Leukaemia on the dole – a guest blog


Last April I took a job in Airdrie, with a good salary, paying over £100 per day. Unfortunately I was diagnosed with Leukaemia two days into the job and hospitalised. UC deducted £145 from my monthly payment for those two days’ work (for which I had received £229 Gross). After I’d paid for travel and lunches I ended up about £10 per day better off in work – while suffering from cancer and having to make a 2 hour commute each way. The £145 deduction is equivalent to approximately two weeks’ UC payment, so I lost two weeks’ benefit for working just two days. The whole system is fucked and caused me great stress at a time when I least needed it.

Things have calmed down a bit now, after help from the staff at the Macmillan Trust’s Maggie Centre and my doctors in the chemotherapy ward, but not without payment delays and threats of sanction over repeated missed appointments because I was in hospital and not doing enough to look for work, even though I’d supplied them with “fitness notes”. They have now allowed me to forgo sending in fitness notes and looking for work, though I have a work-search appointment in September, when I will probably be in Glasgow for a bone marrow transplant and have to argue with them again over missing another appointment.

PIP (with assessments now run by ATOS I note) have scheduled two appointments to visit me at home, one of which they cancelled, and the second I couldn’t be at home for because I was in hospital.  I’m waiting for a third appointment, which I will not be allowed to change as you are only allowed to change it once – and, no, they can’t visit me in hospital (their rule).

Because of the treatments I am receiving, I have been taken off the antidepressants I have been on for the last 25 years, so coping is becoming very difficult. At least they are feeding me in hospital, though I note that PIP does not pay out while you’re in hospital as an in-patient.

Ninewells Hospital, Dundee

Temporary work tangles in Universal Credit


Blair, who we met this week, lost his job some weeks back and is still waiting for his first payment of Universal Credit. He is also young and fit and responded to an advertisement for a picking job at a local fruit farm. When he rang them he was surprised to be asked about his nationality and whether he spoke English. The farm never got back to him.

As we explained in last week’s post on the use of migrant labour for berry picking, Blair doesn’t fit fruit-farming’s current business model. This relies on a labour force that will put up with pressured conditions without complaint, because if they are sacked they will be left without anything in a foreign country, and because the pay they are getting is worth more when they get back to Eastern Europe. Our blog was widely shared, but only one person mentioned doing recent work on a fruit farm. They wrote ‘My son tried fruit picking and can attest to the intolerable pressure put on the workers to “pick until they drop”’. Clearly we would like to see fruit picking jobs made available to local people, but also for conditions to be improved, so that no-one is forced into such poor quality work.

And there is another problem with temporary work. This has always caused workers additional hassle and cost because of the problems of signing off and on again. Under Universal Credit, it has become harder and more complicated. If you get work that pays enough to take you out of Universal Credit for more than 6 months, then when you sign on you start all over again with another 5 weeks’ wait for benefits. If you are off UC for less than 6 months, then signing on again is simpler as your information is still in the system, but the wait to get your first benefit payment can be considerably worse. You keep the same assessment period as you had previously: so if they calculated your benefits by looking at your income from the 15th of one month to the 14th of the next month, and then paid you on 21st, say, they will continue to do this.  How soon you get your first benefit payment depends on how this assessment period lines up with your final pay cheque. A days’ difference in when you are paid could make almost a month’s difference in when you receive your first benefit payment. In the worst case scenario, if your final payment from your job came at the beginning of an assessment period, then you could be awarded no benefits that month. You would receive nothing until the end of the next assessment month plus 7 days for the money to go through – i.e. 2 months and 6 days after your final pay cheque.

And this is the benefit that was supposed to simplify the system and make it easier to move in and out of work!


You will only receive benefits for the first assessment period when you return to UC after less than 6 months if your final payment was smaller than usual and didn’t take you over the UC threshold – e.g. you might be being paid for less than a month’s work. If this is the case it is important to sign on again within 7 days of your job ending in order to qualify for payment for the full month.

On the other hand, if you have been off UC for more than 6 months and need to start again, then you should delay making a claim till after you have received your final pay so that it is not included in your first month’s assessment.

Good luck!

(Thanks to CPAG for helping to clarify this.)


Rotting berries are the result of rotten employment practices


Last week the papers duly reported farmers’ complaints that lack of migrant labour was forcing them to leave berries rotting in the Angus and Perthshire fields; so I thought I would look and see if any jobs were actually being advertised to unemployed people locally. The DWP website, ‘Find a job’, produced just one result for pickers near Arbroath. This appears to be the same farm that is advertising on Total Jobs, where it states ‘own transport is essential’. Total Jobs also has an advertisement for nightshift berry pickers in Blairgowrie, again specifying own transport. And that seems to be it. Otherwise, a Google search for fruit picking jobs in Scotland only turns up advertisements aimed at people from Eastern Europe, who are expected to arrange their working visit long in advance. These recruitment sites stress the hard labour involved and are often aimed at young students. And now, with the unseasonably hot weather, and an eye on Brexit, the farmers are calling for immigration rules to be altered so that they can bring in more migrant labour from places outwith the EU, even from as far away as Thailand.

It is all a far cry from the berry-bus days that have formed a generation of childhood memories, and today’s employment practices have introduced an increasingly-familiar range of problems.

The advertisements for foreign workers make it clear that this is ‘physically demanding work’. Farms must pay at least the minimum hourly wage, but rates are calculated on the assumption that a picker is working quickly. If you can’t pick fast enough to make the minimum wage, you’re out. As Thomas Thomson Blairgowrie Ltd explain on their website:

as an employer our duty is to pay a piecework rate of pay that equates with the National Minimum Wage, the National living wage, or the rate in the Scottish Agricultural Wages Order, whichever is the highest. Economically and legally we cannot employ pickers whose speed of picking consistently falls well below the average of the squad. Slow pickers will initially be offered further training whilst being paid this rate, but if work does not subsequently improve, we will not be able to offer further work.

Pressure on both cost and quality comes from the supermarkets, which have used their near monopoly to devastate UK food production. Farmers pass this pressure onto their workforce. Having foreign workers living on site along with their supervisor fits this highly pressured model perfectly. For the ultra-fit, fruit picking may still provide a profitable ‘working holiday’- especially as any wages saved may go much further in their home country – and farms boast of high rates of returning workers. But others, who can’t keep up with the pace set by the nablers, face sometimes impossible strain.

Almost exactly three years ago, we received a request for help from a young Polish worker who had been employed by an Angus fruit farm along with his friend and his 63 year old uncle. His email explained that around 70% of the workers found the minimum standard impossible to achieve and that people were afraid to complain of the pressures they were under because they feared losing their jobs. All three of them had become ill, and despite getting a doctor’s line they had been fired, leaving them without pay or a roof over their heads. For migrant workers, any deviation from their boss’s demands can have especially severe consequences. (Sadly our Polish contact vanished and never got our response – and when we visited the workers’ caravans the supervisor was quickly alerted and no-one wanted to talk to us.) More recently, talking with a local man who had been ‘lucky’ enough to find a fruit picking job on an Angus farm, we were told that the experience could be compared to the assembly line in Chaplin’s Modern Times. Perhaps it might be more accurate to compare this with working for Amazon.

Yet again, neoliberalism has produced a system that puts almost everyone under stress. A spokesman from Angus Soft Fruits emphasised the stress that is being faced by the farmers, even referencing farmer suicides; however he made no reference to the stresses faced by the workers. (He just complained that the ‘standard’ of East European workers has fallen – so perhaps some have found less stressful jobs elsewhere.) The big winners in all this are the supermarket bosses and owners, though there is also scope for profits for middlemen such as employment agencies, and most farmers still seem quite comfortably off.

Exploiting a further set of migrants might relieve the stresses felt by the farmers, but it is hardly a solution for a better society. Ultimately farms could and should recruit locally, but local people could only welcome this if it was accompanied by a serious change in employment practices. People on the buroo are already forced to accept enough jobs that expect them to tolerate unsustainable levels of stress.


Getting the Dundee Buroo Tan


Written for our Ballads of Dundee Buroo gig last autumn, to be sung to the tune of the Lambeth Walk:

‘Looking good, you been away?’

‘Outside the buroo’, you’ll hear me say

‘Helping with all I can, and

Getting the Dundee Buroo tan’


Every stroppy Dundee Lass

Get yourself up off yer arse

Come on you bolshie man, and

Let’s get the Dundee Buroo tan


Don’t let the DWPsy

Do as they darn well pleasy

Let’s all of us make our way there.

Go there, stay there


Once we get down Wellgate way

We’ll make sure we have our say

We’re gonna scupper their plan, while

Getting the Dundee Buroo tan – Eh!




Why Jeanne Freeman is wrong

Jeanne Freeman 3 July

Yesterday’s Guardian ran an interview with Jeanne Freeman headed with the quote, ‘It’s not Scotland’s job to mitigate the worst excesses of Westminster’. While this is not the primary purpose of the Scottish Government, it remains a vital duty. We appreciate that substantial mitigation from the Scottish Government has ensured that the situation is not quite so dreadful here as in many places south of the border, but that is not enough. The ‘worst excesses of Westminster’ are destroying the lives of Scotland’s people. If the Scottish Government doesn’t step in with enough help to protect Scotland’s most vulnerable citizens, who else will? And of what use is that government? Let’s hope that Shirley-Anne Somerville, Jeanne Freeman’s successor as Cabinet Secretary for Social Security, fully understands this. She could start by looking at our petition


‘I’m a 33 year-old man, I shouldn’t be in tears’

Breathing Space

We are worried about Stevie. He couldn’t hold back his tears as he spoke to us outside the jobcentre at this week’s stall. He had no money and was going in to request a budgeting loan. We offered to accompany him to see the welfare rights people at Shelter, but when he re-emerged, having had his request for a loan flatly refused, he was too upset and angry even to talk. We just managed to point him to the phone number for Breathing Space, the NHS call line for people with depression.

And last week, two other people came out too frustrated and despairing to stop at all. As more and more people fall foul of the increasingly Byzantine rules and the mounting DWP errors, we can expect to see growing numbers just giving up – and sometimes even giving up on life itself.

Talking of errors, this week we came across two people who should be on contribution-based ESA (now called New Style ESA) but have been put on Universal Credit. One had had to leave her job due to PTSD, and the stress of the Universal Credit system was making this worse. And we heard about another woman whose Universal credit payment had been so delayed while the DWP kept demanding further information and losing it, that her debts had become unmanageable. We suggested she got help from a welfare and money advisor.

Again and again we find ourselves having to provide basic information that you would expect to be given by the jobcentre. Last week we handed out three copies of the council’s booklet advising people where they can get help to go on line.

We always encourage the many people we meet who have been found fit for work when they are not, to appeal; but Rob, who we met last week, had already submitted his own Mandatory Reconsideration. He told us that the report from his medical assessment explained that, although his reading for lung strength was low, his technique for blowing into the tube was not good, so this should just be discounted. As he pointed out, if they had noticed his techniques wasn’t good, they should have asked him to blow into the tube again – but maybe the reason he couldn’t blow properly was connected to his COPD!

Thanks for this week’s and last week’s stalls to Tony, Norma, Gary and Jock