Thursday, February 21, 2008

Gimme Shelter

Unite warned that a "wave of industrial unrest" was about to hit the voluntary sector. The balloting of housing charity Shelter's 450 workers in England and Scotland for strike action earlier this month suggests this was more than idle speculation. The dispute is over a new employment contract . Management are pressurising staff to accept:

* Abolition of incremental pay
* An extension of the working week which amounts to 3 working weeks per year at no extra pay
* Downgrading of posts throughout Shelter’s housing advice and support services with the same to come in non-service divisions
* Changes to redundancy policy involving a massive reduction in salary protection for redeployed staff.
Staff are now being told they must sign to ‘agree’ a reductionin their terms and conditions. If they refuse to sign, management are threatening to implement the changes without consent by sacking staff and offering re-employment on new contracts with reduced terms and conditions.

"Shelter staff feel betrayed by a senior management team who seem to care little about the services delivered to those who are homeless or badly housed. The cuts will severely undermine Shelter’s ability to retain staff and with them, essential and long standing expertise.Shelter staff, like many in the not-for-profit sector, haveover the years willingly made financial sacrifices to work in this field because it is important to them. We are extremely angry that our senior management team now tell us our pay and conditions are too generous.They earn top-tax bracket salaries and will be materially unaffected by these changes. What’s more, they refuse to deny rumours that they paid themselves anincrease just before announcing cuts to the rest of the organisation. Senior management claim they are only paid the market rate for what they do. And yet they are seeking to drive down the market pay rate for the restof us. Staff are genuinely astonished at this hypocrisy." ( see here )

The pressure to economise on staff terms and conditions stems, at least in part, from the rise of contracts as the dominant means of state funding of the voluntary sector. A diminishing proportion of the sector's work is now financed by grants. Charities, along with public and private sector bodies, must now compete for the right to deliver public services, bidding against each other to secure funding - a system which has been dubbed "contestability". Shelter says that high staff costs and lower than average working hours means that it is at risk of losing out in the contest to win contracts from the Legal Services Commission to provide housing advice.

False Economy, a 2007 report for trade union Unison by academics from Strathclyde and Oxford Brookes universities on the effect of contracting on social care third sector organisations, claimed workers were facing "an intensifying climate of competition". It found downward pressure on pay, the downgrading of many posts, an intensification of work stemming from staff-user ratios and greater administration duties, and even attempts to introduce zero-hour contracts.

Doug Nicholls, national secretary of Unite, says contracting is forcing charities to compete with each other as never before, to the detriment of their employees. He says
"The commissions for the contracts are put out to the market and the lowest common denominator prevails. Pensions are forgotten, pay rises are forgotten, inflation's forgotten, paying for workers according to nationally agreed terms and conditions - all that gets forgotten in the inevitable race to the bottom. That's happening everywhere in the voluntary sector."

The unrest at Shelter follows a strike over pay last April at Scottish social care organisation Quarriers. The charity blamed a derisory increase of 1% in its annual income from local authority contracts. Last year, a strike was averted at learning disability charity the Elfrida Society by a last-minute pay offer. The Children's Society is contemplating reducing salaries for nursery and creche workers because of a failure to win local authority contracts . Social care charity Turning Point has already abolished incremental pay increases for staff. Age Concern in Camden have issued redundancy notices .

What the Socialist Standard has said on charities :

" remains clear that much “charitable work” has become a way of engaging in state activities. Competition between charities and volunteers willingness to work cheap probably gives an incentive for that.Charities, as well as being tied up with the state, are substantial property owners in themselves, nearly £1.37 billion of their income comes from trusts (i.e. investments in property and the stock exchange) and a further £530 million comes from trading activities, The Salvation Army, for instance, has a profitable textile recycling business, from all those donated and unusable clothes they get, making £23 million last year. Charity emerges in the minds of capitalists as an alternative to the welfare state, one that has been tried before in the Victorian tradition of giving to the deserving poor. It is a way of checking democratic accountability, and controlling where the money will go in the interests of protecting the very social system that causes the poverty and problems charity is initiated to alleviate. "

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