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Welfare cuts

Is Paralympics sponsor Atos forcing disabled people back to work?

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Atos, a French company run by Thierry Breton and an official sponsor of the London Paralympic Games, is at the same time leading a crackdown against handicapped benefit receivers and workers deemed unfit to work in the UK. This is done on behalf of the British government, who is attempting to reduce its social budgets. British Paralympics athletes are leading the protest against these practices by refusing to wear the Atos logo.

This article was originally published in French. Translation: Natasha Edwards.

The French IT services multinational company, of which Thierry Breton (a former CEO of Thomson and France Telecom, and former Minister of Finances) is currently the CEO, has found itself in the firing line of criticism in Britain for its role in hunting down so-called “fake” beneficiaries.

Atos, which is the second IT services firm in Europe, and the fifth in the world, is an important sponsor for the Olympic games, as well as of the Paralympics. But it turns out it was a bad idea for Atos to try and forcibly promote its presence and corporate image at the London Paralympics this year. It ended up being the target of protests led by disabled activists and their supporters (see videos and interviews on the Guardian’s website). The British athletes deliberately hid their accreditation badges at the opening ceremony so as not to be seen wearing the Atos logo, which was printed on their lanyards.

Crackdown on disabled beneficiaries

One of Atos’ British subsidiaries, Atos Healthcare, is in charge of monitoring the beneficiaries of the Employment and Support Allowance, aimed at people who are unable to work. The contract was originally agreed by the Labour government as a pilot project, and was then extended to the rest of the country by the Tory government. Atos Healthcare, which claims to be the second largest employer of doctors and nurses in the UK after the NHS, undertook 738,000 inspections of beneficiaries in 2011. Its harsh methods have been severely criticized by doctors and social workers. Television reports [1] have revealed that Atos’ evaluators have been given pre-established targets in terms of the number of people’s benefits they were supposed to cut, before having even carried out the inspections.

No less than 40% of Atos’ strike-off decisions are appealed (with a 38% success rate). And this figure doesn’t account for the large number of people too fragile to seek to assert their rights. Nevertheless, David Cameron’s government seems satisfied with the results. It had no hesitations in finalising a new contract with Atos at the start of August 2012.

3.8 million euro contract

The Conservative government’s policy of massive welfare and budget cuts has benefitted a variety of consulting, auditing or outsourcing firms, sometimes put in charge of carrying out this “purging” themselves. The contracts signed with Atos to monitor – and strike off – hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries have been valued at no less than £3 million in total (3.8 million euros), but it represents only a small proportion of the government’s outsourcing budget. The start of the Olympics was tainted by the resounding failure of the security system, which had been outsourced to one of Atos’ rival companies for government contracts, G4S. The army had to be called to help.

The campaign against Atos has the active support of UK Uncut, the social movement against the austerity policy and budget cuts being imposed on the UK. In France, Breton’s company was also involved in the implementation of the electronic voting system for French people abroad the general elections, which has led to many problems.

Olivier Petitjean

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Photo : Norman Bailey/Australian Paralympic Committee

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