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Despite an outward stress on the necessity of work, the coalition government have helped to garner an employment landscape of insecurity, poverty and low worth. Welfare policy and employment laws changed over the last two years have been crucial in creating a power imbalance in favour of employers, ultimately damaging employee worth, status and work life.

At the beginning of this year, David Cameron announced plans to make it easier for employers to fire workers. By increasing the length of service from one year to two before a hearing can be called following dismissal, and by reducing the sick pay, redundancy pay and compensation amounts employees can claim for, Cameron said that these relaxations in employment laws would make companies see less risk in hiring more people, and this would also ‘get rid of the bad’ to let in the skilled employees.

David-Cameron1

However, allowing employers to fire employees more easily by cutting red tape does not solve the problem of a lack of jobs. Further, the report that David Cameron commissioned from Adrian Beecroft in support of law relaxation was admittedly based on a ‘hunch’ rather than economic proof or explanation:

“Quantifying the loss of jobs arising from the burden of regulation, and the economic value of those jobs, is an impossible task…How many more businesses would there be, how many people would they employ, how many more people would existing businesses employ, how profitable would all these businesses be? Who knows?”

Yet, Cameron pressed to apply these measures, insisting that America had relaxed it’s laws and seen a drop in unemployment. But, while the US remained relatively stagnant in it’s position, Germany halved it’s unemployment figures whilst maintaining much stronger laws and regulations for employers.

Whilst Cameron was forced to retreat on these plans by deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the subject has surfaced again a few times, with support from Vince Cable and some Tory Ministers. Still, changes to laws like this during a fragile recovery will only cause anxiety for workers who feel the threat of losing their jobs on top of the hardship of the current climate. It also assumes the employer acts in employee interests which has been disproven time and time again, says lawyer Edward Cooper:

“An underlying assumption in these proposals is that employers all act reasonably. We see day in and day out that employers do not always act reasonably, especially when there is money to be saved.”

Edward Cooper, Channel 4, 2012

Despite these proposals being put on the back burner, changes to employment tribunal fees were passed in July this year, meaning that employees seeking justice, investigation, hearing or tribunal would now have to pay to have their case heard. Again, at a time of fragility for the market, this put employees on the back foot should they be treated unfairly by their employer.

Under the new rules, it would cost £160-250 to lodge a claim and a further £230-950 if the claim goes to court, which is usually the case with claims such as unfair dismissal or discrimination. The Ministry of Justice also charge £1200 for a full hearing if people want to challenge the decision of an employment tribunal.

Government have said that these fees were brought in to encourage ‘mediation’ and negotiation without the Courts, in the hope more cases could be settled outside the legal system.

However, these fees are attacks on the employee’s rights alone, and only make it harder for employees to fight companies who often already have the upper hand. The fees give companies more leeway to treat employees unfairly, in the hope they cannot afford to bring them to justice. For some grievances, the cost is more than the money an employee feels they are owed, but could count highly as a case for morality or discrimination and be important in ensuring a company is reprimanded for treating someone unfairly.

Despite the fees now existing, trade union Unison has won the right to take the case to judicial review, in the hope the fees will be lifted. Unison, with the support of the Human Rights Commission, argue that the fees make it impossible for workers to exercise their rights. The Ministry of Justice have vowed to refund all fees should Unison win the case.

Dave Prentis, Unison General Secretary said the fees “give the green light to unscrupulous employers to ride roughshod over already basic workers’ rights.”

The hearing continues.

As well as these changes to laws, the government have implemented their own damaging schemes, which are currently taking their toll on the employment market. Welfare-to-work schemes which incorporate workfare policies are forcibly sending unemployed people to work for 30-60 hours a week for their unemployment benefit or they risk sanctions or withdrawal of benefits.

Minster for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith insisted these policies were designed to allow people to gain work experience to secure future employment. However, the schemes have just widened the already burgeoning ‘work experience’ and ‘intern’ industry which already operates cruelly in the fashion, media and music world and employs an entire workforce of free labour for the same, often unlikely, chance of employment at the end.

Whilst gaining months of free work experience was once expected if you wanted to get into a much sought after industry, now workfare policies insist they are required for minimum wage jobs stacking shelves. As the interns of the music and media industries are trying to gather to gain some rights and protection against being exploited by companies and employers, the welfare-to-work programmes are normalising work experience for the low paid.  Entry level jobs are beginning to carry work experience criteria, and the free workforce donated by the government rotates to feed a steady supply of workers to companies. This sort of policy replaces paid jobs with free labour. It devalues work and treats workers as commodities. It creates higher barriers to work by insisting on months of free work for minimum wage jobs.

Image: legal-aware.org

Image: legal-aware.org

Thus workers are desperate, and employers are often only happy to exploit this, as we have seen in the prevalence of the zero hour contract. Sports direct used these contracts for over 90% of staff. They offered no holiday or sick pay, and did not have to guarantee any hours. To ensure employees would take home money, they would have to take any hours the employer asked of them, at whatever short notice. Giselle Cory of the Resolution Foundation said in an interview with RealFare earlier this year, that these contracts were also found to be used as management tools, to punish employees if they did not take on work when and as the employer demanded:

“But what we see actually, is that these contracts are being used to disempower the employee. We’ve seen evidence of really bad management practice where someone is on a zero hour contract, their boss says ‘I want you to work Saturday.’ They might say ‘I can’t’ or ‘I can’t get childcare’ for example, or ‘I would simply rather not’, and they are zeroed down, which is effectively where they’re pushed to very few or no hours in the medium or longer term. So that’s in effect, using these contracts as a management tool, when that’s not what they’re intended for and that’s a great imbalance of power between the employer and the employee.”

Giselle Cory, Resolution Foundation

And with the rise of these contracts we also see the worst rates of underemployment on record, with 1.46m people in part time work in need of more hours. Thousands of people are desperate for work and so many take on any contract and terms they can. This is at the expense of their rights and their home life as work may demand availability at any time. Many are at the mercy of employers to work at short notice and so sacrifice plans, commitments, family time for minimum wage jobs that offer them no security or help should they fall ill or need time off. The imbalance is clear.

And the government’s moves have made it easier to exploit employees, and treat them as disposable. The priorities have not been to make a secure employment landscape for people in the recovery but to allow employers to use and abuse at will. Whilst the government and media rhetoric has made it shameful not to work, employers are made to feel no shame for making workers poor on time, worth and money.

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass

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by Kam Sandhu @KamBass

In the second part of our interview with Paula Peters and Sean McGovern from DPAC, we talk about the work they do, what they are fighting, and the effects of the austerity measures. You can hear the audio or read some of the quotes below. 

DPAC Campaigners at a protest. Image: Demotix.com

DPAC Campaigners at a protest. Image: Demotix.com

“Jeremy hunt is trying to do that at the moment with the Lewisham A&E decision. He’s trying to re-write the NHS Act of 2006 so that he can downgrade Lewisham and plunder the trust. And I think what surprised them was the most prolific campaign we’ve seen for quite some time, on our NHS, on anything. And it really got out in the public conscience. It got everywhere.”

Paula Peters

“The other thing with this, it’s very dangerous at the moment, it’s been creeping on us in the last year or two, is the incidents and frequency of bad news stories about the NHS. It’s right that poor practice is exposed. But, this is a pattern building here. And this is exactly what they did with British Rail. They made it into such a crap service by disinvestment, non-investment.”

Sean McGovern

“I would not be here if it wasn’t for the NHS and the life saving surgery. My parents both worked for the NHS, and I think Bevan knew a long time ago when the NHS was founded, when he said that the NHS will exist as long as there are people with the strength and the faith to fight for it. I think right now, he’d be really, really proud of seeing thousands of people come out on the streets in Lewisham, in Stafford and all over the place, and seeing people get out there and fight for their hospital.”

Paula Peters

“Nelson Mandela’s quote is so important to me; ‘Nothing is impossible until it’s done.’ So I think don’t think nothing is impossible until it’s done. And we’ve got work to do, we know that.”

Paula Peters

On The Grey Vote: “He’ll [Cameron] keep them on board for the next election. And then it’ll be the pension. State Pension next.”

Sean McGovern

“One thing they can start in this country would be to build a million or two houses. People say it puts half a million building workers back to work, it goes further than that actually, because once you move in your new place what do you tend to do? You buy furniture. You buy a new fridge, buy a cooker. You might even buy new plates, wallpaper, carpet. It’s across virtually every industry. Insurance. Every industry. They did it in 1945, that’s what they did. Built a million new houses, and started up a welfare state, the NHS, universal education, all round about the same time, [with a deficit].”

Sean McGovern

“One of my highlights this year is going to be the visit to IDS’s [Iain Duncan Smith] house. We took a video of all his grounds and put it on Youtube and he’s really angry with us over that. You know, his flock of sheep, and his three tennis courts and his swimming pool, and we put an eviction notice on his door. And he’s very angry we got in there. He’s very upset about that. But sometimes you need to do these things, and say you’ve got eight bedrooms and you’re giving your friends a tax cut and we’re paying for that.”

Paula Peters

“People underestimate people power very, very much.”

Paula Peters

“If you can help somebody in the positions we’re in keep going another day, it’s one in the eye to this government that they haven’t died, and you’ve kept them going and inspired them to keep going. Because when you show strength to them, with what we all have and we all have impairments, that we’re fighting and we’re fighting for them as well as ourselves, you’re inspiring them to say ‘Yeah I can hold on one more day. I can fight back. I can appeal my assessment. I can fight for my care package. I can fight for my treatment in hospital.’ If we can inspire someone to do that, then I think we are doing something to get our message across. I hope more people do get what we’re trying to say and I hope we do get more people to come out with us.”

Paula Peters

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1) 36 councils call on government to abolish the bedroom tax

36 councillors from around the country gathered at a summit in Manchester to unite and express their concern over the damaging under-occupancy policy.

Councillors said that the tax was counter productive and pushed people into debt cycles, forced them into private sector accommodation, broke down communities and would eventually only increase the benefits bill.

The meeting will result in a detailed report that will be forwarded to government in the coming weeks.

Bedroom Tax Demonstration in Manchester City Centre Image: MEN

Bedroom Tax Demonstration in Manchester City Centre Image: MEN

Read more about this story here.

2) Concerns over ATOS broken pledges that helped them secure contract of £184m

ATOS Healthcare has failed to meet the standards of pledges made to the government when gaining their contract to supply fit-to-work testing across the country.

In the agreement, ATOS said they had ‘contractually agreed’ 22 sub-contractors across the country to supply the 750 assessment centres/sites needed. It has since been revealed that they have agreements with only 8 sub-contractors.

This creates problems for those using the sites, who may have to travel further on longer journeys, breaking the maximum 60 minute journey ATOS had promised in negotiations.

ATOS refused to reveal how many of the 750 sites they actually have.

This news comes after the government issued an investigation in October, into misleading information supplied in the ATOS bid about their links with Disabled People’s Organisations.

Read more about this story here.

3) Slump in low wages has helped to hide the true condition of the jobs market. 

Institue for Fiscal Studies Image: libdemvoice.org

Institue for Fiscal Studies Image: libdemvoice.org

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has revealed that large rises and figures of unemployment have been avoided through pay cuts.

A third of those who had stayed in the same job throughout the recession had either seen a pay freeze or a pay cut.

The IFS discovery revealed this information just as David Cameron praised the work of new policy, in bringing unemployment and benefit support down. However, general secretary of the Trade Unions Congress, Frances O’Grady, said that recovery was only being felt by top bosses, where pay is rising “10 times faster than ordinary workers”.

Read more about this story here.

4) Young carers to get help, as government agrees new rights

10-16 June was also ‘Carers Week’ – represented by a UK-wide awareness campaign to provide support to carers, raise the profile of those caring and in need of help to care, and also celebrate the work of over 6.5 million people in Britain caring for a loved one.

With over 70,000 young carers looking after parents or siblings, the profession has also campaigned heavily to help get more support to those under 18 who previously, could not qualify for help or income support.

However, during a House of Commons debate last Tuesday, children’s minister Edward Timpson, committed to the changes and will be included in the new draft of the Care and Support Bill.

Read more about this story here.

Image: Spurgeons.org

Image: Spurgeons.org

 

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass

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Over half a million Britton’s are now having to turn to food banks in order to keep their families fed, a joint report by Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam has claimed.

Food Banks are used by round half a million Brittons. Image: Channel 4

Food Banks are used by around half a million Brittons. Image: Channel 4

Trussell Trust, the biggest charity in the food services field, has reported a 465 per cent increase in people using their banks over the last two financial years – with 346,992 people relying on emergency food supplies provided by the charity

To put these numbers in to context, in the financial year between 2005-2006 just 2,614 people received emergency food supplies from the Trussell Trust.

Of course, since 2006 we have seen the UK enter a double dip recession, which for many would go halfway to explaining the astronomical increase in the number of people needing to use food banks. The report however, seems to point the finger at another culprit: the inefficiency of the UK’s welfare system.

Although the number of people using food banks has been increasing year on year since the recession – with 25,899 people needing help from 2008-2009 and 61,468 people using the banks between 2010 and 2011 – the figures for the last two years don’t tie in with the rate of growth (around 50 per cent a year) seen previously.

The reason for this, according to figures provided by Trussell Trust, is because 50 per cent of people who use the food banks now do so because their benefits have either been stopped, cut or paid late.

People who use the food banks have to be issued with a voucher by a professional such as a doctor, social worker or Job Centre advisor in order to be eligible to receive help. The voucher has to indicate what caused the emergency, whether it’s debt or low income or something else, which is how Trussell Trust have managed to collate this alarming information.

According to the report titled ‘Walking the Breadline’, for the first time, changes to the benefit system are now more likely to be cited as the reason for the emergency food voucher being issued than “low income”.

The issues people are encountering with the welfare system range form the below-inflation rises in benefit payments, to the new Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions and also the controversial reassessments that are happening to gage claimants entitlement to incapacity benefits , which last week saw double transplant patient Linda Wootton, die just 9 days after being assessed as ‘fit to work’ by private assessment firm ATOS.

The report is also highly critical of mistakes and delays to benefits payments, which can mean that people don’t have any money coming in for more than two weeks at a time, leading to “food uncertainty” amongst many british families.

The Trussell Trust Food Bank have seen a huge increase in demand.

The Trussell Trust Food Bank have seen a huge increase in demand.

The increase in use of food banks has been widely condemned in the media, with former World Health Organisation adviser and University Professor Tim Lang saying that there “ought to be a very big political debate about food banks”. He went on to say: “It should be a sign of shame that the sixth-richest economy on the planet has people who are essentially retreating to a Dickensian world. It’s shocking how quickly it’s been normalised.”

However, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has said he is proud that the government agreed that Job Centre staff could refer people to food banks. Speaking to the BBC he said: “Under the last government, Job Centre staff were not allowed to talk about it. My concern is that the individual who is in front of Job Centre staff can get access to everything they need to.”

This attitude, however, doesn’t tackle the real issue.

Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne hit the nail on the head when he stated: “Instead of sending people to jobs, our job centres are sending people to food banks.

“Yet instead of offering extra help, this Tory-led government is cutting taxes for millionaires. That tells you everything you need to know about this government’s values.”

With more changes to the welfare system happening over the next few months the government needs to seriously consider how they are going to support the most vulnerable families.

Image: backbencher.co.uk

Image: backbencher.co.uk

The Department for Work and Pensions has said that their welfare reforms will “improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities, with the universal credit simplifying the complex myriad of benefits and making three million households better off.”

However, the report warns that because universal credit will normally be paid monthly instead of fortnightly, it could mean that the experience of people running out of money before the end of the month will become “much more widespread”.

If the the amount of people needing to use food banks increases even at the previous trend of around 50 per cent each year, it could mean that next year nearly 750,000 people will need access to emergent food supplies, and if it increases at the rate it did this year then we could potentially see numbers as high as 8 million people needing to use food banks.

Now that is certainly something that needs thinking about.

CGA

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