Friday, February 21, 2014

Making Profit Out of Misery

It's not enough to replace ATOS
PROTEST outside Ealing Job Centre, Wednesday morning. One of many around the country.
(photo Raj Gill) 

ON the same day that demonstrations were held around the country against the French-owned firm ATOS, which runs the assessment tests of sick and disabled people to find them fit for work, the news came that the government is thinking of handing this task over to another firm.
Controversial security firm G4S and privatisation profiters Capita could be in the running.

There were no less than 144 demonstrations around the country on Wednesday. Disabled protestors in wheelchairs blocked doors in ATOS headquarters until police managed to remove them. At Southend, ATOS staff themselves walked out nd joined the protest.

At West Ealing, in London, where I joined the protestors at 8am outside the Job Centre, someone had brought a coffin to remind us of the poor unfortunates who have been driven to their deaths by having benefits stopped even though they could not work, or by the stress of the tests they faced.

Besides the red flags of Unite the Union's Community branch, a PCS civil service union member with his flag, and Ealing trades union council members with their banner, a woman arrived dressed as the grim reaper, complete with scythe, to emphasise the  point. The mood of the disabled demonstrators particularly was spirited, angry and defiant. The response of the passing public, whether taking leaflets or sounding car and bus horns, was sympathetic.

Despite persistent propaganda against "scroungers", people have been hearing about some of the things really going on. Yesterday's Mirror described how a 50 year old man in Stoke on Trent, who had lied about his ill health in a desperate attempt to find work, was sacked because of epileptic fits, and had to claim benefits. But then his benefits were stopped because ATOS had decided he was fit for work. Fortunately his benefits have now been reinstated after an appeal.

But as Eve Turner, of Ealing trades council told us on Wednesday, though half the people stopped by ATOS have won their appeals, many people have died in destitution waiting for their appeals to be heard. The government is even considering making claimants pay for their appeals, in the same way it has moved against workers wanting to bring wrongful dismissal cases to tribunals.  

Campaigners estimate that more than 10,000 disabled people have died after ATOS work capability assessment. This may include people who were in the final stages of serious illnesses and dying anyway, though ATOS assessed them fit for work, and people who committed suicide because of the way they were treated. 

This government, like its predecessor, claims it is about helping people off dependency and into paid work. The same government has presided over the closure of more than 50 Remploy workshops which provided useful, often skilled, employment to people with disabilities.
ATOS is not helping people find jobs, other than its own staff, it is an IT firm which saw the profits to made from Britain's "austerity" policies, and set up ATOS Healthcare though it does not care for anyone's health. It has been given the job of getting people off benefits, and is being paid  £100 million a year from the taxpayer, while job centre staff are among public servants whom the government is laying off. Its staff have targets to meet, and not much in the way of qualifications, so that its costing the public upwards of £50 million a year in appeals against flawed decisions. But perhaps this government has plans for that too.

The object is to drive people into desperate poverty, provide employers with a ready supply of cheap, sackable, labour, (witness the way people have been sent to work for their dole), and make sure that however much misery is caused by austerity policies for the mass of people, they can still be a source of profit for the government's chums. If this game of robbing the poor to pay the rich more causes thousands of deaths, well that's not just collateral. It is one way of getting a result.

Labour, which introduced the work capability assessments - and commenced the rundown of Remploy - says now it would remove ATOS. There are reports -possibly put about by the company itself, that it wants to move out of this work. The government is letting it be known that it has other bidders in mind. But however awful the ATOS record is, replacing it with another capitalist firm out for profit from misery is not the answer we want.

One of the companies mentioned is security giant G4S, whose CV, beside the Olympic debacle when it failed to recruit enough staff, has included deaths of asylum seekers from here to  Australia's Manus Island facility in Papua, New Guinea. Just the kind of reliable, sensitive hands to which we can entrust disabled or mentally ill members of the community to be looked after.

Why can't people's health and fitness be assessed if necessary by their GPs or other qualified professionals employed by the National Health Service? Why can't those who need help back into work be assisted by properly trained, in-house employment staff, dedicated to public service, and not to chasing degrading targets or private profit?  Could it be this contradicts the government's aim of getting rid of civil service trade unionists?

We need not just a change of  government, but a change of direction and policy. And till we get both, let's hear it for the resistance!

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