Exploitation in the Community

When we hear of someone being sent to work for nothing at a small community organisation we always hope that there’s been a mistake and that the organisation hasn’t been fully aware of the nature of what they have signed up to. And so we write to them and explain and ask them to think again. But we also make it clear that if they don’t pull back, we will name and shame them for their exploitation. We recently wrote to three organisations here in Dundee, and not one of them even bothered to answer us. All three provide an important community service, but in each case we have spoken to people who have not only been forced to work there without pay or lose their benefits, but have also complained about how they were treated when they got there. The three organisations are Mid-Lin Day Care Centre, the Deaf Hub and the Maxwell Centre.

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While they are not the worst, I was particularly shocked to find the Maxwell Centre involved because I like the place – and I particularly like the community garden. But it was the garden where our contact was being made to work. Mark has been a landscape gardener in the past, so he was a bit surprised when Learndirect, his Work Programme Provider, sent him to work in the community garden for four weeks to build his experience. He was even more surprised when he found that he was given almost no gardening work. In fact he was treated as a general dogsbody, being expected to tidy up, make tea, and hoover the floors in the centre. He was also expected to use his own car to move material about.

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He worked hard for three days hoping that these issues would be resolved, but when it was clear that nothing was going to change, he felt he had no option but to leave. We helped him write to Learndirect to explain why he had ‘good cause’ to do so.

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Efficiency DWP style

All those people kept waiting for weeks for their benefits may be surprised to learn that the DWP can be get things done even before time if they want to. We were rung up three weeks back by Kiera from Glasgow who couldn’t understand why she was being called into the jobcentre for an interview. Kiera is a single mum with a baby. She is on ESA and finds it very hard to go out of the house at all. Although the interview letter came out of the blue, it transpired that Kiera had had a Work Capability Assessment recently. When I rang the DWP they told me that they had decided on the basis of this to move her to the Work Related Activity Group, which means that they can call her in for ‘work related activities’; but as they had only just made the decision and notification goes out second class, she hadn’t been told yet. And what about the baby? Once your youngest child is one you can be called in for a work-related interview, and this is clearly what had happened. But not only had Kiera not received her ESA letter yet, her son was not due to be one for another fortnight. Clearly the DWP just couldn’t wait to smother her with their charm. Kiera was less keen. In fact she was seriously worried and I advised her to get a note from her doctor to say that it would be damaging for her to go – and to appeal the ESA decision.

Educating Ingeus

When we are outside the buroo we can try and help with casualties as they emerge from the battlefield, but we also get people contacting us by phone and internet. Dan lives in North Ayrshire and rang us up last autumn after finding us through Google. He was on ESA in the ‘Work Related Activity Group’, and the advisor at Ingeus, his Work Programme Provider, seemed to be having problems in understanding that ‘work related activities’ does not mean work. We seem to have carried out much of the discussion by text (perhaps I was at my work!) so here’s an edited extract:

SUWN: ‘they cannot and should not make you apply for jobs. They can only give you tasks that are designed to make you job ready. I think you should make an appointment with a welfare rights officer. The number for money matters in … is …’

Dan: ‘That’s what that Ingeus advisor kept saying. I’m just getting things in place for when you are ready for work. By applying for jobs? How long does he expect an employer to keep a job open? It was persistent. Every visit is, what about that? And he would show me a job that was on the universal job match website. A few times the job didn’t even exist or was taken. Thank you for the advice.’

SUWN: ‘Tell him that work related activity does not include applying for jobs. And let me know how you get on. I’d like to write a letter of complaint to Ingeus if you would be ok with this.’

Dan: ‘Yes I’m fine with that. Especially after last time I seen him and he told me, we’ll just send out a few cover letters, which as I told you turned out to be 53 of them. Really wish I had took a photo

‘One other thing. When I had appointments with him he told me, you don’t need to wait on me, jump on a computer and do a job search. I just go with the flow. I’m frightened I get sanctioned. Every time I go there I feel really nervous and on edge.’

We agreed I’d write to Ingeus central office, but without naming names or places as Dan was concerned about being victimised for complaining. (Dan was particularly keen for me to do this as he didn’t want other, more vulnerable, people being treated as he was.) We asked them to make sure that all their officers understand that people on ESA have been found not fit for work and that they should not be made to apply for jobs; and we requested an apology that we could pass on to Dan. We received a two page response that sidestepped both these points.

But a week later we got a further text from Dan, who seems to have been emboldened by the whole experience:

‘Just to let you know that I went to the job centre today and explained my situation. The chap I got to see was extremely helpful and understanding. He called Ingeus and I have been given a new advisor. He also told me the same thing you did about not having to do job searches. Very  good outcome. Thank You.’

(Ingeus was founded by the wife of the Australian (Labour) Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and their contract with the UK government brings them around £150 million a year (Financial Times, 1 April 2014).)

This is from the DWP’s Work Programme Provider Guidance:

WP provider guidance for WRAG

How to make a low wage economy

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A friend recently applied for a job as an electrician, but when he was offered the post he was told he would only be paid the minimum wage. He was lucky – he had alternative work – but, as he pointed out, someone on the buroo would not have the choice. For the first three months you should be able to insist on looking for the type of job and level of pay you are used to, but after that you are fair game for the exploiters. In fact, as I told my friend, it gets even worse. Not long ago, we were contacted by a 63-year-old electrician from Glasgow with years of experience who had just been told to take a six-month community work placement where he would be working as an electrician for nothing more than his benefits. Someone on standard rate JSA working thirty hours a week is effectively working for £2.44 an hour. Joint Industry Board wage agreements are being tossed to the wind. Unemployment has always been used to drive down wages, but now our bastardised welfare state, rather than cutting across this, is actively encouraging a race to the bottom.

As we have said many times, mistreatment and exploitation of the unemployed also impacts on people in work. If employers can get free or cheap labour, they will be reluctant to create real jobs with decent rates of pay. Even if they try and pay decent wages they will be put at a competitive disadvantage. And the appalling treatment of people who are unemployed forces workers to accept worsening pay and conditions rather than complain and risk losing their job. If only in the interests of their own members, the trade unions need to be much more active in resisting the government’s attacks on the unemployed.

An office full of nurses and no antiseptic wipe

Maximus hanging figures

Yesterday I accompanied someone to his Work Capability Assessment. Let’s call him Jack. Jack had one of those lists of ailments that spill off the form onto further pieces of paper, and quite clearly should never have been called in at all. And he already had serious mobility problems before having a toe amputated four days earlier. He arrived by taxi with his mother and had to walk slowly, leaning on a stick and steadying himself on her arm. Although there is parking in front of the assessment centre, this is only for the people who work in the building and it is protected by a barrier. The taxi had to stop the other side of the barrier, and Jack had to make his way slowly across the parking area. To someone in good health, the distance from barrier to door, across the outer lobby and down the corridor might not seem much, but the people coming to the centre are not in good health. Jack struggled, and half way down the corridor he fell full length on the floor. Slowly, he managed to get up and make it the remaining distance to the waiting room. When he was at last sitting down he rolled up his trouser leg and found he had a raw red graze on his knee. I asked the receptionist for an antiseptic wipe and he said they didn’t have anything. I pointed out that every workplace has a legal requirement to have a first aid box, but he was unmoved. I pointed out that we were in an office full of nurses, but he was equally unimpressed, as was the nurse who had come into the office behind him. If the graze had been worse I would have been more insistent, but I didn’t want to antagonise them before the assessment had even begun. I was not optimistic when I found that it was the nurse we had seen earlier who was doing the assessment; but not long after she had started her questions, Jack produced a crumpled sheet of notes from his doctor. She took it away and when she came back she told us she didn’t need anything further. They had only called him in because his doctor had not sent them information when they had requested it!

The assessments are run by multi-national private company, Maximus, who took over from ATOS. The parody of the Maximus logo I have used above was drawn by activist illustrator Phill Evans, but the original, below, is not much better: ordinary folk holding up their fancy roof. Was the designer trying to make a point?

Maximus-Inc.-logo

£slavestretcher

There are some businesses that thrive on poverty, and Poundstretcher is one of them. Poor people shop there because it is cheap – and one reason it can be so cheap is that people are forced to work there for free or lose their benefits, under the DWP’s Mandatory Work Activity scheme: probably some of the same people who they rely on as customers.

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Last week one of our SUWN activists was told to report to Poundstretcher in Dundee this morning, along with a group of around 8 other people on JSA. He was not happy, and yesterday he delivered a letter to Learndirect who arranged the placement. This made clear that it was not reasonable, even in their own terms, to expect a skilled IT engineer who had been unemployed only 9 weeks to do a placement designed to ‘develop disciplines associated with employment’. It also pointed out that stacking shelves at Poundstretcher does not comply with the Mandatory Work Activity Provider Guidance requirements that placements are of ‘community benefit’ and ‘not at the expense of employing workers in the open market’. Poundstretcher serves no community function, and their employees have been refused a request for more hours. However it was made clear to him that if he didn’t turn up he could be facing a 13 week benefit sanction. So, this morning, he duly checked in – and we duly set up a protest with banners and chants outside the gates.

IMG_1375It seems that yesterday’s letter made them rethink their plans. No other DWP slaves were there, so we can only assume that their start was rescheduled so that they weren’t corrupted. As others have done before, our activist refused to sign the documents he was given by Poundstretcher – which they can’t make you do. He was then told he should leave. We wait to see what happens next, but he will probably be sent a letter by the DWP and will have to make it clear that he participated fully in all that was asked – he just didn’t sign the papers.

Poundstretcher staff called the police, but this time the police seem to have had the sense not to come out to a perfectly legitimate protest. We did have a reporter from the local paper though, so we hope that more people will see how the UK is developing a third class labour force, paid only on benefits, and undercutting even minimum wage jobs. Perhaps the other potential DWP slaves will hear about the protest too.

The one sour note was from an angry member of staff who wasn’t interested in why we were there and only wanted to tell us that his poor working conditions were the fault of ‘immigrants’. We still have a lot to do to counter the tabloid propaganda.

No-one puts it better than Kevin Bridges – so for youse who haven’t already seen it, and even if you have, here’s his take on workfare at Pounstretcher.

Normalising unpaid labour

Over the last 2-3 months, the Dundee stalls have been pretty quiet with only a trickle of inquiries, but we have noticed an upturn in inquiries and live issues in the last couple of weeks. At today’s stall we came across a number of people who had major complaints regarding the way they had been treated.

An older blind gentleman had been told that he was required to pay back an overpayment of benefits, but claimed that he had already been paying back this overpayment from November last year. We urged him to approach his support worker in order that he can be referred to a welfare rights organisation to act on his behalf.

Although sanction issues have appeared to have largely dried up, we came across one guy who had been sanctioned for 13 weeks for failing to take part in a ‘Mandatory Work Activity’ (MWA). Although this scheme, according to the DWP’s own guidelines, is meant to involve people taking positions in organisations such as third sector, charity and environmental agencies, and any work they do is meant to be of demonstrable benefit to the community, the guy we spoke to had refused to participate because he was being asked to stack shelves in Poundstretcher. (This is not to say that it is OK to make people do ‘community’ work unpaid – particularly ‘environmental’ work, which generally means sorting through rubbish.)

We also came across a woman who was long-term unemployed, and who had been through a two year Work Programme (WP) placement, and who had just finished a four week MWA. She is on the ‘Help to Work’ scheme, which is the next stage for people who have already completed the WP. Her JC advisor told her that she would be enrolled on a DWP training course, but when she pointed out that any training would be of limited use to her due to her literacy problems, the advisor reassured her that ‘it was not that kind of course’ and that she would simply be asked to hang clothes on hangers in a retail outlet. The woman responded by asking ‘how is that training?’ and also pointed out that any referral to a ‘training scheme’ would mean that she would miss the voluntary work and courses she is already signed up to, on her own account. She is currently enrolled in a job club, volunteers in a nursery and is on courses for her literacy problems. She reported that the advisor was completely dismissive of her initiative and expected her to drop everything in order to take up the placements and ‘training’. We advised her to contact us so that we can accompany her in to her next meeting in order to help her challenge this high handed attitude.

The major issue we are being approached about is Workfare in its various guises – it is quite clear to us that the roll out of mandatory work schemes is being accelerated, to the extent that some who actually sign up to these schemes are having to wait weeks before they are given a placement. We can only see this issue coming even more to the fore in the coming weeks and months, and we are preparing for a lot of hard campaigning. This is, however, an issue that not only affects the unemployed – if Workfare is allowed to bed in, and to spread, it will represent nothing more nor less than the normalisation of ‘unfree labour’ within British society. How long before any prospective employee is expected to undergo months, or perhaps even years, of working for their ‘benefits’ before they are actually paid for work? The trade unions need to wake up to the dangers posed by Workfare, to their members, and, indeed, to the very existence of the trade unions as meaningful organisations able to defend employment rights.