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Time to stop punishing the unemployed


A Senate inquiry is peeling back the façade of Australia’s purgatory for unemployed people, showing the harm, the futility and the infuriating uselessness of jobactive, the latest incarnation of our privatised employment system.

Centrelink sign

Instead of helping people get work by taking the time to work through their problems or actually listening to unemployed people, they are subject to a wide range of compliance measures, to ward off their purported dole bludging tendencies. They must do hours of Work for the Dole (WFTD), attend useless training, take drug and alcohol tests, not have access to cash, go to parenting classes, all regardless of their skills, interests or other responsibilities, all administered by various job agencies, now known as jobactive.

Since the 90s, Australia’s income support system and employment services have shifted to an ever harsher regime of compliance and penalty, while failing to find work for hundreds of thousands of people.

These 65 private job agencies receive $7.3 billion over the five year period of jobactive. The problem here isn’t the amount of money in fact, Australia spends half of the OECD average on people who are unemployed — but that it’s not money well spent.

I was a pretty damaged kid when I first engaged with the CRS Australia, the former public disability employment agency, my illness and disability were almost the least of my problems. I was angry, isolated and arrogant (as one youth worker told me in frustration). I’d worked as a cleaner, or a kitchen hand and a waiter, relying on my body to earn a living. The early 90s recession arrived at the same time as my illness, leaving me unemployed, bones aching and skin raw.

I was referred to the CRS while I was on the dole. As well as recommending I apply for Sickness Benefit, my case worker sat down and asked me what I wanted and needed.

I had no idea and very few people had ever asked. Gradually, she was able to tease out the tenuous ideas I had about study, work and even helped me get some driving lessons. I started a TAFE course, learning about this new-fangled stuff called Windows and Word.


"The world of work has radically changed, with fewer and fewer jobs available for those without skills or education which are expensive to acquire. Anglicare’s Jobs Snapshot found that close to 111,000 people are competing for 26,000 available low-skilled, entry-level jobs."


I saw her regularly over the next few years, slowly starting to trust that she really wanted to help, and that trying these weird new things wasn’t as scary as I feared they might be.

Not everything worked, or was the right thing for me, but I didn’t face harsh sanctions or have my income support cut if I couldn’t do them. Eventually, I was ready to work in an office, and I got a wage-subsidy for six months for an admin assistant job.

The latest figures show that of people who found jobs through jobactive, only 23.3 per cent were full time, 55 per cent were casual and 41 per cent who were placed in work still had a job six months later. Less than a quarter were employed after doing volunteer work, and of the most disadvantaged, only 27 per cent found a job after three months with jobactive.

Emma Dawson, of Per Capita, told the inquiry that 'full time placements have gone from 44 per cent in 2004 to 23 per cent today. That's the number of people who have actually been put into long-term work … We know that jobactive staff now spend over a third of their time — 34.6 per cent of their time — on compliance measures and administration related to compliance and only 10.3 per cent of their time working with employers'.

Since then, the world of work has radically changed, with fewer and fewer jobs available for those without skills or education which are expensive to acquire. Anglicare’s Jobs Snapshot found that close to 111,000 people are competing for 26,000 available low-skilled, entry-level jobs. Anne Maxwell, from the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU), told the inquiry that 'we are stigmatised as dole bludgers and leaners and it is happening in the context that there are simply not enough jobs for everyone'.

For people who are sick and/or disabled, there have been big changes too. About a quarter of people now surviving on Newstart are sick and or/disabled — they too are subject to the jobactive system. ACOSS’s Faces of Unemployment report says that 'many find it harder to secure a job because they belong to a group that’s often discriminated against in employment, including 13 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background, 18 per cent from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and 22 per cent with a disability'.

In his submission to the inquiry, Mick Smart, a person who was severely injured while on a WFTD program, and is on Newstart said:

'I have had my payments suspended many times in error, received a debt while bed ridden and unable to challenge it, was forced to attend the office of my jobactive provider and fill out a new Job Plan while under medical exemption, up until recently I still had the threat of being placed in another WFTD activity regardless of my health condition, in and out of hospital, disabled enough for a parking badge, to be a fall risk in hospital, but not enough to qualify for DSP (Disability Support Pension) since my injury is neither treated nor stabilized, so I am forced to apply for work I cannot do, while unable to afford medical treatment or proper housing, and keep receiving contradictory paperwork from multiple departments as to my assessed work capacity.'

At the first hearing in Melbourne, he told Senators that 'in my experience the Work for the Dole scheme is a slave labour program as a business incentive'.

In his submission, Jeremy Poxon says that 'from my perspective, no "mutual" obligation actually exists within jobactive. I’ve certainly got obligations at my end (apply for 20 jobs, participate in work for the dole, etc) but there doesn’t seem to be any obligation on the side of the job agent to actually do anything to help me achieve my outcomes'.

The Centre for Policy Development agrees, saying that 'a big, standardised system churning through the unemployed and rewarding short-term placements with individual payments will not help produce a skilled, entrepreneurial, resilient workforce. Nor will it help the most disadvantaged'.

So what’s the answer? One, put forward by the public sector union, the CPSU, is to return to having a public provider. They told the recent inquiry that 'there was a lot of client satisfaction with the services provided by CRS Australia … having a public provider would in fact lift the standards in employment services. There would essentially be something that other providers would seek to emulate'. That was certainly my experience with the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service, the CRS.

In the current system, is there any room for this kind of long term trust-building or for trying and failing, without the threat of losing the few dollars people have to keep a roof over their head or pay for food? I think about how my case worker rang me regularly, and how she reminded me that I could do this, and that I had every right to be in this fancy office, just like the other people.

This kind of support made a significant impact on my ability to both have an income, but also to start to heal from trauma and adjust to being disabled. I wasn’t used to trusting adults, or anything really, so having someone willing to take the time I needed to build that trust was essential. So when I think about the angry, hurt, sick kid I was, I know I wouldn’t have survived the current harsh compliance regime.

The AUWU believes that people in the system, people who have experienced jobactive, Work for the Dole, sanctions and long-term unemployment need to be involved in fixing this broken system. Their submission recommends that 'there is a great deal of value to unlock from employment services users, by working with them to co-design services'.

I agree. It’s time for a change that stops punishing people who are out of paid work.



El GibbsEl Gibbs is a freelance writer specialising in the area of disability and social services and has over 15 years experience in the community and NFP sector, as well as politics. Find her on Twitter @bluntshovels.


Main image: Centrelink sign (TKKurikawa/Depositphotos)

Topic tags: El Gibbs, work for the dole, disability, Newstart, Disability Support Pension



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Existing comments

Australia wastes about a billion dollars a year keeping desperate asylum seekers for years on off-shore hell-holes. That money would be much better spent on increasing the benefits for unemployed people, many of whom will never get work as they may be too old or there aren't enough jobs to to around. Voters, do your best to ensure politicians that are cruel or lacking compassion for the underdog end up unemployed themselves after the next Federal election! Australia was once a much fairer society but no longer!

Grant Allen | 20 November 2018  

I am concerned about this gig employment, which lm being told is the new normal. My friend works 8.5 hours a day as a casual, employed by a recruiting agency. There is no contract, no paid meal break,no holiday leave, sick leave.. at his workplace 100are employees and 100 are casuals. How do people enter a rental contract, plan, have financial security, you go to work sick, because of the fear that you may not have a job tomorrow. We are creating second class citizens.. what about their future mental health. This needs to be addressed and challenged.

Anne | 20 November 2018  

Thank you for shining an inside light on this harsh reality for so many Australians.

Anne Lanyon | 20 November 2018  

thank you for the article. The changes that have occurred in the provision of these services over the last 20 years or so have been ideologically driven and resulted in the erosion of respect for those needing to access the services. I recently needed to lodge a document at my local office and was shocked at the the way the transaction occurred. My first interaction from a staff member was a shouted instruction to "stand on the red square". There were red squares on grey carpet. I still don't understand the purpose of the red squares. When I was called to the counter, the staff member did not have a name tag nor did they greet me. I indicated that I wanted to ask a couple of clarifying questions before lodging the form. The staff member said they just took the form and could not answer questions. It would be assessed by expert staff in a central location. They would write to me if anything was not correct. I asked for a receipt that provided evidence that the document was lodged, and lodged within the required time frame. I was told that they no longer give receipts. I do not need to deal with Centrelink on a regular basis. This may seem a trivial example but for me it demonstrates just how the whole experience of interacting with Centrelink seems designed to put people in their place, to disempower people, rather than to respond to people's needs in a respectful way.

Karen B | 20 November 2018  

Not to mention it is of dubious legality. It is a fundamental principal of law that executive imposts on peoples rights be subject to parliamentary oversight and go no further than clear statements of legislative intent. Submission number 66 of the inquiry (mine) raises significant questions of the legality of the whole thing. Where are the legislative instruments? How is it legal? How did the Abbot impose new rules without parliamentary approval? Putting aside the rightness of what they are doing, the question exists of are they even obeying the legislation. Apologies for the cross post - it's a heavy read, but you might find it interesting. https://ozrights.org/home/jobactive-senate-enquiry/

Brenton Thomas | 20 November 2018  

What a surprise to read in the mainstream media that the Australian economy hits 'full employment, The real unemployment figure is 12% plus and 8% underemployed' and that 'we have 1.2 million chasing 175,000 jobs. Why the media doesn't print the real unemployment figures mystifies me and is not explained. The current unemployment measure, first established in the 1960’s, has failed to catch up to the severe structural changes in our labour market. Fact is, the unemployment rate was developed in an era when full-time male breadwinners served as the basis of the labour market. This makes the reality that politicians and the media still lean on it so wholly and heavily quite staggering. Over the last few decades, the labour market has radically transformed and casualised: underemployment has ballooned as a critical labour category, as well as what the ABS calls “hidden unemployment”. Yet, proper understanding and recognition of these groups is missing from public debate and policy-making, because it is not explicitly captured by the official (and somewhat anachronistic) unemployment rate. As a general rule, the more you broaden the ABS measures — to include groups of people who just didn’t exist in the “full employment” era (e.g. casual and discouraged workers) — the more disturbing a picture you get of the labour market in Australia. Indeed, politicians can cherry-pick and spin unemployment figures to tell virtually any story they like. At the same time, the media are generally ill-informed and time-poor, often reporting on what’s put in front of them with little time and/or inclination to dig deeper into the figures. To me, politicians are horrified of the masses finding out the real unemployment figures as they would show that most things we've done in unemployment since the 1980s have been largely a massive waste of time, money and effort. That's why they continue with Labour Market Programs which are largely 'bread and circus' nonsense and the line about 'bread and circuses' is true enough but in Australia, it increasingly seems to be all circus and not bread'.

Marcus L'Estrange | 21 November 2018  

One has to BE well to WORK. Meaningful work and mental health are inter-related. In Australia today, there seems little meaningful work for many, perhaps resulting from rapid structural changes in our economy and the effect of FTA's and Globalism. Most colleagues I know have been dumped from careers in their early fifties today, many of who are tertiary educated and well experienced. They are lucky if they get a GIG in this new GIG economy thereafter!. Neo-Liberal practice of privatising essential government services such as the former C E S where individuals were treated with dignity, fairly and equally for no financial gain, to a "Compliance For Profit" Job Active system, is "Where the Darkness Has set In". Could this be an unforeseen application of the "Milgram" experiment principles giving unlimited punitive power of vested interests over people of less fortunate circumstances, without observation or interaction, upping the punishment should they fail to respond correctly?. May GOD help us! My mum used to say, "treat people like you would like to be treated" and the world will be a better place!.

Jeff Fairbright | 22 November 2018  

An excellent article.

Hermit | 22 November 2018  

So true. In turn CSIRO scientist, engineer, university lecturer, bullying victim, homeless Centrelink client... Have seen many useless private companies trying to get you into anything. Another aspect: One day I sat and wrote about 600 careers in the Centrelink database. Not a single one of them described what I have been doing in this country for 20 years. Thanks to the CRS staffer T. McM. I do some work now. Still much below than what I can contribute though - it seems Australia DO NOT want to utilise us where we are most useful but want to utilise us in jobs where nobody gets threatened socially.

Elvan Turak | 23 November 2018  

A while back Barry O'Farrell PM ended permanent employment for many people in the Government Sector, affecting mainly entry level and mid level staff. The hopes of many, as well as my daughters was dashed away, for any change at perm secure work. Instead she was given insecure government employment, causing her to jump job to job for work, with periods of Centrelink Newstart in-between, all the time. Even perms are even worried and frightened that they will loss their jobs and have to re-apply for their own jobs again. It goes to show the government is two-faced and not really serious or interested in long term secure employment. It appears that they are behaving like hypocrites giving punitive and psychological punishment for anyone on Centrelink, even to those that have been trying for years to keep employment, even if its contractual. But yet their is a overall stigma that, all Newstart receivers, must be lazy or don't want work at all, as they are working short term jobs and contracts! Many have not fathom the idea "Desperate" for anything in work, even if it's not lasting or even acknowledging that their have been a lot of suicides due to unemployment. Many don't want to be staying on Centrelink for years and the only option left for them is Temp or Contract, which is the new norm these days.

Emma | 24 November 2018  

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