The Trial (3)

(1) (2)

There are interesting parallels to be drawn between the DWP's ongoing administration of benefit sanctions and the disciplinary action taken against the Foreign Office cleaners who dared to ask the Minister for a pay rise.

As noted here, the so-called 'warning' being introduced by the DWP as part of its sanctions regime is really just an extension of the existing ‘mandatory reconsideration’ period. In Duncan Smith's words, "During this time, claimants will have another opportunity to provide further evidence to explain their non-compliance." This has been reported as a softening of the DWP line, but if anything it will further strengthen it, normalising sanctions while giving outsiders the impression that they are now 'fair' i.e. that some people deserve to be sanctioned. Spinning an overdue appeals mechanism (58% of sanction decisions are already overturned) as a 'yellow card' is a PR conjuring trick. The intimidation of claimants, expected to produce this 'evidence' on top of all the other absurd 'jobseeking' duties, will continue; only now, if the sanction is finally imposed a claimant can be blamed for not working hard enough to prove their innocence or justify their 'non-compliance'.

Similarly, after sending their collective letter to the Foreign Secretary asking to be paid the London Living Wage, each of the outsourced cleaners at the FCO received a generic reply from the Operations Manager of contractor Interserve, requesting their attendance at an "Investigation Meeting". The investigation regarded "allegations that have been made referring to your conduct in the workplace", specifically "bringing the contract into disrepute".

The meeting, the letter explains, would be "your opportunity to voice your version of events" prior to a formal disciplinary hearing, if the company decided to call one, at a later date. Again the quasi-legal language is designed to intimidate while being vague about any specific offence (the manager's mistake was of course to enclose a copy of the workers' letter, making the connection too clear).

From the institutional point of view, the fear that such ominous correspondence raises in the precarious claimant or worker is punishment and deterrent enough - for organising against low pay or communicating beyond the outsourced ghetto, for declining an ostensibly optional 'work-related activity'. These institutions (government, private contractor, welfare-to-work provider, welfare department), which distribute huge, disproportionate powers among themselves in an inversion of the collectivity they stamp on, can dance across the arbitrary line between formal and informal discipline as it suits them, especially in response to negative publicity, but the language and the potential outcome remain the same.

For these distant authorities there was obviously something about the workers' jointly written letter which had called their conduct (and the contract) into question, but exactly what, or how, could not be admitted or spelt out. Speaking interchangeably, practically as one entity, Hammond and Interserve both later announced that the "matter" had been "investigated" and no disciplinary action had been taken. Their statements blithely carried on the suggestion that the matter under investigation was the conduct of the cleaners rather than the employer.

These investigatory, evidence-giving periods are ways for the state and its corporate allies to eliminate dissent by creating vast Kafkaesque paradisciplinary grey areas which can later be said by officials not to have existed. Asking for a pay rise triggers an "opportunity" to explain your "conduct"; a sanction threat brings an "opportunity" to explain your "non-compliance".

It turns out then that these pronouncements from on high are indeed warnings, but their true meaning cannot be acknowledged by the organisations that issue them, respectful as they supposedly are of welfare and employment law. These paradisciplinary processes are interpellative admonitions from the corporate state to its subjects (not just those directly addressed, but all of us) about compliance and correct conduct. While 'opportunities' to prepare one's defence are built into such trials, innocence can never be proven, as it rests on a form of compliance which is ultimately not legal but ideological. The obedient claimant/employee is required to act out the myth that unemployment is an individual, not a structural matter, and that poverty is similarly a matter of individual choices, not collective repression. These must be portrayed as crimes or tragedies of personal conduct, not of class or economics.

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