Behind the statistics: The impact of government policies on disabled workers
A report from the Public Interest Research Unit on behalf of Disabled People Against Cuts shows the cumulative impact of the Coalition government’s policies on disabled workers in employment. Although the report’s author, Rupert Harwood, acknowledges the self-selecting basis of his study of the experiences of 137 disabled workers, their stories confirm the evidence reported by many trade union members.
The overall (headline) figure for the employment of disabled people as a proportion of the total numbers employed has not got worse since 2010, and that itself is important because it is the first time in history that disabled people had not been worse affected by the unemployment and redundancies that accompany recession. Similarly with the headline figures for the creation of new jobs that the present government made great play of last month.
But headline figures are just that: they tell you nothing of the actual experience of disabled workers in the economy and, as a new, detailed TUC study of the employment picture that will be published shortly will show, the increase in disabled people’s employment levels is only the same as the overall increase, as an honest presentation would have confirmed.
But these numbers conceal more than they reveal. The real story revealed by this report is qualitative.
While some employers continue to operate good practice, many are going backwards. The individual accounts tell of worsening work experiences with the accumulating effects of reduced legal rights, reduced access to justice (tribunal fees for example), and massive pressure on employers to reduce costs have increased stress levels (as exposed by the presentations at the TUC’s mental health seminar earlier this year), reduced career opportunities, and increased job insecurity amid a greater use of zero-hours contracts and of insecure agency contracts.
Many disabled workers have found themselves forced into self-employment, not through choice but necessity and the threat of benefit sanctions, and struggle to earn enough to live on.
Many of the sample report increasing reluctance by managers to carry out the “reasonable adjustments” they are bound by law to make, even in the public sector which is additionally bound by the Equality Act Equality Duty.
Even worse, the “drip drip effect” of media vitriol against disabled benefit claimants (as one respondent said) makes fellow workers increasingly hostile to what they now see as “special treatment”, and (as another reported) makes the worker more reluctant to disclose an impairment, while others have been accused of “faking their disability”.
The statistics show that employment levels for disabled people have not got worse (though nor have they improved). But if, as this report suggests, there is a general worsening of the conditions for many disabled workers and an end to the progress previously being made in popular acceptance of disabled people’s right to work, and right to adjustments where they are needed, then whoever is in government on 8 May will face a big challenge to reverse this toxic trend which appears to contradict the commitments made by the UK government when it endorsed the United National Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.