Socialist Worker

'Victorian' bosses attack the weakest and most needy

by DENNIS FITZPATRICK, PCS branch organiser, Birmingham DWP (personal capacity)
Issue No. 1868

THE recent announcement of the permanent closures of social security offices in the Birmingham area will create huge problems for the weakest in society. Local social security offices have served the community for many years and the hardship for the disabled and pensioners has not been included in the thinking behind the changes.

It will become increasingly difficult for people claiming benefits to get to an inner city office, in particular for the elderly and people with disabilities. This will include people claiming Income Support, Incapacity Benefit and for pension enquiries.

Jobcentre Plus and Pension Centre Offices are allegedly geared up to take on these roles, but the sprinkling of these offices will be unable to meet the demands of the people who use them. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) also intends to reduce by 20,000, and maybe more, the number of staff it employs nationwide. Staff members employed by the DWP are already under severe strain to cope with workloads. The job-cutting exercise will only serve to exacerbate the problem. This will inevitably lead to a substandard service, delivered by offices that are out of reach to some of the most needy sections of society.

Local social security offices are in their own way very unique. We are inner city offices and have a multicultural staff and customers. The staffs at these sites have a better understanding of the needs of people in the area. It is shameful that this government is condoning the removal of local services for purely financial purposes. For instance, it does seem quite odd that Jobcentre Plus has made no plans on what to do with the fraud sections that are affected by closures.

We could argue, quite reasonably, that the intention is to privatise the fraud section of the system. And in saying that, I believe the endgame is to privatise the whole of the benefits system, full stop! Let's take a look at what has been happening over the last couple of years. First off was the formation of Jobcentre Plus and the Pathfinder sites that were first in the rollout.

They decided that staff safety didn't really matter to them and insisted that all Jobcentre Plus offices would be completely open plan. There would be no safety security screens. After a bitter strike it was agreed between management and the PCS that no existing staff member would be forced to work without a safety screen. Soon after that came the absence policy. I recall the time when we had a sick absence policy, but this management are now in the game of not caring whether their employees are sick.

They have insisted that if you take any more than eight days sick leave per year, you will be facing inefficiency action, which could lead to dismissal. So now we have an overworked, underpaid, totally stressed workforce that is too frightened to get ill.

It didn't take management long to start turning the screw once more. The dress code was imposed on the workforce, which made it a disciplinary offence for men to attend work without wearing a shirt and tie. In some cases workers were fined up to 15 percent of their salary.

As far as I'm concerned the government were backing legalised robbery. For the poorly paid staff, who earn from £9,000 to £12,000 per year, this was a kick in the teeth. The lowest paid members of staff were forced to use their own low salary to finance a dress code that is totally unnecessary. Ninety percent of the workforce never see the public, so why the shirt and tie rule? Performance development systems are now being introduced by the department, which is an all-out attack on the earnings of all staff.

Extended opening hours are going to be imposed within the next few weeks and the impact on staff could be devastating. Staff serving the public are under severe pressure from the moment they arrive at work until the public area closes in the evening. An extension in opening times will increase the pressure to intolerable levels. Management's answer to this is simple: 'If you don't like it, you don't have to work for us.' Very Victorian.

To top the whole thing off, management are now going to implement a union facility time policy. They are now in the business of trying to rip out the heart of the PCS by making it impossible for PCS reps to represent their members. This is being done by reducing the time allocated to reps for union business at a local, regional and national level.

PCS members will be balloted on industrial action to combat the onslaught sought by the DWP management. We will not lie down in the face of growing attacks by management. It would seem DWP management would love to see a return to a Victorian Britain, where employees have few rights in the workplace and trade unions have none. We are not slaves. We do have rights. And we will fight the excesses of what is an intransigent, backward-thinking employer.

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Sat 13 Sep 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1868
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