Friday, 26 October 2012

Union support for disabled farm worker maintains vital benefits

Farmworker Mark Giles decision to stick with Unite after he was forced to stop working due to chemical poisoning has paid off after the union helped him gain his Employment and Support Allowance. (ESA) 

Mark had been entitled to Incapacity Benefit since Christmas Day 2000. Eleven medical boards since then had confirmed he was not well enough to work. The 51 year-old from Bicester, Oxfordshire had found his immune system destroyed by the pesticides he worked with for more than 25 years. Inadequate safety equipment failed to protect him. 

Mark, a married man with four children, enjoyed “being a farm worker as I loved being outdoors working with animals in the peace and quiet.” Although his wages were never great Mark had no regrets in completing an agricultural engineering apprenticeship and working the land. 

Things changed dramatically in June 2000 when Mark says, “I was hit by what felt like a severe flu and which left me with no energy.” Mark’s doctor was able to offer a ‘pesticide exposure’ diagnosis, but with no known cure he has been unable to work since. Today, Mark needs medication for a range of health problems and continues to suffer from chronic fatigue. Communicating properly, going out, standing, picking up and moving things can all prove difficult.

Yet following a 20 minute medical conducted in October last year by private firm ATOS he was informed that ‘the decision maker decided Mr Giles’s award of Incapacity Benefit did not qualify for conversion to ESA and was to be terminated from 28/12/2011.’ All the other medical experts were wrong, Mark was fit enough for work! 

It is worth pointing out that despite being paid £100 million a year to carry out work capability assessments that ATOS aren’t aways right with their decisions. A special investigation by the Daily Mirror revealed that between January and August 2011 there were 1,100 claimants who actually died after being placed in the ‘work-related activity group’ that pays claimants a lower ESA and carries an expectation that they will go out and find work. 

The decision did not surprise Mark, “as I felt the assessor had made up her mind before I entered the room as she asked very few questions and simply asked me to wobble my arms and legs.” 

When Mark was working he was not a member of a trade union. He joined Unite after he became seriously ill and “they gave me good advice.” He has been a member ever since and he approached the union for support in appealing against a decision that could have ultimately wiped out his £350 a month income. This would have left him and his wife entirely dependent upon the latter’s wages from her job as a civilian worker with Thames Valley Police.

With more than 300,000 people in the appeal queue before him, Mark was given an appeal hearing date of October 1st this year. As he waited his benefits were cut by almost £130 a month. Fortunately a late cancellation saw his appeal moved forward to 15 June 2012. 

Mark was accompanied to this by David Weeks, a Unite regional officer based in Maidstone, Kent who has experience of supporting rural workers and members across all occupations who have been refused disability benefits. David spent a day preparing for the case and knows how important professional advice can be to appellants rarely familiar with the appeal process or the sorts of questions they may be asked. 

“More than anything, Unite is all about our collective support to those who are a little bit weaker. Our recently launched community membership scheme demonstrates this. It was a disgrace that Mark was threatened with losing part or even all of his income if he had been put into a working group that he would have been unable to attend because of his illness,” says David.  

Statistics show that people are twice as likely to win their appeal if they appear in person rather than having a paper hearing. Yet when the Ministry of Justice produced a video informing people of this they were pressurised by employment minister Chris Grayling to remove it from Youtube. Grayling is now the Justice Minister. 

The two Tribunal appeal judges didn’t take long to decide ATOS had got their decision wrong. There proved no need for David to make a concluding statement and it was agreed that ‘Mr Giles is entitled to ESA with Limited Capability for work related activity component.’ 

Success though was tinged with the knowledge that it had cost the taxpayer an estimated £12,000 for Mark’s medical, written and full appeal hearing. Times that by the 300,000 other appellants and that’s a lot of money, especially as 40% are winning their appeals.  

As it is abundantly clear that Mark Giles is not going to become fit for work, Tribunal Judge Ms GM Manning said in her summing up that it would be another 4-5 years before he could expect to again be called for a medical. After such a worrying ordeal lasting many months this was welcome news.
Mark Giles “delight” has though proved premature. Five weeks was all it took for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to write and inform him that he must re-appear before the ATOS assessor. Money that should be used to pay his benefits is being squandered on another futile exercise. Weeks re-affirms that “Unite will continue providing support” and he and Giles have written to the DWP asking them to take into account the tribunal judge’s statement. 

It’s not just workers who are affected by pesticides. A 2008 World Bank report estimated that 355,000 people worldwide die each year from unintentional pesticide poisoning. In December last year the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, which examines and provides judgements relative to violations of human rights and rights of peoples, indicted the world’s six largest agrochemical companies for human rights violations.
In the United Kingdom, the campaigning work of Sussex resident Georgina Downs has highlighted the adverse health impacts on residents living near pesticide sprayed fields. Many of those affected subsequently find it difficult to keep working.
Yet according to Downs, “There is a serious lack of training for GP’s and specialists in relation to the adverse health impacts of pesticides. This results in many of the symptoms being misdiagnosed as something else.”  
Downs is now concerned that victims are under increasing pressure by ATOS to ‘justify’ their illnesses in order to obtain benefits and says, “Those with chemical injury need support, understanding and assistance, not doubt, disbelief and ignorance.” 
For further information on Georgina Downs’ UK Pesticides Campaign see

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