Unemployment is a human rights issue

Unemployment and Punitive Activation as Human Rights Issues is an academic paper  published in the Australian Journal of Human Rights July 2014, Volume 20, No. 1.

The paper, by Dr. Tania Raffass,  recalls the little acknowledged fact that the right to work is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). It is part of a core of rights known as socio-economic human rights as distinct from civil and political human rights which tend to have much wider recognition and application.

Specifically  Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) says: 

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

While there has been some improvements in the assertion of socio-economic human rights since the 1990s especially on the part of developing countries, the right to work and protection against unemployment has largely been excluded from any serious consideration on the part of nations or supra-national entities.

The paper explores what a serious attention to Article 23 of the UDHR would mean for social and economic policies.  It examines how existing policies particularly in terms of the treatment of unemployed people should be evaluated against Article 23. The  arguments have strong resonance in what I heard from participants in my doctoral research – a study of midlife women in precarious employment but many with a current or previous need to claim social security payments.

Activation policies

In essence, the main response of OECD countries to the problem of unemployment over the past 20 years or more, has been to place the responsibility for unemployment squarely on the shoulders of the unemployed themselves through activation policies. Other terms include welfare to work, workfare and work-first. The policies and its methods of implementation in use in Australia and many other countries are quite specific – in order to qualify for an unemployment payment  – the unemployed person must undertake a strict regimen of job search, undergo a rigorous income and assets test, and undertake any other activities such as training as determined by an employment service provider. Furthermore, in Australia there is a Work for the Dole requirement on many people receiving unemployment payments (Newstart Allowance).

Suitable work

Further to this, an  unemployed person must accept any job ‘deemed suitable’ including part time or casual work even though he or she may be wanting and needing a full time job. This is specified in Australian social security law.

But what constitutes ‘suitable work’?  In my doctoral research involving midlife women in precarious employment, research participants told me of being pressed into jobs that they did not like or want. Women in midlife are particularly pressed into care work. I was told in a focus group of one woman who could not attend the group because she was so exhausted by care work she was forced to take even though she was undertaking retraining for an occupation she wanted to do.

(to be continued…..this post is a work in progress as I work through the article).




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