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The £23 billion flexible friend

The welfare state was introduced largely at the behest of capitalism to ensure a healthy and educated workforce. Its origins date back to the Boer War when the army recruits were in such poor health they were unfit to fight. Since then, things have changed. Large sections of the working class are now surplus to the needs of capitalism, so the capitalist state no longer cares so much about our health, education and welfare.

Consequently, the British state is now withdrawing from many areas of welfare provision and handing responsibility over to charities, religious groups and the voluntary sector. This brave new world is the US model, where those in well-paid jobs have private schooling and health provision, while the low-paid and unemployed are left to under-funded public sector provision and whatever handouts the voluntary sector provides. In some US cities, health provision has been handed over wholesale to right-wing fundamentalist Christian groups.

It is not only those who need services who suffer; there are also major implications for those who work in the public sector. As the government and local authorities retreat from welfare provision, many people who worked for local government have moved into the voluntary sector as their posts have disappeared. Many who would have found employment as council workers now find themselves employed by a charity run by a board of trustees.

Local government was one of the most widely unionised areas of work. Even if you worked in a small office or depot you were linked to hundreds of other workers in the same town and across the country. Now, by and large, workers find themselves isolated in non-unionised workplaces numbering only a handful. This process of casualisation has resulted in a dramatic decline in pay and conditions, with many workers being employed on part-time and temporary contracts.

Employment in the voluntary sector is often on a part-time basis, and this has led to a sharp decline in income, as workers no longer get enhanced rates and overtime payments for anti-social hours. This is usually replaced by time off in lieu (TOIL). Because the voluntary sector works on a shoestring with the minimum of staff, taking TOIL becomes a near impossible task, as hours are forgotten or unable to be taken due to the daily pressure of workload. This affects even larger organisations with lots of small offices dotted around the country. Furthermore, while voluntary sector bosses don't get fat profits they do draw enormous wages, which is just profit by another name.

Casualisation amongst welfare workers is reflected in a recent TUC survey that found British workers currently do £23 billion of unpaid overtime per year. This is money saved by the state by handing over welfare provision, which is instead borne by voluntary sector workers. The whole ethos of the sector is based on the idea that staff ‘donate' their time to help out the less fortunate. This puts tremendous pressure on staff to not take hours owed or to take on extra unpaid work.

Workers in this sector need to organise. A good starting point is around Health & Safety. It is one of the few areas under British law that provides some protection. As a first step in redressing the power between workers and management we can begin to raise basic H&S issues as a means of initiating collective organising in the workplace. Joining a union can help in this but we need to network together with others who work for the same organisations as well as those working in similar work both nationally and locally.

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