The Socialist 8 July 2020 |
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Jobcentre reopening: only union struggle will put safety first
photo Paul Mattsson (Click to enlarge)
A Jobcentre worker
Jobcentres have become the latest battleground between workers' desire to work in safety and employers' desire to reopen services, ready or not.
At the end of June, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced it would be increasing the number of benefit claimants required to physically attend Jobcentres in England. At the time of writing, Wales and Scotland Jobcentres will not be affected, but plans are being put in place for the same approach.
When lockdown first began, Jobcentres were closed, except for appointments with those claimants who would otherwise not have been able to receive benefits. Most contact with claimants has been by telephone or online.
Increasing attendance comes hard on the heels of the announcement that "conditionality" - proving job searching - will be returning to jobseeker's allowance and Universal Credit claims. (See 'Benefits system being used to force return to unsafe workplaces' at socialistparty.org.uk.) The political decision to extend Jobcentre opening is an attempt by the government to indicate it is back to 'business as usual'.
Across DWP, screens are being fixed to desks to provide the illusion of protection. Management makes assurances that seeing claimants will ultimately be voluntary; that there will be regular cleaning of desks between appointments; that there will be increased security. But all of this is designed to mask the reality that there is no pressing need to extend opening.
Members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which represents staff in Jobcentres, have been holding meetings to discuss this. The reaction to the increased risks for staff and claimants has been anger. Where socialists, in their capacity as union reps, have provided a strong lead, the opposition has been unanimous.
For well-organised areas, this is likely to lead to the employer backing off. Much of the detail of the proposals has not been dictated at national level, but left for local managers to sort out through risk assessments alongside local union reps.
Where union members are given a lead to stand up for their rights, managers can opt for the maximum protections and minimum attendance. This could help protect both staff and claimants.
PCS has served DWP with a union inspection notice covering all offices. DWP has been unable to provide sufficient assurances about health and safety to allow the union to sign off a national risk assessment.
This is a necessary step in preparing the ground for members to exercise their rights under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. This lets workers remove themselves to a place of safety if they feel they are in imminent danger.
Reps from the Broad Left Network - a socialist organisation within PCS, in which Socialist Party members participate - have called for safely organised workplace meetings in DWP to prepare members for this. For months this has been opposed by 'Left Unity', the faction which controls the union's DWP group leadership, and the PCS national executive committee.
Instead, union leaders in DWP have emphasised that the decision to walk out is for staff individually, and that collective opposition is not possible. In so doing, the union leadership is failing in its role in organising workers.
Under current group president Martin Cavanagh, the union leadership in DWP has even opposed letting PCS health and safety reps travel to workplaces which do not have one to ensure social distancing is in place.
This blind trust in management, and unwillingness to put the health and safety of members first, is exactly what has encouraged DWP to press ahead with extending Jobcentre opening.
From the tentative nature of the DWP's attempts to get more claimants into the Jobcentres, it is clear the employer expected opposition. Many reps across DWP, rejecting the reluctance of the Left Unity leadership, have called meetings in the West Midlands, Yorkshire, the North West of England and other areas.
These have signalled steadfast opposition. This opposition can be built upon. A refusal to do so by the union's executive committees will be taken as a signal for DWP to push further towards business as usual.