The federal government’s plan to make JobSeeker recipients look for jobs and attend employment workshops again has been labelled “offensive and dumb” by advocates for the social services sector.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the coronavirus supplement to the Centrelink unemployment payment would be slashed to less than half its current rate, while JobSeekers would be required to resume the search for paid employment from August 4.
Those on JobSeeker are not required to carry out ‘mutual obligations’, which include applying for jobs each month, attending employment workshops and careers counselling, and undertaking job training.
“We will be requiring people to connect again to employment services and to undertake four job searches a month,” Mr Morrison said on Tuesday.
“I think they’re very fair expectations … it’s not unreasonable once we get into this next phase for there to be some basic requirements. I think the ones that are initially coming in are very fair and reasonable.”
In a follow-up media release, Employment Minister Michaelia Cash and Social Services Minister Anne Ruston said people would be “expected” to undertake mutual obligations like attending job workshops or applying for jobs.
But while job seekers would avoid penalties for not initially fulfilling the obligations, recipients may have payments cut off if they refused a job offer.
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The Department of Education, Skills and Employment website states “from 4 August 2020, job seekers must be willing to accept any offer of suitable paid work and penalties will now apply if a job seeker refuses a job without a reasonable excuse”.
Emma King, chief executive of the Victorian Council of Social Service – the peak body for the state’s social and community sector – said the plan “smacks of cruelty”.
“Reintroducing unfair mutual obligation requirements in the middle of a pandemic is both offensive and dumb,” she told The New Daily.
“People are desperately looking for work. The problem is there are not enough jobs.”
Social advocates have pointed to statistics showing there are about 13 unemployed Australians for every one job available in the market.
Even before the pandemic, advocates claimed the framework of the mutual obligations meant unemployed people were essentially being forced to apply for jobs they had no chance of getting, simply to meet the requirements set by the government.
Kristin O’Connell, of the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, called the JobSeeker cuts “absolutely devastating”, and also levelled stinging criticism on the reintroduction of mutual obligations.
“Not only is it unreasonable and damaging for people in that situation to be applying for jobs they have no chance of getting, it’s not useful for employers getting those applications. It’s a waste of time and resources,” she told The New Daily.
“The effective unemployment rate is 11 per cent, which is extraordinarily high. You’ve got people looking for jobs that don’t exist. There’s no possible reason you can justify reintroducing the mutual obligations.”
Despite Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and the Treasury department claiming the current boosted rates of JobSeeker and JobKeeper may be creating “adverse incentives” for people to turn down paid work, Ms O’Connell claimed this rhetoric was a “myth”.
However, she did fear the effects of essentially forcing people to take any job they were offered.
“When people are offered work and being forced to take it, that’s putting people who are higher risk into harm’s way,” Ms O’Connell said.
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus called the reintroduction of mutual obligations “a worrying return to the punitive approach to welfare payments which we hoped the Morrison government had left behind”.
It has also been pointed out that the mutual obligations resume while millions of people in Victoria remain in lockdown, restricted to staying indoors due to coronavirus risk, and only allowed to leave their homes for school, work, shopping, care or exercise.
Advice on the department’s website states that people can undertake their mutual obligations online, over the phone, or “in person where safe to do so”.
Ms King said the resumption of the obligations system was unfair.
“Threatening people with fines and penalties for not accepting work which may be unsuitable, smacks of cruelty,” Ms King said.
“We want people working when they can. Everybody does. But this is the wrong way to go about it.”