- Created: Wednesday, 03 October 2012 10:54
- Written by Joey Simons
Atos is a gigantic French multinational firm specialising in the provision of management and IT services, boasting annual revenue of €85bn and 74,000 employees in 48 countries. In Britain, more than £3bn worth of public services have been outsourced to Atos across ten government departments.
It was under the last Labour government that James Purnell, head of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), awarded Atos the initial contracts to reassess the eligibility of over two million claimants in receipt of Incapacity Benefit and oversee its replacement with Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) from 2008. This was in line with Labour’s commitment to dismantling the welfare state and commercialising health and social care.
The current Coalition government is following the course Labour set out in the new conditions of capitalist crisis. As part of its overall austerity drive, the government has committed to slashing £2.24bn from the sickness benefit bill, equivalent to throwing 500,000 people off ESA before 2014. As part of this process, the DWP has awarded Atos commercial contracts worth £400m to reassess claimants’ eligibility at a rate of 11,000 per week. Further cuts are to be made to the Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which is to be replaced with personal independence payments (PIPs). In August, Atos and Capita Business Services were awarded contracts worth £587m to oversee hundreds of thousands of disabled people having this vital support cut or stopped altogether.
At the heart of this brutal process lies Atos Healthcare’s notorious work capability assessments (WCA); the short, computer-based interviews which determine whether sick and disabled people are to be deemed ‘fit for work’. Claimants are forced to attend a medical examination carried out by a nurse, physiotherapist or doctor. The assessors – with no access to medical notes, test results, or clinical opinions – carry out a series of humiliating tests on the claimant such as making them push a box or press a button. Based on these tests, points are ‘awarded’ and forwarded to the DWP for judgment.
Endless reports by charities such as the Citizens Advice Bureau have produced thousands of examples of people being found ‘fit for work’ with conditions including multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder and terminal cancer. An investigation by the Daily Mirror found that between January and August 2011, up to 1,100 claimants died after being placed in the ‘work-related activity group’ following assessment. The website ‘Calum’s List’ has documented the deaths or suicides of two dozen people in the last two years where the assessment regime was directly responsible. For those on the receiving end of state attacks, this is literally a life or death matter.
A vicious ideological campaign of demonisation has accompanied these material attacks on behalf of the ruling class and its allies in the media, political and private health care establishments. Both Labour and Tory governments have engaged in this relentlessly. Behind the WCA lies the assumption that there are millions of ‘malingering’ sick and disabled people who could work but choose not to.
The anti-working class hysteria being whipped up to justify the cuts is having real consequences. In 2011, 2,095 hate crimes were recorded against disabled people, a rise of one third. As the government attempts to bask in the Paralympic glow, in the shadows violence and hatred are growing.
While the unions do nothing, those with no choice but to take up the fight are themselves leading the struggle. On 31 August, hundreds of disability rights campaigners demonstrated outside the London HQ of Atos before occupying the lobby of the DWP. The Metropolitan Police responded with their usual violence, attacking disabled protesters, resulting in one wheelchair user suffering a fractured shoulder. This was the culmination of a week of action against Atos across the country in response to its leading sponsorship of the Paralympic Games.
Over the past six months, FRFI supporters in Glasgow have taken a lead in campaigning locally against Atos. On the streets of working class areas across the city, in the Gorbals, Govanhill and Calton, we have spoken to hundreds of people, learning from the experiences of the many thousands of people undergoing brutal assessments, sanctions and denial of benefits, in a city whose history is built on using up and spitting out the bodies of its workers. Alongside misery and despair, there is anger and determination.
In June, FRFI organised a meeting alongside the Black Triangle Campaign to begin actions against Atos. While the left boycotted the event because the PCS union, which organises Atos workers, opposes direct action against the company, support was built with other working class campaigns such as the Accord Centre campaign and Merrylee Matters. John McArdle, founder of the Black Triangle Disability Rights Campaign, addressed the meeting with a passionate speech, welcoming FRFI’s determination and militancy. John recently told FRFI: ‘disabled people are at the frontline of the attacks on welfare...so far Black Triangle and other groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts have succeeded in getting the British Medical Association to make it part of their national policy to call for an end to the WCA with immediate effect. It is irreformable and must be scrapped!’
Since then, FRFI has organised regular monthly pickets of the Atos office in Glasgow, building support across political movements. Banners and placards denouncing Atos have been hung outside, chants of ‘Atos doctors – Nazi doctors’ reverberated inside the assessment tribunals and thousands of benefits advice sheets were distributed to claimants, more of whom are beginning to join the pickets.
Speaking to FRFI, Helen from the Accord campaign told us: ‘It’s a double stab in the back for my daughter. She lost her centre because of the Commonwealth Games, which Atos are sponsoring, and she’s also going to lose her disability living allowance. We all need to stand together and fight this. Everybody’s got their bit to do.’
This attack on disabled people must be fought. Glasgow FRFI is calling on all those committed to fighting for the rights of the working class to attend an open ‘Glasgow Against Atos’ meeting at The Piper Bar, George Square on Wednesday 10 October at 7.30pm to plan how we can meet the challenge. The next pickets of Atos offices on Cadogan Street take place on Friday 28 September at 2pm and at the same time on Friday 26 October.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 229 October/November 2012