The Turnbull Government’s Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017 is scheduled to return to the upper house next month.
As the representative body for unemployed workers, the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union wants to express its opposition to brutal “reforms” that are designed to make life even tougher for welfare recipients, whose meagre benefits already place them well below the poverty line.
Rather than tackling the structural barriers to employment (such as an increasingly casualised and precarious labour market), the Government continues to shift the burden and blame onto individuals, who, it believes, need to be punished and coerced into finding jobs that simply aren’t there.
Far from providing basic security and care for an ever-growing number of un/underemployed workers, this Bill will instead relegate jobseekers to a constant state of deprivation, anxiety and stress.
It will achieve this through three key regressive measures: an increase in compliance demands, a new demerit point system, and longer waiting periods to access payments.
Increased compliance demands
Despite already wielding one of the toughest jobseeker compliance regimes in the OECD, the Coalition wants to enforce even more demands and activities on unemployed Australians.
Under the Bill, almost 300,000 people aged between 30-49 will be forced to clock 50 hours a fortnight of working for the dole and other jobseeking activities (20 more hours than currently required).
Unemployed people aged 50-59 will have to attend 30 hours of work and training a fortnight (up from 15 hours). Jobseekers 60 and over will have to attend at least 10 hours of “voluntary” work a fortnight to keep benefits that are almost $200 a week below the poverty line.
It’s staggering that the government wants to subject jobseekers to so many more hours of working for the dole – a dangerous program that has already been responsible for one death.
The government predicts that 80,000 people on Newstart will fail to comply with these extra commitments, as well as the other new ramped-up requirements. They will be subjected to a new “demerit point” punishment scheme that can ultimately strip them of payments.
The demerit point system
Agencies will be able to dock jobseekers up to a month’s pay if they fail to attend the full barrage of appointments, work-for-the-dole activities, training, and “volunteer” placements. Even jobseekers who miss appointments due to serious drug or alcohol related illnesses won’t be exempt.
Private job agencies are being given unprecedented powers to punish jobseekers for “non-compliance”. Unemployed workers will have no ability to launch appeals.
Gifting agencies even more power over the unemployed is disturbingly ill-advised, especially when you consider how many of these (primarily for-profit) companies are already failing to enforce the compliance system fairly.
Until now, Centrelink has been able to reverse job agency punishments if it considers they will cause undue financial hardship. It will lose that ability.
According to the Government, the demerit point system is designed to get unemployed workers more engaged with activity requirements. Revealingly, however, the Coalition predicts this system will yield a budget saving of $204 million over four years by imposing more financial penalties.
This is an incredible admission that, rather than being engaged with these requirements, many people will, in fact, be punished and stigmatised by them.
Evidently, this demerit point scheme isn’t designed to help unemployed workers engage with society; rather, it’s a Trojan horse for yet more Coalition budget cuts at the expense of the nation’s poor.
Longer waiting period for payments
Under the changes, simply getting onto Newstart will be protracted and arduous.
Currently, jobseekers receive payments from the day they submit their application. Under the changes, they won’t receive their first Newstart payment until the day they attend their first appointment with a job agency. Going by current processing times, this amounts to a delay of at least 16 working days – a devastatingly long time to leave vulnerable Australians without an income.
The government estimates that many of our poorest citizens will lose a combined $198 million worth of entitlements due to this change.
These “reforms” are a shameless attempt to shift responsibility for the unemployment crisis away from the Government’s (do-nothing) policies.
The Coalition wants to blame the unemployed for their own unemployment – and then penalise them for stepping out of line. This is not just dud social policy; it’s dud economics – there’s much evidence to suggest a supportive and nurturing system of income support actually promotes economic growth.
The AUWU calls on Australia’s senators to protect the unemployed from such unjust, unreasoned policies. We believe it’d be morally repugnant to sign any welfare “reform” bill that seeks to punish and humiliate already-vulnerable Australians in this manner.
Jeremy Poxon is a spokesperson for the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union.