In-work sanctions are incompatible with ‘halving the disability employment gap’

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The government have introduced in-work sanctioning for low paid and part-time workers to “incentivise” them to “progress” in work.

Historically, wages and work conditions were raised, and hours were negotiated by Trade Unions. Now those decisions are entirely down to the executive decisions of employers not employees. Sanctioning employees is grossly unfair, because they have no negotiating and bargaining power (especially since the raft of Conservative anti-Trade Union legislation) to improve their lot.

There is also a significant growing body of empirical evidence that informs us sanctions do not work as the government claim.

It’s not as if employees’ behaviour is at fault or that they would ever actually want poor pay, fewer rights and adverse working conditions – that’s down to exploitative employers who are primarily profit driven. It’s hardly fair to punish workers for the motivations and behaviour of their employers.

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.

Clearly, the weight of favour in policy-making is heavily towards big business profiteering. Implying that the behaviours of workers are a problem in this context is simply another way justification is presented for the further erosion of state responsibility and support and ultimately, the long term plan is to remove such support completely.

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 primarily with consideration of the value and benefit for big business and the labour market. They want cheap 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 Act – the principle of less eligibility – which also 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 spiraled 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 peers in the House of Lords have been paying attention to the game.

Sanctioning people in work flies in the face of the government’s previous “hard working families” mantra. But it also flies in the face of their aim to “help” disabled people into work. Many of disabled people would have to work part-time: reduced and flexible hours are also a reasonable adaptation, especially for people who are ill. Many of us also have to accommodate hospital appointments, often with a variety of specialists, as well as hospital based treatment regimes. All of which probably makes us much more likely to face in-work sanctioning in the future.

How does this address the “disability employment gap”?

The government propose tax cuts and other rewards for employers who employ disabled people in their recent consultation on work, health and disability. However, it is against the law to treat someone less favourably than someone else because of a personal characteristic, such as being disabled.

Furthermore, disabled people have a legal RIGHT to work and to be included in the economy, and I think in light of this, employers should be fined for not employing a quota of disabled people instead. “Disability Confident” is supposed to be about supporting disabled people, not providing publicly funded handouts to employers, whilst at the same time, financially punishing the very people that the policy is supposedly designed to “support.”

There was some very worrying discussion in the recent work health and disability green paper about new mandatory “health and work conversations” in which work coaches will use “specially designed techniques” to “help” disabled Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants “identify their health and work goals, draw out their strengths, make realistic plans, and build resilience and motivation.”Apparently these conversations were “co-designed with disabled people’s organisations and occupational health professionals and practitioners and the Behavioural Insights Teamthe controversial Nudge Unit, which is part-owned by the Cabinet Office and Nesta.

It’s very evident that “disabled people’s organisations” were not major contributors to the design. It’s especially telling that those people to be targeted by this “intervention” were completely excluded from the conversation. Sick and disabled people are reduced to objects of public policy, rather than being seen as citizens and democratic subjects capable of rational dialogue.

Systematically reducing social security, and increasing conditionality, particularly in the form of punitive benefit sanctions, doesn’t “incentivise” people to look for work. It simply means that people can no longer meet their basic physiological needs, as benefits are calculated to cover only the costs of food, fuel and shelter. In fact sanctioning people make it less likely that they will find work.

Food deprivation is closely correlated with both physical and mental health deterioration. Maslow explained very well that if we cannot meet basic physical needs, we are highly unlikely to be able to meet higher level psychosocial needs. The government proposal that welfare sanctions will somehow “incentivise” people to look for work is pseudopsychology at its very worst and most dangerous. State imposed sanctions on sick and disabled people are known to have very harmful consequences. In fact sanctions create significant difficulties and distress for everyone subjected to them.(See also An example of in-work conditionality: when work doesn’t pay).

In the UK, the government’s welfare “reforms” have further reduced social security support, originally calculated to meet only basic physiological needs, which has had an adverse impact on people who rely on what was once a social safety net. Poverty is linked with negative health outcomes, but it doesn’t follow that employment will alleviate poverty sufficiently to improve health outcomes.

In fact record numbers of working families are now in poverty, with two-thirds of people who found work in 2014 taking jobs for less than the living wage, according to the annual report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation a year ago.

Essential supportive provision is being systematically reduced by increasing conditionally; by linking support to such a narrow outcome – getting a job – and this will ultimately reduce every service to nothing more than a state behaviour modification programme based on punishment, with a range of professionals being politically co-opted as state enforcers of an ideology  which is perpetuating and accentuating socioeconomic problems in the first place.


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