Saturday, January 22, 2011
As-announced Wednesday evening, 3,500 staff from UK Jobcentre plus call centres engaged in a 48-hour walkout. Centres in Newport and Glasgow were picketed by members Thursday and Friday mornings as part of a coordinated strike at seven of the thirty centres handling benefits and unemployment-related queries for the UK public.
Wikinews spoke to Katrine Williams, one of the representatives of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and a member of the Civil Service since 1991, to establish the grievances leading to the public-sector industrial action.
Balloted in December, over 70% of PCS members voted in favour of strike action; according to Williams, this forced minor concessions from call centre management, but left staff being constantly monitored. With a target of five minutes or less to handle any query related to Job-Seekers’ Allowance, staff have been threatened with disciplinary action should they take too long for calls. Williams expressed concern that, with many claimants, it took longer than this to simply establish what the issue was for a member of the public calling in.
The number provided for the public to call in relation to benefits is an 0845 number, usually charged at a local call rate when dialled from a landline within the UK; for many claimants, they may only have a mobile phone and be subject to higher charges, or even in a position where a benefit payment has been delayed, and this is their sole contact with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) when they may be in financial difficulty.
Both Williams and David Coventry, who spoke to the UK Press Association, feel let down that their members’ expertise is being dismissed; that what is the only option for the unemployed, and a public service, is being managed as-if a commercial enterprise. This, according to Williams, is the prevalent attitude for approximately ten years; managers previously in the private-sector constantly describe the service as a “business”, and members of the public requiring assistance as “customers”.
In describing negotiations with management to avert industrial action, Williams stated: “contact centre managers are [the] worst [within the DWP]”, and they, “renege on verbal agreements”.
The centres hit by strike action are: Bristol, Glasgow, Makerfield near Wigan, Manchester, Newport, Norwich, and Sheffield. Williams stated that a failure on the government’s part to resolve the dispute could lead to further action involving the full 30 call centres operated by the DWP. In combination with threats of action by passport office staff in the PCS union, the UK’s current coalition government may be faced with significant disruption to essential public services at a time when unemployment figures are climbing.
When Wikinews contacted the DWP press office, only a prepared statement was available. Forwarded to Wikinews by Elise Simpson, the department expressed disappointment at industrial action being taken by staff, stating: “only 21% across the centres” were taking action. Appeals for further clarification, and answers to other queries were not returned. Considering the union selectively took action at seven of thirty centres, it would appear the walk-out at those was virtually all staff. Calls to the Jobseekers’ 0845 number gave no indication calls may take longer to be connected to someone able to assist with a query or claim.
In late December, Brendan Barber of the Trades Union Congress warned that 2011 may be a year where the UK faces widespread public-sector industrial action. £81 billion (US$128 billion) is set to be cut from the UK’s expenditure, with the possible loss of over a quarter million public-sector jobs.