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Issue #1650      August 6, 2014

Criminalising the unemployed

The Abbott government is maintaining its assault on the rights of underprivileged Australians. Plans and reports based on the notion of making life much harder for those on pensions and Centrelink “benefits” are popping up like mushrooms. Targeted again last week were the unemployed with further government announcements about the contemptuously named “Work for the Dole” scheme. Mining tycoon Andrew (“Twiggy”) Forrest got into the spirit of the times with his own report recommending commercialised, bank-run income management for all those on pensions and benefits with the exception of age pensioners and veterans.

The changes to the Work for the Dole regime come in the wake of the federal budget measures to withhold payments from job-seekers under 30 years of age for six months of the year. That measure has struck a snag in the Senate but the government is not deterred. It will investigate side-stepping the legislative barriers preventing some of its attack and will see if the same ends can be achieved through regulation.

Last week’s bombshell about the massive expansion of the Work for the Dole scheme underscores the Abbott government’s disdain for the unemployed. About $900 million will be squandered on a revised scheme that will oblige the under 30s to work 25 hours a week, those aged 30-49 will be required to do 15 hours as will those in the 50-60 age bracket. They will work in the not-for-profit sector doing administrative, building maintenance or landscaping jobs.

Scapegoats

The verdict is in – if work for the dole schemes were ever designed to get the unemployed into jobs, they are a failure. Jeff Borland of the University of Melbourne has studied schemes in Australia and abroad to see if they help relieve unemployment. He conducted the only empirical study of the Howard government’s scheme and concluded it, too, was a dud. “The international evidence is overwhelming,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that the government couldn’t understand that this isn’t the best way to improve a person’s employability.

“I guess you have to conclude that there are other reasons for wanting to expand the program and the title of the scheme suggests it’s being done for political reasons,” Professor Borland said.

The people being forced into working for the dole are being made the scapegoat for the failure of capitalism to deliver jobs. John Buchanan, director of the Workplace Research Centre at the University of Sydney, has noted that 13 percent of the workforce is either unemployed or under-employed. Work for the Dole won’t change that underlying problem.

Neither will the requirement for the unemployed to complete up to 40 job applications a month. Employment Minister Eric Abetz cheerfully suggests this target could be met by doing “one in the morning, one in the afternoon”.

This is the real meaning Treasurer Joe Hockey’s “the end of the age of entitlement”, essentially the end of the social security system.

The prospect of 40 million pointless job applications clogging the in-boxes of small businesses, in particular, has even the Business Council of Australia (BCA) worried. “We are concerned about the practicality of asking people to apply for 40 jobs each month in the current softening labour market,” chief executive Jennifer Westacott said.

Pack your swag!

The proposed $5.1 billion government package includes rewards for job providers like Mission Australia, Sarina Russo and Ingeus to actually put a client in a job rather than just shuffle paper. The government also wants to discourage what it believes could be training for training’s sake. A “loading” will be added for success in finding jobs in regional areas.

Professional services company KPMG is insisting the government do more to entice or oblige aspiring workers to move to find the jobs. “In the United States you find a much more mobile workforce, and if you want more people to move you have to build the infrastructure and housing to make it more appealing,” company chairman Peter Nash said. The government is sympathetic to this “hit the road” message and more “innovation” might be in the pipeline after the release of the McLure review of social security in Australia.

Regardless of realities, the image of the unemployed as work-shy or stuck in a self-indulgent rut – the dole bludger slur – is being hammered through all the news and commentary.

The social consequences of this latest escalation of the attacks on the disadvantaged has plenty of experts worried. David Thompson, chief executive of Jobs Australia, for example, says the experience of six months without any income will force some to crime and sex work. “For those who don’t have access to other forms of support like their family, I just don’t understand how anyone can imagine it’s going to be possible for them to do these things.

“Some of them presumably will do things like steal things, maybe sell drugs, and maybe sell themselves. I just don’t think we should be contemplating anything like this in this country,” he said.

Work for the Dole participants could already be excused for feeling they are on the wrong side of the law. The Age recently reported the experience of Ashley Geelan, who completed court-ordered community service in 2009 and was later sent back to the same sites as his obligation under Work for the Dole. He found it demoralising. “When you’re trying to turn your life around and you end up at the same place you were doing community service, it’s like you’re being treated like a criminal,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Assistant Employment Minister Luke Hartsuyker said the government could not ensure those forced into Work for the Dole would not be working alongside people completing community service.

So what is the aim?

If work for the dole schemes, rules to compel the unemployed to send out 40 job applications per month and other forms of punishing the victim won’t reduce the unemployment levels, what is their real objective? Other government actions point to the answer. Unions are being squeezed right out of workplaces and being criminalised in the current Royal Commission. Neutralised unions won’t be able to fight for better conditions or wages.

Last Saturday, the Prime Minister launched his Green Army – a corps of 15,000 young Australians forced through unemployment and bureaucratic harassment to work on re-vegetation and waterway clearance projects for $10 to $16 an hour. This undercuts award rates and puts current, full-wage workers out of a job.

The unions are being targeted, the schemes are being rolled out and the psychological warfare is being engaged in with one objective – to force Australian wages down and strip workers of any power they might have over their working lives. It’s the capitalist agenda shifting into high gear. It must be rolled back.

Next article – Editorial – Coal industry’s greed threatens humanity’s future

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