The government is pressing ahead with its plan to reopen job centres and driving instruction centres to the public from 6 July. We’ve given advice to our members in those sectors that we thinking this return to public-facing work is unsafe, and have reminded them of their rights to refuse unsafe work. We’ll back up groups of members who take that action.
We don’t know exactly how things will play out. 60% of staff in the Department for Work and Pensions are already working from the physical workplace, rather than from home. DWP workers have continued to see particularly vulnerable claimants physically, but the vast bulk of work has been over the phone. The government’s plan is about opening the doors of job centres to the public, at a time when unemployment is soaring and there’ll be millions of new claimants. Safety measures like perspex screens have been installed, but we have little confidence in these; some have shattered on installation.
We know there’s deep unease amongst middle management in DWP about the reopening, a wholly political act undertaken to promote the government’s narrative that the economy is opening back up and we’re getting back to normal. The reinstatement of sanctions, which will take place next month, is also an act of spectacular cruelty in current circumstances.
We held a national DWP reps’ meeting online last week to discuss plans, and our reps will meet again. This will be an ongoing organising issue, with reps making dynamic assessments of the safety situation in the workplace and having to respond. There is some culture in DWP of job centre workers walking out in response to workmates being attacked or injured, so if we see an incident like that, we could see action in response.
We also expect the chancellor to announce a significant staffing increase in the DWP, in the tens of thousands. The department has already taken on additional agency and casual staff; the union will be fighting for these jobs to be made permanent.
• John Moloney is assistant general secretary of the civil service union PCS, writing here in a personal capacity