Standing up for rights

11 May update – a version of the following post incorporating the 3 May Budget changes is published on the Power to Persuade social policy website.

The original 27 April post is here:

In April, I attended the conference Solving Our Employment Crisis  organised by the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU).  The conference consisted of speakers in leadership roles from various organisations including the trade union movement, but most importantly the compelling voices of unemployed people themselves, from the membership of the AUWU.  The conference brought into focus the hardships they face trying to survive on Newstart Allowance, well below the poverty line,* with the added burdens of  the punitive and unhelpful activation requirements to maintain eligibility, including the ineffective  work for the dole** program which has become such a large portion of the government response to unemployment. The keynotes speakers provided context and affirmation of the need for the campaign work of the AUWU and for greater collaboration between organisations on the issues raised at the conference.

The AUWU brings a much needed new perspective on unemployed workers’ rights – and a platform for action. It is noteworthy that the entity has framed itself as a union, in accordance with some historical models rather than as a self help or representative organisation. This is an important distinction and raises many issues about where it sits within the broader trade union movement and within the framework of labour rights. While policy organisations such as the peak body ACOSS advocate for a better deal for unemployed people, they do not offer membership to the unemployed or a platform for activism. Most of the additional advocacy for the unemployed comes through service organisations who deal with the unemployed as clients but not as members or decision-makers. Most of these organisations’ policy work comes from a service and income support improvement perspective rather than a fundamental reform agenda.

Social protection is of course an element of the mandate of labour rightsIts central element is a basic payment to individuals while out of work and while they search for work. But in Australia as in other OECD countries, the income support for unemployed people has become conflated with a range of other objectives principally that of ‘activation’. Indeed, the latest iteration of the Australian government funded employment service system is termed jobactive (written in lower case for some reason).

The concept of activation is hinged on a view of unemployed people as requiring specific stimulus to search for and find work due to their deficits in this regard. It is heavily defensive against unwarranted and undeserved welfare receipt. To this end, the Australian government work for the dole policy** has also mandated work itself as a condition of income support after 6 months, imposing 25 hours per week for people under the age of 30 and 15 hours for other workers up to the age of 60. This marks a significant departure from the post war formulation of unemployment payments as a minimal survival payment for temporary hard times. It marks a return to systems of statute or enforced labour that should have ended with feudalism, notwithstanding its continuing practice in some parts of the world. 

I contend that work for the dole is a form of enforced labour in that it is a condition attached to receipt of a survival payment, no more, no less. It is not a question of whether unemployed people should be making an effort to find work including through training, but  work for the dole embeds an unemployment payment, in a paradigm of working for it outside a labour law framework. This surely must contravene international labour covenants and should be strongly opposed by the trade union movement.

There are  conditions attached to the non profit and government organisations offering work for the dole places to unemployed people. These include prohibitions on replacement or reduction of hours of existing or prospective staff and encouragement of projects which could not otherwise be undertaken. There are overwhelming moral hazards entailed in these conditions. I have no confidence that the prohibitions could not easily be breached. And it is highly problematic for new projects to be started on the basis of the unpaid labour of unemployed people. If an organisation does not have the funds for work that it would like undertaken, this does not mean it has license to use unpaid and unemployed people to get things done.

I have worked in an organisation where an unemployed young man was taken on in a work for the dole placement. My observation was that it was largely a waste of both the organisation’s and the young man’s time. It also brought into sharp focus the dreadful inequality in a workplace where a worker is not paid, not because they are a volunteer, but because they are unemployed and forced to be there. Anyway, the simple fact is that work for the dole doesn’t work in employment outcomes but to governments this does not seem to matter. Work for the dole as part of the activation method of dealing with the unemployed has a high symbolic value and constitutes an important part of the ongoing assault on social welfare. International evidence on the effectiveness of generic activation policies is not strong so there is no other explanation for why a government would go down this track.

The Australian Unemployed Workers Union has taken on a major challenge in representing unemployed people and fighting for their rights. It has taken form at an important moment in Australian social history and its formation is indebted to its founder Owen Bennett. There are many issues that the AUWU will need to take forward in its agenda as discussed at last week’s conference which was an important step in consolidating its profile. I have also written about some of these such as the role of employment service providers in pushing unemployed people into low wage, casual jobs (also the topic of a paper I gave at the ILO in 2013).

Over the last couple of months, I have been following the powerful youth protest movement in France now termed Nuit debout (staying up all night, standing all night) against the changes to labour laws which the socialist government led by President Hollande has been trying to implement. But the movement is taking on a range of grievances and inequalities along the lines of the Occupy movement. Standing up for rights, through time honoured methods of protest, organising, and civil disobedience, is sometimes the only way of getting action when governments fail to do what is right by segments of its citizenry – at this time in Australia, unemployed people.

*The Henderson Poverty Line for a single person in the workforce including as unemployed, and  to cover housing costs sits at $520 per week.  Newstart is $263 per week, with a maximum rent assistance subsidy of an additional $65 per week, so altogether a maximum payment of $328 per week or $192 below the poverty line.

**  Post script –  4 May – The work for the dole program was modified in the 3 May Federal Budget making it a requirement after 12 months on Newstart rather than the current 6 months. It is gratifying to see an acknowledgement in the budget papers that people will be better off spending their time in the first 12 months of unemployment looking for a job. However Work for the Dole still exists and needs to be abolished. A new program has been established for youth under the age of 25 involving internship arrangements with a small additional payment of $100 week on top of Newstart/Youth Allowance and wage subsidies . My own view is that it is worthwhile having a range of different arrangements and choices (but not work for the dole) in place to help young people so in general I am supportive of the program. I note that the ACTU have criticized the internship plan due to the lack of a minimum wage outcome but ACOSS support it.  I understand the ACTU perspective but I do think there is a significant dividing line between the age groups 15-19 and 20-24 as I noted in this conference paper. A short term internship for 16-19 year olds with a top up payment may be helpful as they make choices about work and education.

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