Atos Kills – and it has Accomplices



A recent protest at the Chris Hoy Velodrome highlighted the noxious sponsorship of the Commonwealth Games 2014 by Atos – a French Healthcare company responsible for punitive disability work assessments. Since being awarded the contract in 2008 (under the Labour Government) for a cost of £110m per year, Atos has received sustained media criticism for its treatment of some of the most vulnerable people in society. What the papers don’t always show is how those vulnerable people have been fighting back.

In Glasgow, regular protests and pickets take place at the Cadogan St assessment centre, opening out the campaign to more and more of those directly affected. The insult of the Atos sponsorship of the Games has led to actions including last month’s occupation of the Velodrome by Glasgow Against Atos and the recent airing of “Glasgow’s Dirty Laundry” in Glasgow Green. The anger and frustration towards Atos is clear, the groups are well organised and the chanting of ‘Atos Kills’ illustrates the severity of the case against the company.

The evidence of the degrading process that Atos is putting claimants through also keeps piling up. The Atos Victims Group and Atos Miracles, among many other groups, catalogue shocking cases of mistreatment, including trickery at assessment interviews, over booking of appointments, Atos call centres mishandling cases and even assessment centres not having disabled access. Glasgow Games Monitor’s own interviews with protestors at the recent Velodrome occupation tell a similar story.

Bernadette Greeves talked about her personal experience after an accident at work in 2004 left her with metalwork in her neck and nerve damage in her arm –

“They’ve tried to put me through things that I can’t do. It’s quite degrading. And I was up again last summer and this time it was worse because of Atos. The people before were a wee bit more sympathetic towards you and your illness but this time it was just more about putting things on to the computer. They don’t really want to look at you or know you. It’s very degrading and I think its wrong that they are taking people that are terminally ill and sick up to this place and trying to get them off benefits”.

A recent freedom of information request to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for the exact details on the number of people who have died during their assessment process was rejected, although other reports from the national media highlight that between January and August 2011, 1,100 claimants died after they were put in the “work-related activity group”. It should be made clear that the actual numbers of deaths as a result of Atos assessments still remains unclear. The available statistics surrounding Atos are potentially misleading due to the vulnerable nature of the people involved. But it is very clear that the assessment procedure has contributed to fatalities, as well as deep, widespread mental and physical stress for disabled people .

Debbie, a Velodrome occupier from Maryhill, explained her own experience of Atos over the last four years as being like “a hamster in a cage going round and round for years”.

If we’re going to bring an end to this dehumanising process, right now is a crucial time for these campaigns, something which the DWP, and therefore the government, are all too aware of. They are trying to reduce the issue to a problem with a single company, Atos, to wriggle off the hook with that same old excuse that governments use whenever privatisation ends up harming the people it’s alleged to benefit – “Well, we might’ve hired them, but we never expected them to do it like this!”

In fact, Atos are doing exactly what the DWP want them to. Chucking loads of people off the support they require to fulfill even their basic needs, and putting them, along with the rest of the workforce, into a nightmarish world of endlessly applying for jobs that don’t exist.

While GP Greg Wood might say in a recent article that the Atos assessment process is not appropriate for its purpose as the assessment “leans towards finding reasons not to award points”, in fact it totally suits the purpose the DWP has for it. The descriptors used in assessments, devised by the DWP, expanded by Atos WCA guidelines, emphasise the performance of work-related manual tasks, and furthermore the exact kinds of tasks that correspond to jobs with the lowest pay and worst conditions. The descriptors are inappropriate for working out someone’s health situation, but for the DWP’s purposes they are exactly what the pseudo-doctor ordered.

With this in mind, we can look again at recent government reviews admitting that the Atos disability assessment process is ‘unacceptably poor’, and the tendering of assessment contracts to new firms regionally from 2014. The DWP are simplifying the problem, saying ‘It wasn’t us! (even though we hired them, and told them what to do, and actually we like what they’re up to anyway)”.

While the Tories are the current front for austerity, Labour, who hired Atos in the first place, also view austerity as the only option. What we need is not just the end of the degrading Atos assessments; we need the end of a way of structuring work and welfare that could create a role for an organisation like Atos in the first place. Many people, including friends and family of the Monitor, are only in the deeply vulnerable position of re-assessment because of exposure to unregulated, unsafe conditions at work. And remember, more people being forced into work is not just an issue for disabled people or the unemployed – it’s a way of the government and employers driving down wages and conditions in the workplace by increasing competition for jobs. What we need is more solidarity between the ever expanding ‘working poor’, and disabled people and the unemployed. Let’s remember that our common enemies are the bosses, the governments, the managers and the landlords!

We need to press on with the heartening Anti-Atos organising already taking place, while also pointing the finger at Atos’ government accomplices. The issue of Atos is much wider than their sponsorship of the Commonwealth Games, but the media spectacle attached to the Games makes it a potentially very useful detonation point for wider resistance. The ‘legacy’ for disabled people in these Atos sponsored Games, as is made clear above, is persecution, stress, and in some cases death.