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Issue #1692      July 8, 2015

“Big stick” policies to punish job-seekers

Anti-Poverty Network SA, along with the Australian Unemployment Union, have started fighting a new wave of attacks against unemployed people. Starting from Wednesday July 1, the government is giving privately-owned employment service providers, which job-seekers are assigned to when they start looking for work, the power to fine the unemployed at least $55 (10 percent of their income) for missing a “job search” appointment without a valid excuse (to be determined by the employment service provider).

Employment service providers, which have much more regular contact with unemployed people than Centrelink offices, made the news earlier this year when an ABC Four Corners episode revealed widespread evidence of corruption and fraud, including $41 million worth of false claims in the $1.3 billion per year industry in just the past three years. Repeated government inquiries have found evidence of agencies rorting the system to gain fees for services that were not provided to their clients, with a former senior departmental investigator noting the system’s “absolutely vulnerable to exploitation”.

Pas Forgione, coordinator of Anti-Poverty Network SA said, “These changes, giving employment services providers even more power over the lives of unemployed people, are part of a pattern of ‘big stick’ policies that punish job-seekers for not having jobs, policies that assume the unemployed are unemployed because they are not searching hard enough for work. In fact, there are simply not enough jobs to go around. These fines for Newstart recipients will increase hardship for those already on very low incomes, without helping anyone find employment.”

These comments were echoed by Owen Bennett, founder of Australian Unemployment Union, who said, “Newstart Allowance (only $259 per week) is currently $280 per fortnight below the poverty-line. This is blaming the unemployed for the government’s failure to address Australia’s unemployment crisis. There are currently 11 job-seekers (including the underemployed) competing for every job vacancy in Australia.”

These changes, from an Abbott government that has been consistently hostile to unemployed people and other people on Centrelink payments from the get-go, came into effect on the same day the government’s expanded Work For The Dole scheme came into effect: a scheme requiring unemployed people who have been unemployed for more than six months to do unpaid work (work without any increase to their paltry payments, apart from a $10.40 per week travel allowance) for six months – 25 hours per week for those aged under 30, 15 hours per week for those aged over 30.

Like compulsory Work For The Dole, giving job agencies the power to fine unemployed people for missing their appointments does nothing to reduce the growing gap between the number of jobs, and the number of job-seekers. But these kinds of measures do bolster the nasty, paternalistic narrative that unemployed people have no one to blame but themselves for being unemployed, that if it was not for their individual deficiencies, they would already have jobs.

It is important that poverty and unemployment be defined in individual rather than structural terms – as the fault of job-seekers, rather than of the economic system and government policies – as this allows the real culprits to be let off the hook. Instead of asking why there are roughly 800,000 unemployed people but only roughly 150,000 jobs, we can concentrate on the alleged poor habits of unemployed people – not being able to wake up on time, not being able to budget properly, drinking and smoking too much, becoming “too comfortable” on Newstart (despite it being the lowest unemployment payment in the developed world). Unemployment, to an extent, is useful to capitalists because it increases their bargaining power relative to workers.

Policies that make life more frustrating and stressful for those on income support payments, of which there are quite a few – keeping payments very low, the forced quarantining of part of an individual’s payments through Income Management, increasing financial penalties for failing to meet one’s Centrelink obligations – make the unemployed more desperate to find any work they can to get themselves off payments, regardless of how low-paid, insecure, and unpleasant it might be. Naturally, by increasing competition for jobs, the effect is that wages are driven down. This means that attacks on the unemployed have to be recognised as attacks on workers as well.

And there is plenty of hard evidence that these policies have this effect – for example, a Productivity Commission study into Work For the Dole during the Howard years, when the scheme affected much smaller numbers of people than it currently does, found the scheme had a two-percent downward impact on wages.

What we need, more than ever, is for those with jobs and those without jobs to unite, to resist the welfare-bashing propaganda from the mainstream media and the federal government, and recognise that when you attack the rights and well-being of those on Centrelink payments, you attack the rights and well-being of employed workers as well.

Next article – Greed running riot at Barangaroo

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