Tackling Poverty — Mike Hedges AM

Why are the many poor and what can be done to change that?

I represent the east side of Swansea and many, not most, of my constituents live in relative poverty. Whilst for a few poverty will be caused by an addiction to gambling, alcohol or drugs for most it will be caused by low income and often irregular hours of work.

Definitions of poverty really matter. They set the standards by which we determine whether the incomes and living conditions of the poorest in society are acceptable or not and are essential for determining questions of fairness. From these definitions follow all actions to help the poorest.

In the UK these definitions are being hotly debated as first the Coalition government (2010 to 2015) and the Conservative government (2015 - to date) seek to change the criteria currently used to monitor and measure child poverty.

There was a time when the way out of poverty was into employment but following the development of “flexible contracts” and “off the books” working all at the minimum wage makes for a precarious life and sickness or loss of hours can plunge people into absolute poverty, literally without any money.

Increasing numbers of companies are taking on staff on 'zero-hours' contracts - that is, where people agree to be available for work as and when required, but have no guaranteed hours or times of work. Zero-hours contracts provides employers with a pool of people who are 'on-call 'and thus puts the all the financial risk on to the employee whose income is not guaranteed.

A variation on zero hour contracts is where there is a guarantee of as little as one hour a day and when people arrive at work they then discover how long the shift is going to be. Starting at 8:00 am you may finish at 9:00 am or have to work until late in the evening depending on workload and the number of people who are available that day. This is a highly disruptive work pattern because you are unable to make plans for any part of the day until the day itself and also wages vary from week to week. One concern is that if zero hour contracts get banned this will be their replacement.

Both zero hour and short weekly or daily guaranteed hours means that there is no certainty of income on a weekly or monthly basis. This leads to severe financial problems when few or no hours are worked in any week(s).

Using staff employed via an agency means most employment responsibilities are then with the agency. After twelve weeks in the same role working for the same employer, agency workers are entitled to the same employment and working conditions as permanent staff. Crucially however agency workers are not entitled to benefits, such as occupational sick pay, redundancy pay, the right to claim for unfair dismissal, and minimum notice of redundancy where they are working. This means that agency staff are much easier to dismiss than directly employed staff because they are employed by the agency not the company they are working at.

Finally there is self-employment where people work irregular hours often for one employer but are classed as self-employed so lose even the minimum protection on pay and conditions of work.

Then there are people on benefits with universal benefit being rolled out across Wales, sanctioning of claimants and PIP being refused to many severely disabled people then being without any money can be just one decision of the benefits agency away. It appears to many that the current benefits system is being administered in such a way that taking money off claimants appears the top priority.

Examples I have come across is people severely disabled refused PIP, people with degenerative disease, which will increasingly deteriorate over time being asked when they will be fit to work and the person who was unemployed whose biggest fear was that they would have an interview and job centre interview at the same time in which case they could not avoid being sanctioned for missing one of them.

This cannot be solved overnight or even by actions of the Welsh government but there are thigs we can do.

Firstly and the easiest is that the public sector funded by the Welsh Government should not employ anyone on exploitative contracts. There are many examples of this occurring such as supply teachers being recruited from agencies.

Secondly everyone directly or indirectly employed by the Welsh public sector should have a contract on the real living wage and the hours worked should be negotiated and additional hours worked paid at an overtime rate which is higher than their basic rate.

Thirdly we need to continually oppose and expose low pay and exploitative contracts in the private sector

Finally, we need to campaign for a fair and equitable benefits system that protects the vulnerable, the unemployed and those with sickness and disability.

The Fabian Society in Wales