Around 3,000 members of the PCS civil service workers’ union are striking today (Thursday) and tomorrow over attacks on their working conditions. Their action is severely hitting seven “contact centres”—former benefit processing centres—in Glasgow, Newport (Gwent), Norwich, Sheffield, Bristol, Makerfield and Manchester—that Jobcentre Plus management want to turn into call centres.
Pickets were out in force in Sheffield at the start of the strike. A strike rally was held outside the main office in Hartshead Square. The reasons for the strike date back to October 2009 when an announcement was made to compulsorily transfer approximately 350 staff to Sheffield contact centre from Sheffield benefit delivery centre.
This has led to worse working conditions for all these staff and the local PCS branch has been arguing for industrial action since that announcement.
Tom Bishell of the PCS said, “We believe that these changes in working conditions are related to the government’s cuts agenda.
“In Jobcentre Plus, as I am sure is the case in other parts of the public sector, management are asking workers to do more work, with fewer colleagues and in less time.
“The contact centre ethos is targeted to control the length of calls rather than to offer a good service.
“This in turn creates more and more pressure for the staff. The move towards call centres is part of Department for Work and Pensions’s (DWP) desire to minimise face to face contact with service users.
“For many years Jobcentre Plus has attempted to force those wishing for help with job searching or claiming benefits to contact the DWP through telephones and, ever increasingly, via the internet.
“Prior to this transformation in Sheffield Jobcentre Plus, Employment and Support Allowance, Incapacity Benefit, Income Support, Jobseekers Allowance and the Social Fund were all processed locally. This is now not the case.
“All but a small number of Community Care Grants are now processed outside Sheffield for those living in the city. Moving benefit processing out of Sheffield has already had, and will continue to have, a negative impact on people who rely on Jobcentre Plus services.”
Steve West reports, “The strike has gone extremely well in Bristol. Members are sick of the oppressive working practices and keen to take action. Very few members crossed the picket line.
“Several people joined the union in the last few days in order to take part in the strike. Management attempted to intimidate people, by falsely claiming that people who had joined the union after the ballot result could not take part in the action. This only made members even more determined to strike.
“Unison and Unite union members, and members of the Unemployed Workers Union, came to show solidarity with the 15 pickets.”
“Its solid!” said one of the pickets at Graham House in Chorlton, Manchester.
Another picket explained, “We’re not allowed to give people help or advice when they phone in. Last week a woman called about her benefits for her and her disabled son.
“I could see what was wrong, looked over my shoulder, and decided to send out her payments straight away, but I could get in trouble for that. We’re only allowed to take messages and email them on to someone else to deal with.
Another explained, “We are not allowed to explain to callers why they have no benefits. We can only promise that someone else will call them back.
“A social worker called asking about benefits for one of her clients. But I had to tell her we cannot give advice or explanations even though we know what the problems are. We can only refer the question on. It is no longer a service.”
One striker, Dave, said, “This is all about deskilling so that there is a unit that is ripe for privatisation. It is all so dehumanising for us.
“We are not treated as adults. My manager wanted to know why I had taken 18 minutes for a toilet break when we are allowed 15 minutes! But we don't have someone else to wipe our arses!” he joked. “Not like management.”
Dave Owens reports, “About 20 pickets turned up in Makerfield including delegations from Wigan Trades Council and Unite. Only 30 PCS members crossed the picket line out of 680 members. A PCS activist described it as the best supported action ever in the branch.”
Manchester report by Mark Krantz