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Jobcentre safety dispute: Demanding A Safe Workplace
ON 5 November a man walked into Leyton Employment Service Jobcentre (ESJ) in east London, demanding a payment. Staff advised the man that he was not entitled to payment and had to call the police when the man became aggressive. Before the police could arrive the man pulled out a knife and stabbed a security guard in the chest.
Debbie Darracott, PCS member
6 November saw the start of a ballot of all PCS union members in the Benefits Agency (BA) and Employment Service (ES). The ballot calls for national strike action to support the dispute over health and safety in the new Jobcentre Plus offices.
These new offices will combine the job-broking aspect of the benefits system, usually done by ES staff in ESJs, with the delivery of benefits usually done within BA offices by BA staff.
This means that everyone of working age (with a few exceptions) will have to be dealt with in a Jobcentre Plus office when they make a new claim for benefit. The government and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) management have hailed the new offices for their more comfortable surroundings, less aggressive image and 'customer friendly' colour coding and 'floorwalkers' to meet and greet claimants.
Staff recognise that many of the features of the new offices are improvements and are keen to see such initiatives. But staff are not prepared to see their own safety compromised.
Ministers and management have agreed that some aspects of benefit delivery can give rise to anger and frustration. Refusal of benefit payments and crisis loans is likely to cause resentment and/or aggression.
These flashpoints of the process have been the source of many incidents in both BA and ES offices. Yet ministers and management refuse to ensure that sufficient safety measures are there to prevent assaults on staff. That's why we need a big majority in the strike ballot.
AT WOOLWICH BA I was shown the doors which had been smashed the previous week. The customer had used a knuckle duster and had cut her own hand trying to smash the windows. Had there not been a screen, there could have been a serious assault.
During the members' meeting one PCS member said to me: "These ministers should come here and work on the counter for a month. They would soon change their minds about the necessity of screens".
Another said that managers "just don't care about staff". All the members attending the meeting expressed support for the dispute and their solidarity with those offices already on strike.
PCS members in BA and ES don't have an 'anti-claimant culture', despite the claims from management. But they do understand that benefits claimants already perceive the benefits system to be inadequate.
The expansion of the penalty based system to lone parents and sick claimants will only increase the frustration felt by the poorest members of society. BA and ES staff will be the at the forefront of the new system and they will be the targets for the expression of that frustration.
PCS members don't want to strike, but they understand the importance of this dispute. No one wants to see a further incident like that at Leyton ESJ - as one member said to me: "Let's hope management see sense before someone is killed".
AFTER THE security guard was stabbed in Leyton, a worker spoke to The Socialist:
"We don't feel safe now. We've asked for two experienced security guards for our office but they've only sent one inexperienced one. She just sat there and didn't do anything.
"If the guy who attacked the guard is banned from our office he will probably be sent to the Walthamstow office.
"My husband is a guard there - I feel worse because I'm worried about him now. He needs extra security.
"We feel inadequate now because we couldn't work the day after it happened. We need more than a bit of counselling."
In The Socialist 16 November 2001: