker went to press.
New Labour has created a target-driven benefits system. Goals are set for the number of claimants to be interviewed, taken off benefits, placed in work or on training, and much more. The new Pathfinder system is targeted at stopping disabled people from receiving Incapacity Benefit and forcing them into work.
'My complaint is that the benefits system just doesn't work,' explained Eddy, a striking benefits supervisor in north west London. 'I see people when things have gone wrong with their claim. I deal with the weakest, most vulnerable people in society. I want to help them, but I have no power to change things. Often I tell claimants what the rules are-I don't have the authority to make many of the decisions. Benefits are so complicated that it's hard for staff to really understand it all. We now work with the immigration department and local authorities, and rules are always changing. Often the government announces changes and the staff aren't told or trained on the new measures. I know I've put up posters with information for the public which have only arrived in December, even though the rules changed the previous April.'
'People come to see me because they want to find work. But they are caught in the poverty trap and the benefits trap. They come up against discrimination because of their disability,' says a disability employment adviser in a north London job centre. Lots of people can't handle it-there are too many claim forms. Someone who is very able will take about one hour to fill in the forms to register unemployed and claim Jobseeker's Allowance. They will need to search their documents for information and if just one thing is missing from their form the claim cannot be taken or is delayed. The people who introduce all these rule changes don't have to deal with the problems of people left with no money.'
Benefit levels are too low to meet people's needs or even attempt to match the cost of living, buying food or paying utility bills. The new rules and threats to people's benefits are increasing the pressure on Britain's unemployed and ill.
'For the last six months I've been ill,' Nalini told Socialist Worker. 'My doctor tells me to take it easy, but the bills keep coming in. I'm getting just a quarter of the amount I earned in wages. The worry is making my health worse. I call the benefits office. They send me a form. I fill it in. But I just don't understand what I should be claiming, or how I'm expected to manage. I can't get anyone to sit down and help me by explaining the whole thing.'
'Being out of work makes me feel so bad,' says Joy Akrinele from east London. 'I've got a Restart interview in two weeks time. They'll ask me what I've done to 'actively seek work'. I'm worried I'm going to get into trouble at my Restart interview. I've heard job centres can check up to see if you've applied for the vacancies they have now it's all computerised.'
Jamie Allanson from Dundee revealed, 'I've been unemployed since August. I'm living back with my parents because I can't afford to live independently without a job. My parents both earn terrible wages. My weekly benefits are just £42.10 per week -it's a real struggle. Applying for work uses up all my money. Going to a job interview 20 miles away in Perth costs me £8 by bus and more on the train. The job centre will only help if the interview is for a permanent job which is further away, like in Glasgow or Edinburgh.'
Low paid jobs all that are available
The government last week announced more harsh plans to cut the benefits of unemployed people who refuse to be forced into work at minimum wage poverty rates. But in many parts of the country there are no decent jobs.
'You're lucky if you find any job in Dundee paying over £5 an hour for unskilled work,' says Jamie Allanson. 'Most jobs pay £4.10 per hour. You apply for them but so does everyone else.'
Hussain had just left his local Benefits Agency office in south London, after waiting three hours to collect a girocheque. To feed himself Hussain had been forced to borrow money from his family after he was left without benefits for three weeks.
He told Socialist Worker, 'My job made me feel ill. I could no longer face going into my job in a back breaking industrial laundry. I worked 38 hours a week at the pace of a machine doing the same thing endlessly every day for £4.60 an hour. Despite working hard, I couldn't afford to go on holiday, take driving lessons or go on training courses.'
Lots of people dependent on benefits fear the system. Some put off claiming in the hope that something will come up. The benefits office is the place where many end up when no other help is available.
Win would hit Blair
AS THE recession deepens, causing more people to be thrown out of work, New Labour has made benefits harder to get. Because of the harshness of the system some claimants unfortunately lash out at benefits workers.
The plans to remove security screens in the new Job Centre Plus offices is questioned by both staff and claimants. 'I didn't know anything about the strike or plans to remove the screens,' said unemployed Joy Akinrele from east London. I think it's dangerous. I've seen people getting really annoyed and even spitting at staff. You go to the office and you do see people lose it.'
It is important that everyone backs the benefits workers' strike to hit New Labour's right wing agenda. In response to the strike by staff at the Pathfinder offices New Labour minister Alastair Darling has spent a fortune mounting a scabbing operation. At the same time he continues to ignore calls to recruit permanent workers to combat understaffing.
Many benefits workers are so badly paid that they qualify for benefits, like Working Families Tax Credit, themselves.
A victory for the workforce will force New Labour to deal with the benefits mess it has created. It would mean that the workforce would have the confidence to fight about all of the other issues that affect them and the public-staff shortages, low pay and the harsh benefits regime.