7 March 2011
Around 7,000 staff in Jobcentre Plus call centres will begin voting today in a strike ballot over intolerable working conditions.
The ballot widens a dispute which led to two days of strike action in January by more than 2,000 workers in the seven newest contact centres who have been forcibly moved from processing benefit claims to handling enquiries by phone.
It comes as the union is considering a ballot of all its members for national industrial action over cuts to jobs and pensions, and is in talks with other unions about co-ordinating any action.
The union says managers have “an obsession” with hitting call centre targets at the expense of providing a good quality public service.
The oppressive conditions are resulting in high levels of stress and sickness, and staff are leaving at an alarming rate. Since April 2010, more than 2,700 staff have left – over 20% of the total call centre workforce of 12,800.
The union wants to improve the levels of customer service in call centres and allow more varied work; end the target driven culture, particularly by changing the way unrealistic ‘average call times’ are used; and introduce proper flexible working arrangements.
The ballot also follows an announcement by senior managers that they want to close more of the department’s benefit processing offices and call centres.
As a result of the government’s cuts in public spending, JCP is also planning to reduce staff from its current 73,000 to 65,600 by 31 March 2012. This is down from a peak of 84,000 at the end of 2009.
The closure plan is based on three flawed principles: that unemployment is falling, when it is in fact rising; that large numbers of people will claim benefit online, when that is untested and unknown; and that the proposed universal credit will reduce the number of staff required, when that will not start until 2013 at the earliest.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “Our members do not want to work in such oppressive conditions simply because the senior managers have an obsession with arbitrary targets.
“They want to be allowed to deal properly and professionally with the calls they receive and stop having to fob customers off because they need to end the call within a certain amount of time.
Instead of cutting back on staff, the government should be investing in jobcentres and the benefits system to help get people back to work quicker to get our economy back on track.”