Lost in an employment black hole
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in PCS View, 2011
Saffron Whittaker may not have been particularly well-paid, but her job has been a valuable one: as an Employment Support Adviser, she has been working with long-term unemployed people in the Hull area, helping them in the difficult task of finding work. It's work which, she knows, she is good at. So it's ironic that – thanks to the government's decision to axe the Flexible New Deal programme – she now finds that she is joining the unemployed.
Except that, according to her old employer, a local not-for-profit organisation called SHORES, she isn't unemployed at all. SHORES stopped paying wages to Saffron, and two of her colleagues, at the end of July, but has told them they are not redundant. Instead, according to SHORES, they should now be working for the East Riding of Yorkshire council (ERYC), who successfully replaced SHORES in the deal to provide local employment support advice, as sub-contractors to multinational security company G4S. It is, says SHORES, a simple case of TUPE.
TUPE? Oh no it's not, say ERYC and G4S. When Saffron and her colleagues – at the instructions of their old boss – turned up bright and early at the local offices of the council, they were firmly told there were no jobs for them there. The message was a stark one: we don't know who you are.
“Nobody wants to accept responsibility,” Saffron Whittaker says. “It's a bit of a nightmare, and very stressful: one moment you're in work, the next one you're not.”
But the implication of being lost in a TUPE-induced legalistic black hole is actually very serious, as PCS's officer for the commercial sector Paul Barnsley points out: “If you go to a Job Centre you have to provide evidence that you have been made redundant. Our members aren't being paid, but their employer hasn't accepted that they are redundant – so they can't claim benefit,” he says.
There has been added humiliation to bear, not least that of seeing their old jobs being advertised by the new contractor in the local Job Centre. “Yes, they are taking on people to do basically the same work we were doing,” Saffron says. Paul Barnsley sums the whole tale up succinctly: “It's a barbaric way of treating people,” he says.
This is not the first time unfortunately that serious problems for PCS members have arisen when contracts are switched from one provider to another. Paul Barnsley tells of four members, all ex-civil servants working on an IT contract for the NHS, who should have been TUPEd from Atos Origin to BT but whom BT refused to employ. The story ends happily: thanks to PCS, the members have won their tribunal hearing, and are in line for substantial compensation from BT.
Fortunately for Saffron and her two friends, they also have PCS to help them. The union is working with them to prepare for the employment tribunal which is now the only way to resolve their situation. It is help which is much appreciated. “Paul Barnsley has been brilliant,” Saffron says unprompted.
But, as so often, behind the individual case is a broader issue, that of the way that the government uses private sector contractors – and through them strings of sub-contractors, some of them voluntary sector organisations with limited experience – to deliver its programmes, including those for the unemployed. Paul Barnsley is highly sceptical of G4S's sudden interest in employment advice. “G4S have never shown the slightest interest in welfare issues, and all of a sudden they have been given a major contract,” he points out. The motivation behind what should be a valuable service becomes simply that of generating profits for shareholders. It's not just G4S, he adds, though their reluctance to accept their TUPE obligations towards Saffron and her colleagues casts a long shadow: “These organisations are meant to be helping people find jobs – and this is the way they are treating their own workforce,” he says.
However, it is not even as though those jobs are there to be found. As Andrew Fisher, PCS's Policy Officer, points out, there are about two and a half million people out of work – and only half a million vacancies. “Youth unemployment is the highest it's ever been. Long-term unemployment is the highest it's ever been. There's no sign of the private sector creating jobs, despite George Osborne's hope. And we have a lot of members threatened with job cuts, added to 200,000 local government cuts,” he says.
He recalls Conservative minister Iain Duncan Smith's call to the unemployed of Merthyr Tydfil to take the bus to Cardiff to find work. “What he didn't say is that in Cardiff there are already nine people unemployed for every vacancy,” he says.
Instead of action to tackle joblessness, Andrew Fisher says that the government is trying to demonise people who are in unemployment or on benefits, suggesting that they are simply scroungers. “In fact, benefits levels are a pittance, the lowest in western Europe,” he says. Job Seekers' Allowance is just £67.50 a week for over 25s, he points out. “We're reducing people to a level of poverty.” And August this year brought worse news: the highest jump in unemployment since the depth of the 2009 recession. Women's unemployment, at 1.05 million, is the highest since 1988.
Having to deal with this rising tide of joblessness are PCS members in DWP, where staff numbers have been threatened with swingeing cuts. “We're having to do more work with less resources. Our services are at breaking point,” says Jane Aitchison, President for PCS DWP members.
There has to be a better way to tackle this expensive waste of human talent and opportunity: “The economic alternative is to create jobs, get people in work, and get them paying taxes rather than drawing welfare,” Andrew Fisher says. He draws attention to the detailed work which PCS has undertaken in its Welfare: An Alternative Vision initiative (www.pcs.org.uk/welfare), which calls for a return to the core welfare state principle of helping those in our society who find themselves in difficulties. As Mark Serwotka has said, it's a sign of a civilised society to support people when they are in need.
For Saffron Whittaker, life as an unemployed (or perhaps ‘unemployed') single parent will not be easy. “I've three teenagers, and although I only had a part-time wage it made a major difference,” she says.
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