Thousands of call centre workers at Jobcentre Plus are starting a 48-hour strike today in a dispute over "oppressive" working conditions and claims of "excessive monitoring".
Some 3,500 members of the Public and Commercial Services union at seven of the newest Jobcentre Plus call centres in Newport, Glasgow, Bristol, Norwich, Sheffield, Makerfield near Wigan and Manchester, are taking industrial action today and tomorrow, after previously voting in favour of a walkout.
The aim of the strike is to end a "target-driven culture" and change the way that "unrealistic" average call times are used, improve working conditions and introduce proper flexi-time arrangements.
The sites taking part in the walkout are involved in a shake-up of Jobcentre Plus services and have either been converted or are in the process of being converted into contact centres. This means that personnel who have traditionally handled the back end processing of benefit claims are now also being required to deal with front office phone enquiries too.
But the PCS has claimed that, because there are insufficient staff left in the benefit processing section to deal with phone enquiries, many calls are going unanswered.
It has also accused Jobcentre Plus of having "an obsession" with hitting "arbitrary" call centre targets. This meant that staff were unable to deal "properly and professionally" with queries but were instead having to "fob customers off" in order to spend as little time on the phone as possible.
Katrine Williams, the PCS’s national negotiator for Jobcentre Plus, also told the BBC that employees were being monitored "every minute of the day".
But these working conditions were resulting in high levels of stress and sickness, with demoralised staff leaving at "an alarming rate", the union claimed. Since April 2010, more than 20% of the total workforce of 12,800 had left, the equivalent of 2,700 employees, it said.
Jane Aitchison, president of the PCS’s Department of Work and Pensions group, added: "These targets are putting unacceptable working pressures on our members, who just want to be able to provide a genuine customer service to members of the public. The department’s obsession with targets means that callers are not receiving that, and that’s not good enough."
A DWP spokesman at the DWP, which is responsible for Jobcentre Plus services, responded: "We are disappointed that some staff, only 21% across the centres, have voted to take industrial action. No jobs will be at risk through these changes. The contact centre staff at DWP will continue to receive good terms of employment, including generous holidays."
Following the Comprehensive Spending Review, the DWP announced that it plans to cut a further 15,000 staff across the department over the next two years. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said this meant that: "While unemployment will continue rising as the spending cuts bite, our members face increasing workloads with fewer staff."