Under in-work conditionality, those people claiming Universal Credit who are already working up to 35 hours a week – and who may never have been unemployed in their life – are forced to seek more work hours, higher pay, or an extra job as a condition of receiving low-wage top-ups and other benefits, or else face sanctions.
Low-paid workers put through this process report “dehumanising” and “intimidating” experiences. Following years of government rhetoric about prizing “hardworking people”, suddenly many hard working people have found themselves subject to the same sanctions as out-of-work claimants.
The punishment is one of three she has received, which she says have left her and her partner on the breadline for a year.
The couple were forced to use Barrow’s foodbank and town community kitchen so they didn’t starve, whilst living without heat or power on occasions when the high tariff pre-payment electricity meter at their rented home ran out of credit.
Hitting out at the unfair sanctions at the heart of the benefit system, the couple say this punitive approach is making them ill.
The woman, who is in her 20s, says she has applied for scores of jobs in a bid to secure full-time work, said: “I was given some extra hours on a Monday morning starting at 7am.
“My job centre appointment was at 9.30am and I didn’t have any credit on my phone. I took the work and called to explain about the appointment the next day but it was a sanction.
“I got another one for missing a workshop about Twitter. I know how to use Twitter but it didn’t make any difference. They’ll sanction you for anything.”
The sanctions have had such a detrimental effect that the couple faced homelessness when they could no longer afford the rent on their two-bedroom home.
They moved into a one-bedroom flat in the town after the landlord offered to accept a deferred deposit.
“We try our hardest,” she told the North West Evening Mail.
“I would love to have a full-time job but we’re really struggling. The stress has made me ill. These sanctions are not fair; they need to be stopped.”
The government claim that sanctions are a method of enforcing “cultural and behavioural change” of people claiming both in-work and out-of-work social security. This of course assumes that people’s behaviours are a problem in the first place. Sanctions don’t address the decision-making of employers – who are ultimately responsible for establishing rates of pay and the hours of work for employees – exploitation, structural problems, such as access to opportunity and resources and labour market constraints.
Barrow councillor and former job centre employee Michael Cassells said there needed to be more flexibility in the system to ensure sanctions were dished out fairly.
“There’s no doubt sanctions are cruel and causing real hardship and, unfortunately, in most cases, people are not told they can appeal against them, or how to do it.
“We need this system to be looked at so that people are treated with respect and empathy. Otherwise they simply feel they are trying their best but hitting a brick wall with nowhere to turn to for help.”
The government’s Universal Credit legislation has enshrined the principle that working people in receipt of in-work benefits may face benefits sanctions if they are deemed not to be trying hard enough to find higher-paid work. It’s not as if the Conservatives have ever valued legitimate collective wage bargaining. In fact their legislative track record consistently demonstrates that they despise it, prioritising the authority of the state above all else.
There are profoundly conflicting differences in the interests of employers and employees. The former are generally strongly motivated to purposely keep wages as low as possible so they can generate profit and pay dividends to shareholders and the latter need their pay and working conditions to be such that they have a reasonable standard of living.
Workplace disagreements about wages and conditions are now typically resolved neither by collective bargaining nor litigation but are left to management prerogative. This is because Conservative aspirations are clear. Much of the government’s discussion of legislation is preceded with consideration of the value and benefit for business and the supply end of the labour market. They want a cheap, disciplined reserve army of labour and low cost workers, unable to withdraw their labour, unprotected by either trade unions or employment rights and threatened with destitution via benefit sanction cuts if they refuse to accept low paid, low standard work. Similarly, desperation and the “deterrent” effect of the 1834 Poor Law amendment served to drive down wages.
In the Conservative’s view, trade unions distort the free labour market which runs counter to New Right and neoliberal dogma. Since 2010, the decline in UK wage levels has been amongst the very worst in Europe. The fall in earnings under the Coalition is the biggest in any parliament since 1880, according to analysis by the House of Commons Library, and at a time when the cost of living has spiralled upwards.
In-work conditionality enforces a lie and locates blame within individuals for structural problems – political, economic and social – created by those who hold power. Despite being a party that claims to support “hard-working families,” the Conservatives have nonetheless made several attempts to undermine the income security of a significant proportion of that group of citizens recently. Their proposed tax credit cuts, designed to creep through parliament in the form of secondary legislation, which tends to exempt it from meaningful debate and amendment in the Commons, was halted only because the House of Lords have been paying attention to the game.
Benefit sanctions are leaving people almost destitute, with some individuals being pushed toward “survival crime” in order to eat and children missing school because parents can’t pay the bus fare. These are the preliminary findings of a major study into increased restrictions on receiving benefits in the UK welfare system, published in full earlier this year.
The research, led by the University of York, also shows the controversial extension of benefit sanctions to working people on Universal Credit can produce disincentives to work.
The government clearly intends to continue formulating draconian policies which will punish sick and disabled people, unemployed people, the poorest paid, and part-time workers. Meanwhile, the collective bargaining traditionally afforded us by trade unions has been systematically undermined by successive Conservative governments, showing clearly how the social risks of the labour market are being personalised and redefined as being solely the economic responsibility of individuals rather than the government and profit-driven big business employers.
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