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30 March 2011

PCS wins ballot in Jobcentre Plus contact centres

Katrine Williams

PCS DWP group vice president 70% of Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union members have voted 'yes' to support strike action to improve working conditions in Jobcentre Plus contact centres across the UK. This was in the face of wide-scale intimidation from management trying to frighten members to vote 'no'.

Many managers told their teams that a 'yes' vote could make office closures more likely. Yet Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) management are considering office closures as part of the Con-Dem government's 26% cuts in funding for the department, not because PCS has run a strike ballot. And PCS members were rightly incensed at this attack on the union.

Our members gave solid support for a two-day strike in January in seven of these offices which have been compulsorily moved from being benefit processing centres into contact centres. This showed the determination of our members to fight for better working conditions and crucially the ability to provide good quality services to the public.

Management has failed to take notice of this strength of feeling about the need to improve the way that we deliver services. So we have escalated the dispute to the whole contact centre network.

PCS members are angry that management believe that the only way to ensure we do our job is by monitoring us for every minute of the day, including trying to restrict us to 12 minutes a day to go to the toilet! We are threatened with disciplinary action if we consistently spend over the strictly limited target time on calls. This is despite the fact that we are speaking to individuals who are very worried and stressed and need our support.

Our members worked flat out during the recession to deliver services to the soaring levels of unemployed.

We did this without needing constant monitoring. The way the job is designed in Jobcentre Plus contact centres is extremely frustrating and soul-destroying for our members.

This contributes, along with the heavy handed management style, to the highest levels of sickness absence in the DWP.

Jobcentre Plus has the largest contact centre network in Europe so we should be leading the way in contact centre job design and services.

Especially as we do not sell products but are delivering vital services to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Instead our management are trailing behind with their archaic obsession with targets and pressurising our members. They just look at targets for numbers of calls answered and the length of time we spend on each call. Our members recognise clearly that the public, when they get through to us on the phone, want their query dealt with.

People do not want to be fobbed off nor to have to wait up to three hours for one of our hard-pressed benefit processing colleagues to ring them back.

We know that the benefit system is difficult to navigate and we want to make sure that advice and guidance is as simple to access as possible.

In many instances it would take us less time to resolve the problem with a benefit claim on the phone.

But instead we have to write an explanation in an email referral for yet another Jobcentre Plus member to deal with.

Unemployment is now at the highest level since 1994. So it is even more important to PCS that the public get the quality services they deserve and that management allow us to use our judgement and skills to help the public access Jobcentre Plus services.

Our group executive meets this week to discuss our campaign and next steps.

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