Saturday, November 26, 2011

Focus on our DISability - Reviewing Social Inclusion Initiatives

For years the Ageing, Disability and Home Care Department (ADHD) has run a Don’t DIS My Ability campaign to celebrate International Day of People with Disability. In partnership with Accessible Arts an arts program has been designed to supposedly boost and foster arts and disability practice within New South Wales. These initiatives coincide with the momentum building at the national level for social inclusion policies targeting those classed as disadvantaged in the workforce. The federal government would appear to be setting ambitious goals for greater participation and integration into the workforce. It remains to be seen though whether there will be any tangible benefit for people with disabilities without guaranteeing their right to appropriate work or funding the necessary support. Beyond the hype is the possibility that the government’s real intention is simply to dump people with disabilities onto the harsh regime of New Start allowance involving tough love breaching and pernicious activity agreements as happened to mothers during the Howard government’s Welfare-to-Work reforms.

International Year of People with Disabilities comes around every year leaving us with feel-good motherhood statements and plenty of spin but not enough substance. Rather than slick advertising campaigns, people with disabilities prefer to be properly consulted and treated as part of the decision-making process affecting our lives. I fear such public relations exercises may conceal a return to paternalistic policies that disempower those of us with disabilities, reinstituting the ‘we know what’s best for you’ rule from above. A lack of true inclusiveness can marginalise those living with disabilities as the other. What people with disabilities need is acceptance and accommodation rather than trivialisation of disabling conditions that make it harder for us to compete in a tight job market.

Let’s start with advertising slogans such as ’don’t diss my ability’ or ‘focus on ability’ which can have positive effects in raising self esteem and social acceptance particularly for children with disabilities. The message is important but without concrete measures to support adults with disabilities entering or re-entering the workforce it becomes meaningless. Because there is no affirmative action legislation to back up the fine sentiments many adults with disabilities find such slogans empty and hypocritical. Alongside slogans we need say 10% of all taxpayer funded part-time jobs reserved for appropriately qualified job applicants with disabilities. This would not only provide genuine assistance and social inclusion, but paradoxically also help to secure merit-based employment in the private sector. In particular, wherever service provision contracts are paid for by the public purse then governments need to ensure private employers don’t discriminate against jobseekers with disabilities by implementing a quota if necessary. In the disability service sector, affirmative-action employment measures should be at least 20% to guarantee qualified jobseekers with disabilities get a fair go.

Employing a significant proportion of disabled workers in the disability service sector would provide encouragement and positive role models for all those living with disabilities who access their services. The wider community would also benefit from coming into contact with a more inclusive workforce. Additionally it would help stem the tide of nepotism which currently deprives this sector of a more diverse, better qualified talent pool in the increasingly privatised disability services. This would help those living with disabilities to reach their full potential and allow us to contribute to society without the shameful social apartheid of sheltered workshops. There are also hidden dangers in treating the privatised disability service sector as a safe haven of cronyism and jobs for the boys. Take the following example.

Waiting For Equality

As an artist living with disabilities who has a Bachelor of Art Education and a Master of Fine Art qualifications, I have been an arts practitioner and educator for over 30 years. Yet when I tried to get part-time work as an art facilitator at a taxpayer funded private company that provides art training services to the disabled I was told they would welcome my unpaid contributions only. When I asked this company’s art facilitator whether his job had been advertised or if there had been any public call for expressions of interest for his position he told me no. He said he was a recent art school graduate and had no formal teaching qualifications. I then explained my qualifications and experience and asked him how I could obtain paid part-time work as a disabled art facilitator at companies like his. He told me that Accessible Arts had a website where I could put down my particulars and any employer who needed my skills could contact me from there. I asked him if that was how he got his job and was told : “ No I was lucky, because my cousin works here.”

I’m not suggesting this is improper because unlike the public service there is no objective examination to guarantee merit-based employment in the private sector even when they are financed by the public purse. There is also less accountability towards clients and jobseekers than in the public sector because they are not subject to Freedom of Information laws and can always claim commercial confidentiality. However it is not just disabled job seekers without connections who are disadvantaged by the privatised disability service sector. When I looked at their website I was horrified to see a photograph showing homeless youth being trained to silkscreen printed Tshirts, without any protective gloves, breathing mask or eyewear. As a four-year trained high school art teacher I knew that this presented a huge occupational health and safety issue but apparently if you are homeless and unemployed, then life is considered very cheap indeed by these private sector job trainers. Just like convicted prisoners the government has legislated to ensure that unemployed people are unable to sue job service providers or Centrelink if they are harmed by their negligence. Will this discriminatory legislation also be extended to people with disabilities?

One suspects that behind all this talk of focusing on ability is a hidden agenda to deny full acceptance and respect for people’s disabilities, brushing aside individual needs and failing to enable supported workforce participation. Why treat people with disabilities as second class citizens by refusing to listen to what we need and even failing to include us in the anti-villification laws that protect other minorities? When it comes to social inclusion initiatives policymakers are still not on the same page. Professor Corinne Mulley, Sydney University’s Chair of Public Transport has proposed not allowing welfare recipients to travel on Sydney’s public transport during peak hours to solve congestion. Considering that most people with disabilities cannot work full-time and must access welfare payments to survive then this divisive proposal if implemented will cause further disadvantage. It is dehumanising and denies us any hope of social acceptance and full workforce participation. Whatever happened to all the hoopla about social inclusion? The silence from relevant government departments and the disability services lobby over this proposal has been deafening. It just shows that the ’Don’t Dis My Ability’ publicity campaign lacks credibility.

If policymakers are serious about focusing on ability then they should recommend quotas for employing disadvantaged jobseekers in all publicly funded positions such as the job service sector, the creative industries and promised new green enterprises. Either that or change the policy settings for the economy away from controlling inflation towards controlling unemployment as was done from the end of the second world war until the mid 1970s. Most economists believe its harder to control inflation if unemployment falls below 4.75% so Reserve Bank and government policies now ensure there is never full employment. But if unemployment is so important for lowering inflation and guaranteeing the health of our economy then why not rotate under/unemployment and give everyone a turn at being employed? The unemployment queue is perhaps the only queue, where the longer you wait your turn for a job, the less chance you have of reaching your destination. Why should the burden of under/unemployment be placed exclusively upon disadvantaged Australians such as the long-term unemployed and people living with disabilities or those with insufficient class connections? Why not advance Australia FAIR?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Telling Signs of Racism and Classism

Telling it like it is at the No Income Management Rally last Saturday in Bankstown, Sydney. Leaders such as Barbara Shaw described the humiliation of Aboriginal people in Northern Territory caused by the government quarantining their income and forcing them to use a ration card. This income management will now be trialled on welfare recipients in Bankstown and other parts of Australia. More photos at Australian Documentary Photography.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Letter to Liao Yiwu from a member of Australia's underclass

Dear Liao,

I went to the 2011 Sydney Writers Festival and spent much of the time waiting in lines hoping to get a seat at one of the free lectures. I am unwaged and subsist on government welfare. Along with up to 30% of my fellow citizens I belong to Australia's underclass as I am denied the right to work in this country. It is not because we have been critical of the government but because we were born without the right class connections. Our country is not a meritocracy and is riven by inequality. Here it is not what you know but who you know that determines your fate in life.

Anyway after waiting so long for a free seat at the Sydney Writers Festival and just missing out so many times I thought my luck had finally turned when someone offered me a free ticket to the Liao Yiwu lecture: “ The dangers of what we think we know”. Well Liao, I guess I wasn't so lucky after all because when I arrived a columnist from the Murdoch press, Miriam Cosic of the Australian newspaper, was there to tell us that the Chinese government wouldn't let you come to the Festival. Cosic explained to the audience that there had been another crackdown on artists and writers in China. She read your letter thanking would-be sponsors. It went on to say how cruelly your government has treated you and how free Australia must be for inviting you. Nodding knowingly to her middle-class audience (many of whom were clutching fistfuls of lecture tickets at $20 and $30 each - enough to feed a welfare family for a week) she pontificated: “We here in Australia have no idea what it must be like to live under constant government crackdowns as they do in China”.

Funny that, because only the previous week the Federal budget announced yet another government crackdown on welfare recipients starting with teenage mums and disabled youth. Teen mums are to be separated from their babies at six months old to do compulsory job training or Work for the Dole programs. Young disabled citizens will not only need specialist medical reports to support their claim for an allowance but letters from at least three employers saying they are unable to employ them because of their disability. The crackdown will put these Australians on the same degrading treadmill of harassment, pernicious activity tests and surveillance as the unemployed who daily run the risk of being breached for even minor infractions. Every waking hour is to be spent justifying their existence to a parasitic bureaucracy and job service goons. Then when they suffer mental breakdown, a bunch of Canberra public servants in the guise of Get Up! to only deal with the symptoms not the causes, call for more psychiatrists. This is medicalising the social problems of inequality, lack of meaningful work, economic exclusion and institutional bastardisation of Australia's underclass.

Many people with secure, well paid jobs are fond of saying that there is no poverty in our country but in reality a third world exists within a first world here. It is a hangover from Victorian England that the have-nots of our country are judged as either deserving or undeserving poor according to warped, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant values dominant since the industrial revolution. The well off mainly empathise with the hardship and injustices suffered by citizens from other parts of the world yet deny the basic human rights violations happening in their own backyard. Despite Australia being a signatory to the United Nations Human Rights Charter guaranteeing every citizen the right to work, job seekers are locked out of our economy.

With all the mineral wealth that lies beneath Australian soil there is never any thought that lower class families should share in this wealth even though as part of our Commonwealth it belongs to all of us. Yet as the mining boom rages, the contrast between high and low income earners has never been greater while money generated from our country creates bloated executive salaries and is siphoned off to other parts of the world. When you look at maps of the world showing each nation's endowment of natural resources, you find that generally those that have the most minerals and energy per capita also have the largest contrast between rich and poor and Australia is heading the same way.

Australia had almost full employment from the Second World War until the mid-70s when in response to OECD pressure policymakers deliberately created a permanent underclass of unemployed citizens (further research is available from the Centre for Full Employment and Equity at the University of Newcastle). This underemployment was to discipline the workforce and force us to accept lower wages using the coercion of job insecurity. The government figured that having a workforce terrified of unemployment would make us docile and we would censor ourselves without the need for a heavy-handed secret police. The added advantage was that the steady growth in living standards and workers' wages occurring after World War II could be diverted into the pockets of company executives, foreign corporations and the ruling elite.

Using the OPEC oil shock as the cover story the government set about shrinking the public sector which had been a traditional employer of workers who couldn't be absorbed into the private sector. The government printery, shipyards and rail workshops all started closing as jobs were subcontracted offshore. There was further hollowing-out of employment opportunities as essential services became privatised. Factories started closing and the manufacturing sector contracted as import tariffs were steadily removed. While politicians were claiming that it would make Australia more efficient we started hearing new terms bandied about like downsizing, slim-lineing, deregulation and restructuring. Almost overnight jobs became scarcer and our national wealth became redistributed towards the big end of town. For the first time in 1981 when state teacher trainees graduated as high school art teachers virtually none obtained full-time teaching positions with the NSW Education Department and most ended up on 30 year waiting-lists. Rather than employ these Australian graduates the government, driven by ideology, preferred to import teachers from Canada.

To ensure there is never much sympathy for those without work the government and media barons peddle the Orwellian lie that Australia has full employment and simply cook the books. The unemployed and underemployed are labelled as dole bludgers, job snobs, cruisers and losers. They have only their own character flaws to blame for their misfortune so the story goes. Many with university qualifications have tried over 300 times to get a job but are still unemployed so how can that be full employment? Perhaps they lack skills the economy needs and should have trained in something more practical. Maybe if they retrained as Latin graduates, like the CEO of Westpac, they could get a job earning $9.5 million a year.

But the problem really isn't that there is insufficient employment but only that there is insufficient funding of employment. The Local Government Association alone has identified enough unfunded jobs needing to be done to employ every jobless Australian. If only we could use some of the super mining profits being dug out of the ground to fund these needed jobs with a resource tax. Everyone would have a place in society instead of holding unemployed and casual workers hostage to the job service merry-go-round. All this money from the mining boom employs only 1% of Australians yet miners import trained workers from overseas rather than train job-seekers that are already here.

In China Liao, you got four years gaol for writing a poem about Tiananmen Square. In Australia Lance Sharkey got three years for saying Australian workers would welcome the Soviet army if they arrived here. Four years sentence for a poem, three years gaol for a sentence – what's the difference? Well Lance certainly wasn't lionised by the Australian media or showered with glittering prizes and book deals which is a significant difference. And he wasn't complicit in unwittingly or otherwise airbrushing the plight of the oppressed underclass of one country, supposedly to help publicise the oppression of another. Do you think Australian representatives are discussing China's human rights at the London Metals Exchange?

There is economic apartheid in Australia today and the situation is akin to the era of racial apartheid in South Africa when local human rights activists called upon other countries for trade boycotts and travel embargoes. Perhaps if Australia's left wasn't permanently out to lunch then something would be done along these lines but for now you need to be aware that Australia isn't free and oppression doesn't begin or end at national borders. Ever since the eighties when we spiralled into a Dickensian nightmare of extreme capitalism and hidden unemployment Australia has had the highest rate of youth suicide in the Western world.

So next time you send a letter to be read at a writers festival, you could spare a thought for the oppressed of your host country rather than playing into the hands of Australia's oligarchy. That way, you'd have a credible claim to be advancing the cause of universal human rights rather than providing grist to the mill of Cold War warriors in the Murdoch press et al. Thanks for reading this Liao, hope I haven't hurt your feelings but I thought it was about time you took a walk in our shoes. Since you can't come in person to Australia I'm giving you a virtual tour but if you ever get a visa then look me up and I'll show you the real Australia you don't see in tourist brochures.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Labour in Vain Resurrected As Work For The Dole

"Detainees were expected to work 6 hours a day but there was not much real work to do...The guards smeared the handrails with grease and we polished them with hessian over and over." Compare this wartime army punishment to private sector "Work For The Dole" programs today where for example "... the same doors (are) painted and repainted 3 or 4 times in six weeks (that didn't need repainting in the first place) and scores of participants sitting around for hours bored and miserable with no meaningful work to do" excerpt from http://storyofbernadette.blogspot.com...

World War Two army punishment. What's the difference between a criminal and a long term unemployed person? Answer: One is the victim of a government crime against humanity.

On a lighter note hear an unwaged mother's experience of dealing with private sector Job Capacity Assessment as part of Welfare to Work Reforms supposed to "help" mothers back into the workforce. Here is an audio recording of a disabled mother brought to the brink of a nervous breakdown shortly after a compulsory job capacity assessment carried out by one of the myriad private sector companies that treat disadvantage as a commodity. For the uninitiated, those with injuries or long term illness classed as unemployed such as mothers caught up in Welfare to Work reforms must undergo Job Capacity Assessment (JCA) for their fitness to work or else be forced to do bogus job training or work for the dole programs comparable to outdated WW2 army punishments such as "Labour In Vain".

PSP means Personal Support Program that provides free counseling and certain health services for the unemployed but is heavily rationed. CRS stands for the confusingly named Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service which is a private, for profit company that does little more than supervise and "monitor" an unwell welfare recipient's efforts to find employment and health services through the public sector. CRS provides no therapy for unwell clients whatsoever and has been known to treat clients with mental health issues with callous disrespect which has exacerbated their condition. Current campaigns by GetUp et al for better mental health services do little to address the underlying causes of mental health problems such as abusive supervisory approaches to the poor in the privatized job service sector, a lack of paid work in meaningful jobs and childhood trauma.

Recently the government has returned to a policy of using more accountable public sector Job Capacity Assessors perhaps because of the buried statistics on increased rates of jobseeker suicides that resulted from private enterprise handling such social issues.

Monday, August 30, 2010

An open letter to the Greens

To: Lee Rhiannon
Subject: Re: unemployed concerns about job network

Hi Lee et al,
congratulations on your election win. We know you must be very busy but are wondering if you could give some consideration to the long term unemployed especially with regard to current human rights abuses in Australia. "The billions of dollars spent on the employment services sector has done nothing for the long term unemployed but create anxiety and disempowerment. Most long-term unemployed want rid of this paternalistic bureaucracy and for these tax dollars to be spent on subsidizing jobs in the public sector and in the arts, education, environment friendly energy, infrastructure and cooperative employment ventures for the jobless instead. The massive expenditure on monitoring and supervising the unemployed is wasteful and is creating a permanent underclass. If we keep going this way we'll have one half of Australia being paid to watch the other half." from http://storyofbernadette.blogspot.com/2009/12/work-and-worklessness-in-newcastle.html

I know the Greens are supporting 10,000 new green industry jobs but will there be any guarantee that those jobs will go to the long term unemployed? Unemployed Australians cannot compete with trained experienced workers from overseas especially when sham job training from the privatised job service sector just leads to nowhere.

Could the Greens also consider the traumatised feelings of underemployed/unemployed clergy abuse survivors before devising any more joint initiatives between the Greens and the churches re unemployment? Your last letter listed some of the things it was doing to supposedly "help" the unemployed including:
'The Greens secured a $300 million fund to provide one-off grants to church, charitable, community organisations and local councils for pilot projects...'

Jobseekers would feel a lot less anxiety if the Greens help maintain the separation of powers between church and state. If your party is really interested in church business then why not hold a parliamentary inquiry into the plight of our clergy abuse survivors who are still unable to get justice within the courts and whose lives have been blighted by the appalling abuse of church power which now continues against the jobless?

Just like the sexual assaults perpetrated against defenseless children, there is nothing "charitable" about churches breaching the vulnerable long term unemployed. As researchers such as Bill Mitchell have described it in an online article at http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=3653#more-3653:
'Under the Job Network, we saw the churches who took out contracts to deliver labour market services reduce their charity work and embrace for profit the brutal system of breaching. For overseas readers, this involved the providers dobbing the most disadvantaged workers into the government who then fined them for minor breaches of their pernicious activity tests. Cases such as schizophrenics who were unable to attend an interview as a result of their illness were breached (significant loss of benefits).'

thanks for your time Lee,
would love to hear from you soon (but not another form letter from a staffer about the 10,000 new green jobs because we've already got that one).

regards Bernadette Smith

Thursday, August 19, 2010

100 dogs chasing 80 bones

I hear that opposition leader Tony Abbott if elected is going to pay young people a bonus if they stay in their job for more than a year or was it two? The only problem is that the flexible employment and casualisation of the workforce introduced by recent governments to make the economy supposedly more "efficient" has made job security out of reach for up to 20% of Australian workers and the unemployed. The real problem for young people is not a lack of motivation or laziness but simply that there aren't enough jobs or apprenticeships to go around. Its a case of 100 dogs chasing 80 bones if the government leaves it to the private sector to employ everyone that needs a job.

Ever since the OECD pressured the Australian government to deliberately create unemployment in the mid seventies using the oil shock as the cover story, Australians have been denied the full employment that existed for 30 years as bipartisan government policy under leaders such as Ben Chifley and Bob Menzies. As private industry contracts during cycles of boom and bust, workers are shed and their skills are lost after a decade or more of unemployment. Yet earlier if workers were surplus to private enterprise needs there was always a healthy public sector where workers could be employed and stay experienced, keep their skills up to date on the job and young people could be trained as apprentices. Then when the private sector boomed these workers could be redirected to that sector as needed. Whereas now we don't even try to train young people on the job because its cheaper to import trained workers from overseas.

Last year the Greens promised they would help create 10,000 new jobs in the proposed green economy but I am still waiting to hear from them whether they guarantee those jobs would go to the long term unemployed or would Australia just import better trained workers from overseas for these positions. Unemployed people are not competing on a level playing field when they must compete against more experienced, better trained workers from other countries while the government abandons its responsibility to its own unemployed/underemployed citizens. Australia could have a more sustainable economy if we trained unemployed Australians on the job in the public sector instead of importing the trained workers needed during periods of private sector expansion. The pressure to constantly expand our population through skilled immigration programs would be correspondingly reduced.

see also http://e1.newcastle.edu.au/coffee/pubs/briefs/dogs/dogs_and_bones.cfm

Monday, August 2, 2010

Seeing Red over 2010 Election

It seems as if almost every political party in the upcoming 2010 election are intent on either ignoring the plight of the unemployed or making matters worse.

For starters we have Abbott promising to drag jobless youth away from what little social support they have and dump them into the unfamiliar environment of frontier mining towns far away from the security of friends and family. Mining unions have already warned there is no work for them and scarce little affordable housing to be found if this ill-conceived plan goes ahead. On top of this there will be yet another crackdown on so-called dole bludgers. In addition I believe he also wants to create budget surpluses by reducing the intake of new public service employees which can only excacerbate jobless numbers.

Our latest PM who ousted Rudd, Julia Gillard, not to be outdone in this bidding war against the poor has set her sights on "welfarism" which she hasn't yet defined. She may be playing to the gallery of "aspirational" voters and sending out a dog whistle to a supposed middle Australia.

The Green party is naturally calling for green jobs for the cherry picked few but not offering to help dismantle the privatised job service sector or create full employment. They also seem to be busy undermining the left leaning Lee Rhiannon who is in with a chance of a senate seat and might actually have some kind of social conscience about unemployment compared to the other neo-liberals of influence in the Greens. (See last weekend's Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum).

The only political group in the election that seems to be actually calling for full employment and human rights for the unemployed is Gough save us - the Communist Alliance. It looks like the unemployed and those without job security don't exactly have a royal flush in their choice of who to vote for but here's a link to what the Reds are saying: