On Monday 16th July, at 12pm the Department for Work and Pensions’ Contact Centre Services released a previously embargoed statement, explaining that its Jobseeker’s Allowance Online service would be outsourced to Capita from the end of September 2012, just a few weeks away. The ‘JSA Online’ service is currently one of several options open to people newly claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, though the Department recently stated it wants to increase online applications from 20% of all new claims (at present) to 80% over just a few months, incentivising people to apply in this way by ‘prioritising’ online claims over telephone or clerical (paper) applications. In practice this means customers without internet access or unable to use a computer will be penalised and wait longer for their benefit to be processed, which can already take up to six weeks.
From September this year, these online claims will be handled by agents at Capita. The decision was made with no consultation with the PCS trade union, in spite of formal consultation processes regarding privatisation and outsourcing. The information was actually released to workers and local PCS reps in workplaces before the full information had been given to the PCS Group Executive, who had received a three paragraph memo without plans or timescales from the Contact Centre Services manager just a few hours prior to the announcement to workers. It appears that the member of DWP HR who was tasked with sending this memo to the union last week was in fact on annual leave until the day of the announcement. Nevertheless, no consultation took place.
It was stated today by management on release that the decision was made purely on the basis of providing an improved customer service; that DWP only works Monday-Friday, and that an online service requires a seven days a week cover in order to better serve the public. When one member of JSAOL staff today asked for the differential in figures between the current cost of running the service in DWP, and how much it will cost to contract to Capita, they were told that that was confidential information. Perhaps it is just a coincidence, then, that although DWP has the lowest wages in the civil service, where workers who perform this role are on a starting wage of £16,080, Capita will be paying just £13,893 for the same role according to their current recruitment adverts. Capita workers will also be working an extra 0.5 hours a week on top of the current DWP contracted 37 hour week, and working that over seven days.
Aside from the political issues with privatisation of public services which, as socialists, we are all too aware of, this service line has also been used across Jobcentre Plus call centres to provide a role for a great number of workers across the country who suffer from various disabilities which preclude them from working on the inbound telephony work which makes up the majority of the work in the contact centres. They do this work because they have been found unfit to perform any other role in the Contact Centre, and DWP management have consistently refused to consider any redeployment outside of the Contact Centre, even when even this JSAOL role has been deemed unsuitable. These staff have been guaranteed to continue their employment with DWP, but have been offered no redeployment opportunities. The tragedy is that they are the last of many more, the rest of whom have previously been sacked from the Department due to long term sickness, caused by the stress of being left without work, or being forced into an unsuitable role for months on end, or who have taken early retirement packages, seemingly left with no other option.
This incident is concerning for a great number of reasons – the complete disregard for existing employee relations agreements, for disabled workers, and for public service show that the government has only just begun its attacks on the welfare state. We must organise and fight back, or we will have no chance at all.