‘A scar on the conscience of Britain’

Young disabled march on May 11 against cuts in welfare benefits
Young disabled march on May 11 against cuts in welfare benefits

THE fact that 40 per cent of disabled children are living in poverty is ‘a scar on the conscience of Britain’, says Unite, the largest union in the country.

Unite called on ministers to act ‘immediately and urgently’ on the Children’s Society findings in its report – ‘4 in every 10: Disabled children living in poverty’ – unveiled on Friday.

The report revealed that when the disability living allowance is removed from family income, 40 per cent of disabled children in the UK are living in poverty, rising to about 50 per cent where there is also a disabled adult in the family.

Unite’s national officer for children’s charities, Mike Robinson, said: ‘This report highlights a scar on the conscience of Britain – a stark reminder that those in poverty, and especially those children with disabilities in poverty, are destined to a lifetime of lower achievement, poorer health and fewer opportunities, unless something is done urgently.

‘In a caring society we should be doing all we can to raise the living standards of children with disabilities.

‘The report’s recommendations are measured and sensible, and within the power of this government to enact.

‘Whether ministers will bother to do so is a different matter entirely.’

The report’s recommendations include:

• Investing more to ensure that all families with disabled children take up their full entitlement of disability benefits; and

• Ministers not cutting the level of support for families with disabled children paid under the universal credit, which could adversely affect up to 100,000 disabled children.

However there is more than one ‘scar on the conscience of Britain’.

Low-paid workers will next week tell members of the Low Pay Commission visiting Cornwall they must be bolder and raise the National Minimum Wage (NMW).

The Low Pay Commission is an independent body set up to advise the government on the impact of the NMW and next week two commissioners are in Cornwall.

The South West TUC is leading a delegation of low-paid workers from around Cornwall to meet the Commission.

It will include low-paid workers from the tourist industry, agency workers, care assistants, young worker representatives and migrant support workers.

They will tell the Commission the county is one of the most expensive places to live in Britain, with the average annual earnings sitting at £20,997 (compared to £25,277 in England) and the average house costing more than nine times that (£191,000), compared to seven times the average annual wage in England (£164,800).

In addition, one in five (20 per cent) of households in Cornwall is in fuel poverty, spending more than 10 per cent of their income on fuel (compared to 12 per cent of households in England), and the average household in Cornwall has higher than average costs including water and sewerage charges, costs of energy and transport fuels.

Add to this the rising costs of food, council tax and public transport, workers in Cornwall would welcome a rise in the NMW.

Nigel Costley, Regional Secretary of the South West TUC, said: ‘The National Minimum Wage has been a huge success especially for low-paid workers in Cornwall.

‘The scaremongers who warned that it would cost jobs have been proved wrong.

‘The Commission must not lose its nerve now and maintain the value of the legal limit.

‘The real risk for the Cornish economy is that the squeeze on incomes will hit hard as people stop spending.

‘If we are to win the fight against poverty pay, protect young people against exploitation and help stimulate demand in the economy, the Low Pay Commission must be bolder next year.’

• Also on Friday, cleaners were protesting on World Day for Decent Work.

London South Bank University (LSBU) cleaners called on the Vice-Chancellor to pay them the living wage, during a protest rally.

More than 100 cleaners who are employed by Interserve get paid £6.08 an hour, and do not receive sick pay.

The current London living wage is £8.30 an hour.

The rally took place between 12.30-1.30pm, in front of the Technopark building on London Road.

The cleaners held props, representing their low pay compared to the Vice-Chancellor’s wage.

Harry Lister, Unison’s Regional Officer in London, said: ‘It is a scandal that cleaners at LSBU are made to suffer, while the top ten members of staff at the university together earn £1 million a year – the Vice-Chancellor receives £186,000 alone.

‘The cost of living in London is growing, with rising inflation.

‘The cleaners at LSBU work hard to keep the university clean and to provide a pleasant environment for the students and deserve fair pay for a hard day’s work.

‘ “World Day for Decent Work’’ is a global occasion for trade unionists to mobilise and show solidarity with poorly paid workers.

‘It is a day when trade unions all over the world stand up for decent work and conditions.

‘We are calling for all workers to be be paid a living wage, to help pull people out of poverty.’

• Meanwhile, the ITF is alleging that the German operator of the 8,971GT Gibraltar-flagged container vessel ‘Philipp’ (previously known as the ‘Beluga Meditation’) has been caught operating a double book-keeping system on the vessel in order to cheat the Filipino crew of their rightful wages.

The alleged scam was discovered by ITF/Nautilus union inspector Tommy Molloy during a routine inspection of the vessel in Liverpool.

‘We often suspect double book-keeping is being operated on vessels we inspect,’ said Molloy, ‘but it is unusual to get both sets of accounts – the fake accounts showing what the crew should be getting paid, and the real accounts which show they actually get paid approximately a third of what they should.

‘I was also able to get hold of home allotment records – showing wages paid into banks – which were much less than those shown on the fake accounts.

‘The amount of wages the crew had been cheated of was over USD230,000.’

Confronted with the evidence, both Vega Friedrich Dauber GMBH & Co KG and its subsidiary, Vega Manila Crewmanagement Inc, had no option but to admit to the discrepancy, and agreed to make payment in Liverpool on October 4.

‘Mr Vicente Fedelicio of Vega Crewing in the Philippines arrived on the vessel the night before,’ Molloy continued.

‘In our opinion, the only reason for his presence was to intimidate the crew into handing their money back once we had left the vessel.

‘He did not want us to know he was on the vessel the night before and both he and Captain Meyn of Vega Reederei strenuously denied he had been on board before the morning of October 4, even though we had seen their names in the visitors’ book when we boarded.

‘Later, when leaving the vessel after payment had been made we noted that the relevant page from the visitors’ book had been ripped out.’

Captain Meyn of Vega Reederei signed a formal letter of indemnity stating that no action would be taken against any of the crew by the company or any of its associates and that no attempt would be made to induce the crew to return the wages recovered.

But Tommy Molloy was concerned that the crew were being threatened, and hours later he decided to return to the vessel.

He asked the Port Police to accompany him in order to check on the welfare of the crew.

‘When we arrived back on board it became immediately apparent that the company had taken back the wages they had so recently paid out.

‘The company did not deny they had the wages back but insisted the crew had returned the money voluntarily.

‘When questioned, all but two of the 15 crew, some barely able to speak and all with heads bowed, staring at the floor, stated they had voluntarily returned their wages as they did not want them!

‘The same crew had been delighted to receive their wages only hours earlier.

‘In my opinion, a high level of threat and intimidation has been levelled at the crew.

‘I explained to Captain Meyn and Mr Fedelicio that an employer has a duty to ensure that the employee is paid in accordance with their contracts of employment, and if they are offered the wages back by the employee as a “gift’’ any decent employer would refuse and would insist his employee take the wages they are rightfully entitled to.

‘But clearly, being decent seems to form no part of their agenda.

‘We will follow-up in subsequent ports in order to check on the welfare of the two crew members who courageously decided to hold on to their recovered wages.’

Tommy Molloy added: ‘The Gibraltar registry has been swift to respond to the situation and has said that it is “appalled at the reports” and will investigate fully to establish whether any action by them is necessary.

‘They clearly do not want to be associated with behaviour of the type that we believe has taken place in this case.

‘We have advised the charterers of the situation and we will be contacting various supermarkets who are likely customers for the fresh food produce carried, in order to discuss their corporate responsibility policies.

‘Fair trade should also extend to the workers who actually transport the goods from one place to another as well as to the growers.

‘We would like to know if such companies are happy to tolerate the kind of abuse we believe we have uncovered here.’

The ship left Liverpool on October 4, en route for Bilbao and Dublin, and is due to return to Liverpool on October 11.