UK union ups strike stakes at services for unemployed

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Following on from January's strike, the UK's Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) yesterday took 24 hours strike action in a dispute over working conditions within call centres providing Jobcentre services for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). A press release sent Sunday night by Katrine Williams, the Chair of PCS Wales, states 70% of members who voted were in favour of the industrial action.

File photo of custom-built Jobcentre in Bournemouth, England
Image: Chris Downer.

PCS members "suffer oppressive working conditions that simply result in high levels of stress and sickness" according to the union, and points to the 2,779 staff who left Jobcentre Plus call centres since April last year – approximately 20% of the workforce in the 37 Jobcentre Plus offices handling calls from the public – as evidence of the challenging work environment. The union says management is "obsessed with hitting call centre targets at the expense of providing good quality services to the public".

The DWP characterises the action differently, stating 75% of staff voted against the strike. According to the DWP staff work under reasonable terms, but "we have to ensure that our service is available when our customers, who include some of the most vulnerable people in the country, need us." To that end the DWP readily admits it uses performance measures to ensure high productivity and performance, their goal is to "deliver value for money for the taxpayer", and they do not have any plans to change the way they do business.

A report in the Liverpool Daily Post cites more than 500 Merseyside staff on strike, and quotes PCS regional secretary Peter Middleman describing the culture in-place in Jobcentre Plus contact centres as "battery-farmed working practices". Similarly, the Lancashire Telegraph cites 120 staff on strike at the Cardwell Place call centre and the expectation that 2,500 across the North West of England were expected to take action; Middleman is quoted describing the call centres as "the modern day equivalents of dark, satanic mills where our members are over worked, overly monitored and forced to endure an obsession with arbitrary targets".

The DWP reported the union informed them approximately 40% of the 9,000 staff in JSP contact centres would be taking action, which tallied with their own estimates.

Face-to-face Jobcentre services were unaffected by yesterday's strike action; the union have announced that this will be followed with an indefinite ban on members working overtime.

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This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.