|A homemade wreath for the victims of Atos at the Derby demo|
Protests against blood-soaked ‘medical assessors’ Atos were held in one hundred and forty four locations across Britain and the north of Ireland yesterday, as demonstrators made their feelings about the company clear to members of the public. Largely organised on Facebook, the events were a successful outpouring of grassroots anger.
Many of the protests saw small groups of people holding banners, handing out leaflets, and discussing Atos with passers-by. The description of the Newtown, Powys demo on the Vox Political blog seems to be typical of many:
“The assessment centre is next to a major traffic junction, meaning there were plenty of opportunities to talk to motorists while they waited for the lights to change. The overwhelming majority of them were enthusiastically supportive.”
Police did not intervene with intimidation tactics at this quiet demo. However, this was not the case at the London event outside Atos’ national HQ, where “where 150 Police including riot Police were this morning waiting for 80 disabled demonstrators” according to one Facebook posting.
Furthermore, Atos staff at Weston-Super-Mare left a disgusting placard to greet protesters as they arrived. Reading “Fit enough to protest – fit enough to work”, it betrayed the total incomprehension of the reality of disability common to many within Atos, and the contempt with which they view those facing tests at their centres.
The official response from Atos was more diplomatic than that of the Weston-Super-Mare workforce, but no less complacent. A spokesperson told the press that:
“We absolutely respect people’s right to peaceful protest and we are well aware that being assessed for benefit entitlement can be a difficult experience. However, lobbying against Atos Healthcare will have no impact on welfare policy. It is not, nor has it ever been, the role of Atos Healthcare to make decisions on who can or cannot receive benefits. We carry out assessments following strict guidelines and criteria written by Government. For the parts of the process we are responsible for, we work hard to treat people with care and respect and constantly improve our service.”
Since Atos assessments are so often a matter of life and death, this line has been compared to the Nuremberg defence of superior orders:
“Not for the first time, the excuse I was only following orders has been replaced with but I was only trying to make money. It is truly a sign of the times that a company like Atos would even dare attempt this as a justification for their vile activities. There was a time when war profiteers and others who made money exploiting human misery, were the lowest of the low. Now simply having lots of money in itself is seen as a moral virtue, no matter what you did to get it.”
But Atos are right in one thing – it is the government who sets the policy, and the government will therefore enforce it, so long as they are allowed to. Atos themselves may be dispensed with if their brand becomes too toxic. Iain Duncan Smith may one day face a similar fate. The Tories might be replaced with Labour next year. But it was actually Labour under Gordon Brown who first farmed out medical assessments to Atos, as part of their part-privatisation of the Department for Work and Pensions. Moreover, each of the three national parties are committed to restricting access to all benefits, as a way of disciplining the working class as a whole.
Consciousness-raising is an important first step, but much more will be needed to end the ruling class persecution of the disabled.