Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Work and Worklessness in Newcastle - An Unemployed Perspective

1. Employment and Scarcity

I want to talk about my experience within the system that deals with unemployed people and their dependents. For over two decades I've been a casual teacher in high schools, TAFE and universities as well as a practising artist, student, carer and mother. My paid employment history is not continuous partly due to life circumstances and partly due to the introduction of supposed flexible and casual work practices which has led to insecure employment for at least a third of the working age population. In the field of the arts, work in Australia can be particularly precarious especially for someone without formidable networks. Unlike many countries, Australia does not have a merit-based system of employment selection that is enshrined in law. In Singapore for example it is punishable as a crime to employ someone in a taxpayer funded position, solely on the basis of knowing them as a friend or because one gains some personal advantage.

1.1 Well Connected

Here in Australia, if you're not employed in the field of engineering or science and especially if you are seeking employment in the visual arts then success often depends on who you know or who you can turn to for a favour. I know that in other areas of the arts there are similar problems. There is simply not enough government funding or broad based community support made available to employ all people who are talented in the arts so there is a surplus of talent coexisting with insufficient accountability for those selecting from that talent pool. For example looking through back catalogues at Lake Macquarie Art Gallery I noticed one catalogue published for an exhibition of invited artists had the title: “Well Connected - Artists of the Hunter”. Controversy over employment practices at the National Art School also illustrates the
ongoing issue of a lack of independent regulatory oversight in the public funded visual art sector.
What makes the system of selection fairly opaque is that in most government funded art institutions there is little or no public access to curatorial criteria for decision-making and little peer review or accountability to the art community. If a patient in a hospital dies on the operating table because the doctor was unqualified to do the job there is a public enquiry and disciplinary proceedings but there are no such consequences if an inferior candidate is selected for a government funded art exhibition, collection or art administration position. For this reason the system often lacks integrity and there can be conflicts of interests. In 1995 David Langman a curator at Newcastle Region Art Gallery, was researching a post graduate thesis on curatorial criteria for publicly funded art galleries and museums. Of all those public art administrators he surveyed barely half were prepared to disclose this information or even had a policy in place. It was Langman who blew the whistle when his superior, director David Bradshaw, was involved in an apparent conflict of interest by selling minor British painters from his own collection to the Newcastle Region Art Gallery. There are no prizes for guessing who ended up out of work and leaving Newcastle as a result of this, but it certainly wasn’t the director. The flow on from insecure employment can extend to all levels of our society not just the arts.

1.2 What Price Integrity?

Previous government employment minister, Mal Brough, boasted his compliance regimes for the unemployed would be an “embuggerance”, said to be a military form of bastardisation[1]. A flexible workforce can induce a moral vacuum if citizens feel their employment is too insecure to rock the boat or blow the whistle on corrupt practices. This has been exacerbated over recent years by the demoralising decline in conditions and harassment of unemployed people mandated by successive governments. The unemployed have been made scapegoats for a failing economy and vilified by conservative political leaders as 'dole bludgers' and 'job snobs'.

As the treatment of unemployed people worsens people are less likely to speak out against unethical practices in the workplace and wider society for fear of the consequences of being blacklisted from sources of employment. I know of at least one teacher in Newcastle whose casual contract wasn't renewed after she blew the whistle on a later proven case of child abuse involving another teacher on staff. As an unemployed person she is now expected by job service staff to undertake compulsory training in how to write a letter to an employer even though she previously taught this course to junior secondary students.

A few well qualified job seekers succeed in convincing their case managers to exempt them from such courses but many overqualified clients are simply told by job service staff: “ it's the law and you've got no choice”. It seems that job placement agencies have the discretionary powers to either tailor their training to the needs of the individual job seeker or capriciously impose a lowest common denominator one-size-fits-all approach. Artists have been forced to do so called “professional development” courses that have been substandard and an appalling waste of time.

Apart from being a waste of resources it has a deleterious effect on the emotional and mental health of clients. I have seen middle-aged men brought to the brink of suicide by such patterns of abuse from agencies like Employment Plus. It can be used to intimidate and bully clients keeping them in a constant state of anxiety and submission. Previously when the unemployed were made ill from such treatment they could obtain a sick certificate from their doctor exempting them from such training for a short period. Now Centrelink can decide that even with a sick certificate jobless clients must continue to do inappropriate job training. Centrelink announced this new catch with an Orwellian flourish on their letterhead logo that read: “giving you options”.

Unlike in the workforce where there is a union to defend workers from mistreatment, there is no redress for the unemployed. Job service clients who have attempted to complain about the service find the guidelines for complaint are too narrow to be of much use. Any accountability required of the job agencies seems to be mainly geared towards government checks of administrative procedures rather than verifying successful outcomes from the client's point of view.

I have lost count of the many job agency businesses stretching endlessly along the main street of Newcastle using euphemistic terms such as Solutions, Pathways, Advantage and so on. Yet far from being benign, Job Network has functioned more like a labyrinth of privatised prisons without walls fixing electronic handcuffs on the unemployed. The whole Job Network system and now Job Services Australia extends across Australia like a wretched archipelago of human misery.

Ours is a society in which the haves are keeping the have-nots under a constant regime of impoverishment and belittling supervision. Surely an independent cost/benefit analysis would show that there are better ways to handle unemployment or must entrenched private vested interests continue to outweigh the common good?

2. Retraining

Over the last two decades I've noticed funding for the arts steadily decreasing not only for artists but for teachers as well. In high schools there has been a successful push to move art teaching away from painting and sculpture towards computer arts and a greater emphasis on Maths and science subjects in the HSC. Creativity in dance, music and art for example has been devalued to the point where only maths and science are seen as important to society. As a result the availability of teaching jobs in the arts has contracted and people like myself with art teaching qualifications find it harder to find work in this field but it's not a simple matter of retraining. Unemployed art teachers received offers from the Education Department to retrain as maths teachers. Unfortunately the very reason I entered the visual art field in the first place apart from having a natural ability in this area, was because I have discalculia (difficulty understanding maths). There are many of us in a similar position based on anecdotal accounts although paid research about it is thin on the ground.

In Australia it seems that if one is not cutting something down or digging something up or calculating ways to do it more effectively then it is of no use to our society. We have become the world's quarry in a society out of balance. Yet countries such as Germany have become the world leaders of technology and culture by keeping arts and sciences funding balanced rather than favouring one at the expense of the other. Here the priority is bread and circuses. It has been estimated that the money required to train Australian athletes for the Olympics is equivalent to a new school or hospital for every gold medal won. Why are elite athletes employed at taxpayers expense while artists, teachers and even graduating nurses are thrown on the unemployment scrap heap? Why did my now deceased father have to spend five hours throwing up in the emergency waiting room at John Hunter Hospital before receiving medical attention? Why not let the Americans have the gold medals and let us have the functional public hospitals and schools and a vibrant home grown culture instead.

2.1 The Digital Divide
Although there is a lot of advertising hype from institutions such as TAFE that mature age unemployed in need of retraining to return to the workforce will be especially catered for I personally have not found this to be the case. As a student at Hunter Street TAFE campus in 2007 I observed that their Multimedia course was particularly skewed towards younger male students and male teachers. Both the retention and selection of older women students and the numbers of women employed to teach was deficient. From my experience the IT and Multimedia TAFE classroom can often be hostile environments for mature aged women and very much a boys club. Information technology has the exclusive aura of a priesthood that can be intimidating for the uninitiated. Although I found most teachers in this course helpful and encouraging, a minority in key technical subject areas created an inhospitable learning environment.

In spite of there being no beginners course available in Multimedia and the only prerequisite asked for was a Higher School Certificate I was often told by particular teachers that I did not belong in the class. There was a constant turnover of students as over half the class dropped out and new ones were slotted in to take their place. I also became aware of an 'in' group and a minority 'out' group. The 'in' group of invited students were favoured with technical workshops and media projects held outside of class time with certain teachers. During normal class time those on the outer would be mystified when reference was made to subject matter covered exclusively by the 'in' group outside of class. Queries from the puzzled outsiders would inevitably be met with: ' You should pay more attention in class! ' During one such occasion I asked the teacher in which week he had covered the topic mentioned so I could look it up in my notes, only to be told: 'How should I know? '. Yet I knew from previously being a TAFE teacher myself that all teachers were required to record and date lesson plans listing topics covered for their classes but in Multimedia at Hunter Street TAFE this didn't seem to apply.

2.2 Social Exclusion

I assumed it was a combination of ageism and sexism that had led to my exclusion from these extracurricular class activities yet even a young male South American former student that I met from this class had also experienced a similar lack of inclusiveness and hostility. I wondered if I should have made an official complaint about these practices until I met a mature age former student with the same hostile teacher who had done exactly that. Her complaint was handled in-house and at the supposed mediation she was ambushed by what turned into a character assassination of the complainant. In contrast to the IT classroom at Hunter Street campus, older women and minorities are more acceptable in their Fine Arts courses. Unfortunately it is the difficult computer technology areas that provide the most opportunity for entry-level employment but in practice if not by design older women and those who are different can be excluded from this kind of government funded retraining.

2.3 Focus on Ability?

The educational method used to teach digital technology in TAFE I believe is not conducive to people with learning difficulties and the advertised tutorial assistance was hard to access and heavily rationed even when one succeeded in navigating the obstacles. Speaking as someone who has taught art educational methodology to trainee high school teachers I find that the pedagogical method in TAFE information technology and multimedia is inadequate. It disadvantages many learners by pitching mainly to the more advanced students and the rest are left behind. While studying multimedia at Hunter Street TAFE I used a stop watch over several classes to log the amount of actual time spent by a web design teacher helping individual advanced students compared to the help received by those struggling at the bottom of the class. Although I wouldn’t describe it as a rigorous empirical study the results did indicate that not only were advanced students favoured over the less capable students time-wise but paradoxically the teacher by his comments made in class perceived the opposite to be the case.

Earlier this year, deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard was asked what would happen to ageing labourers when her government lifts the retirement age for the pension to 67 years. She airily declared that they could all retrain for something less physically demanding. With the Opposition party now wanting to extend it to 70 years of age one wonders what will become of all the women cleaners, aged care employees, former carers and other manual workers who attempt at 60 years of age to retrain at TAFE.

3. Coercive Pedagogy

It is unfortunate that due to the coercive nature of current supervisory approaches to the long-term unemployed some teachers no longer feel obliged to put in their best effort for what can be a captive market. When I was lecturing in Darwin, several years ago I attended a barbecue where there were several other teachers and naturally at one point we started talking shop.

We discussed the typical challenge of having enough time to prepare lessons well enough and to make the subject matter stimulating, engaging and comprehensible to different intellectual levels in the classroom thereby keeping students motivated and passionate about our area of knowledge. One teacher smugly announced that she didn't have to bother with all that because her students were referred to her for compulsory numeracy and literacy courses by Centrelink and the Job Network, now known as Job Services Australia. She boasted that she didn't have to make it interesting or do exhaustive preparation because if the unemployed students gave her negative feedback or were bored and disruptive she could simply inform Centrelink and they would lose their benefits.

Many long-term unemployed are caught up in an endless B grade training treadmill repeatedly doing needless, soul destroying compulsory courses in how to write a letter to an employer etc. So-called "job training" has included written commandments to 'never criticise the country, state or economic situation' and to 'examine the need for personal change in clothing, manner or appearance'. It is never acknowledged that there has been over 40 unemployed people for every one job vacancy in the Hunter. When the Rudd government provides more money for job agencies to upgrade unemployed training courses the Salvation Army's Employment Plus for example simply charges more for the same useless in-house job training. God helps those that help themselves...

I have tried to find out where the money goes that is supposed to help unemployed people into a job and even asked the Salvation Army whether they use surplus income from Employment Plus to cross-subsidise their other programs like say hostels for alcoholics. I was referred to head office and found it near impossible to get a responsible person in the know to return my phone call let alone obtaining any answers.

While information about this is difficult if not impossible to access there was a hint provided by Frank Quinlan, in an interview published online in the Cathnews service (previously cited). Discussing the impact of their loss of job service contracts he said: “other social services provided by not for profit organisations could stop because of the loss of funding.” It seems that church-based agencies are taking away public funds intended for helping the unemployed and redirecting substantial amounts to “other social services". Has this been done with the consent of their unemployed clients or Australian taxpayers?

Instead of unemployed people being treated as stakeholders able to provide feedback on the relevance or effectiveness of their training they are kept out of the loop. There also appears to be no independent, evidence-based evaluation of employment provider training courses. Even unemployed teachers and postgraduate students are forced to do wasteful and humiliating training courses that they are over-qualified for. In my experience, such job agencies create a climate of shame and blame for the unemployed and their families inculcating a subservient, unquestioning obedience. Under this pernicious regime job seekers and their dependants lose a sense of control over their lives where individual will and intellect must yield to an all-powerful supervisory authority. So many jobseekers forced to surrender their independent identity in this way spiral into depression and instability while subjected to a process of gradual infantilisation by the job service culture. From my perspective, the Salvation Army is trying to break down the ego of jobless clients, remodelling them for its own purposes - an ideology of playing God by treating sentient beings as clay in the potter's hands - while raking in the cash.

4. Accountability for Whom?

The unemployed are denied an authentic voice and treated as ‘other’, lazy and incapable of any self-direction by governments keen to shift the responsibility away from their own culpability. They are helped by conservative Christian organisations more than willing to extend their sphere of influence over society's most vulnerable. Now that it is no longer socially accepted for such Christians to exercise paternalistic control over Aboriginal people another captive market must be manufactured using the hapless unemployed.

To deflect criticism that government intervention quarantining welfare payments for food and rent in Northern Territory aboriginal communities is racist they are extending this intrusive micro-management to the lives of all unemployed welfare recipients. Somehow this is supposed to address the racist intent of this project but what about the classism involved in this new plan? No one mentions class any more - refugees maybe, land rights maybe, but something as banal as the human rights of working class people in Australia seems to be forgotten as an issue. How long before we see the reintroduction of Dickensian workhouses for the poor or the introduction of American-style food stamps?

The Salvation Army I believe has collaborated with the previous conservative government to shift blame away from government mismanagement of the economy to construct a self-serving public view of unemployment. They peddle the myth that unemployment is caused by individual character flaws inherent within the jobless. Recently I came across a fund raising letter from the Salvation Army referring to their clients with the oxymoronic claim: "We don't judge them even when its self inflicted." I perceive such organisations as being more concerned with empire building than assisting lower socio-economic groups.

For the record, there has been one Christian job agency that our family and many other jobless have found to be consistently helpful and responsive to our needs. This has been the Wesley Employment Service. But you know what? The Rudd government eliminated them from taxpayer funding in their job network restructure eliminated them from taxpayer funding. Interestingly, many church providers have called for an independent review of the process for allocating employment services contracts. Frank Quinlan head of Catholic Social Services commenting on their loss of contracts claims: "These agencies have been successfully providing government services for more than a decade, but are still not treated as partners"[2].

This begs the question: “Why don't the unemployed share in the decision-making process and why aren't they the ones treated as partners rather than the churches? Whatever happened to the separation of power between church and state? On what grounds do these agencies claim to 'have been successfully providing government services'? This is certainly not the view of the long-term unemployed or any independent evaluation that I know of. Why is there no evidence-based assessment or costs/benefit analysis of the job services sector and why is there a total lack of accountability to their unemployed clients? Perhaps because its not about “helping” the unemployed but about exploitation, punishment, surveillance and social control of the underclass victims of structural changes in our economy.

Unable to write well because I have RSI of the wrist and a bad back I contacted several job agencies asking if they would help me to write letters to potential employers. I was told that they would only teach me how to write a letter (which I already knew how to do) and “supervise” my efforts to find work but “we won't do your hack work for you” (response from the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service). When I rang the Centrelink help line to inform them that the help I was receiving through the Welfare to Work program was unhelpful I was told: “We'll decide what's good for you not you!”

To even the casual observer it seems that taxpayers are ploughing billions of dollars into the job service sector to create a few millionaires rather than millions of jobs for the many. When have the unemployed ever been consulted about what they want or which job service they perceive is successful or not? Herein lies the problem – tax payer funds that are supposed to help the unemployed obtain work are treated as booty by the winning job service agencies. It becomes less about service to the unemployed and more about serving powerful vested interests.

Church-based agencies claim the non-government sector is more responsive to the needs of the community and that many of the service roles of government should be subcontracted to them and paid for by the taxpayer. They think they know what's best for the unemployed without even talking to us, call for devolution of power from the public service and use buzzwords like 'government silos'. The problem with all this from the perspective of unemployed people is: we would prefer that the people trying to control our lives are at least elected, accountable to unemployed stakeholders and not protected from client scrutiny by commercial confidentiality provisions.

5. Commodification of the Unemployed

Conditions are ripe for exploitation when the marginalised and vulnerable are placed under the jurisdiction of corporate entities that lack accountability or public scrutiny and governed by profit making business incentives. The Australian public is aware of foreign students taking to the streets en mass to protest dodgy educators and sham training practices. Far less visible though is the futile treadmill of shoddy 'welfare-to-work' training imposed on disadvantaged Australians courtesy of the taxpayer. The Howard government has funded and outsourced an existential dilemma defined by their job network business model as: 'jobseeker unable to exit the continuum '. Older lower socio-economic women trapped in this endless merry-go-round are showing symptoms of depression and emotional trauma which are now being diagnosed by some psychologists as an 'adjustment disorder'. One could also call it extreme capitalism.

The welfare budget is drained by the job service sector as welfare dollars are redirected into corporation coffers and church organisations yet New Start recipients haven't had a decent pay rise in a decade. Even the Prime Minister’s wife, Therese Rein, was able to sell her job agency for a cool $40 million but besides churning paper and lives what do job service businesses really do besides training hapless unemployed to beg for jobs that don’t exist? Through government patronage billions of public dollars are being siphoned out of the welfare budget to make private millionaires. The only criticism made by the parliamentary opposition when it was revealed the fortune Ms Rein made out of her job agency business was to chide the Labor Party for not being more appreciative of the system they introduced that has proven so efficient in using public money to create private wealth for the favoured few.

Yet unlike those patronised by government largess the conditions under which long term unemployed must survive are onerous and insecure: “Centrelink demands people look for work where none exists, recipients have to keep looking month after month, year in, year out. They don't get four weeks annual leave from jobseeking. If they fail to meet their obligations they are harshly penalised losing income for up to 8 weeks. Welfare recipients are also the most highly taxed - with effective marginal tax rates between 50-70% crippling part time workers.”[3]

My partner a part-time teacher, lecturer and artist, whilst temporarily out of work was informed by an employee of Employment Plus that they “owned” him. This was referring to the fact that as he had been registered with them for more than 6 months he could no longer elect to change to another job agency. Many unemployed find that this agency is reasonably helpful until the first six months has elapsed and then staff adopt a punitive approach. I know several former Employment Plus clients who describe being treated shabbily and kept too busy with sham job training to actually look for work. They report obtaining work solely through their own individual efforts and in spite of the job agency rather than because of them.

6. Jobs for the Boys

My impression is that so-called intensive assistance for long-term unemployed at Employment Plus has been provided by disinterested 'gap year' kids filling in time until eligible for independent study allowance at university. The turnover was high with mainly 18 to 20 year old staff lasting about a year on average. Their expertise in providing intensive assistance was less than obvious as they seemed to be merely going through the motions in an apathetic manner. The newly appointed staff would often impose compulsory appointments for the unemployed to attend while they cursorily flipped through their file for the purported purpose of familiarising themselves with their clients.

If the government was truly interested in tackling the current bias against employing mature age workers it could start by ensuring an affirmative action recruitment policy in the taxpayer funded Jobs Services Australia previously known as Job Network. For example vacancies for jobs providing intensive assistance to mature age jobless could be filled by older unemployed office workers and teachers instead of reinforcing existing age discrimination in the wider workforce. Older job seekers tend to feel more comfortable being supervised by case workers with some maturity and life experience rather than recent school leavers anyway.

Unfortunately because the government has subcontracted this work to non government agencies it has washed its hands of the responsibility to encourage equal opportunity in this sector. Our society is devaluing a whole generation of working-class people by throwing them on to the scrap heap well before their use-by date. It is also harder to regulate the private sector to ensure merit based employment even though they are taxpayer funded.

Earlier this year Frank Quinlan, indicated the level of politicisation inside the employment services sector. This was in response to former Minister for Employment Participation Brendan O'Connor's comments that people who had lost their jobs at Centacare job agency because of government restructuring “should be able to find employment with companies that were awarded contracts.” Quinlan described this as "like suggesting Liberal Party staffers who lost their jobs after the election could have taken on new jobs with the Labor Party." [4]

7. Intensive Assistance

As well as inferior service many unemployed have experienced a culture of exploitation and abuse in the job service sector. My partner for example, while receiving intensive assistance at Employment Plus, was never able to access the financial assistance for travel and commercial training from them that he was supposed to receive. Accessing benefits that one is eligible for from job seeker accounts was something of a black art for Employment Plus clients. There was a futile run around and stalling that lasted for weeks whenever my partner requested his legitimate entitlements. Yet there was no shortage of shoddy in-house training that was compulsory. For this, if clients were more than 10 minutes late they would be forced to reschedule and ran the risk of being breached or losing their benefits. Rather than chance the unreliable bus service many clients would come by car then faced the challenge of finding a car park in time on busy Hunter Street. There were only half or one hour parking spots available in the vicinity and clients would face hefty parking fines if there were any unexpected delays returning from the agency. After receiving one such fine that nearly destroyed our family's depleted budget I found it difficult to “thank God for the Salvos” and we certainly don't accept that this so-called charity is “helping” the poor. If I could rewrite their annual Salvation Army Red Shield Appeal advertising campaign it would say:

' Give generously to our winter appeal for EQUALITY ... make charity history! '

The problem I have with many charities is that they create an inaccurate perception among the general public that they are helping all disadvantaged families when in fact only a fraction are cherry picked to receive material assistance. This makes life worse for the majority of low income families by masking the full extent of unaddressed hardship and disadvantage within the community. By creating the false impression that if the public donates to these charities then the problems of unemployed families will be solved with no need for government measures to address social disadvantage and job creation, they mainly help themselves to bigger budgets and empire building. There is this whole myth created about deserving and undeserving poor which is socially regressive when used in the context of unemployment and underemployment.

8. The Road to Privatisation of Social Services

The dysfunction within the whole system of employment services is not just a matter of teething problems or bedding down. Due to the revolving door nature of my own employment, in between periods of paid work there has been child raising and caring for a mother with dementia, I have watched the system of dealing with unemployed people go from bad to worse in this country. 15 years ago the government had Skill Share, a precursor of Job Network. During a temporary period that I was registered as unemployed I was supposed to receive help with writing and editing my resume in order to find employment through Skill Share. Because at that time very few low income earners had word processors or computers it was a necessary service. Yet when I tried to legitimately access help at Newcastle Skill Share to update my CV by adding three new entries, a staff member told me I would first have to do a word processing course at their centre. This supposed course held in a crowded classroom took me 20 minutes to get some instruction for the first line and then another 20 minutes before my turn came around again for 30 seconds of help for the second-line. When I got stuck at the third line I got frustrated with all the time it was taking to receive help and gave up. Imagine how someone suffering poor concentration or low self-esteem would cope with this kind of substandard course particularly if it was compulsory. When I expressed my dissatisfaction with not receiving appropriate assistance to a supervisor at Newcastle Skill Share, I was told that their policies had changed. They no longer provided help in updating unemployed people’s resumes unless they first completed their course. The supervisor informed me this decision had come from the management committee yet they wouldn't allow my request that unemployed stakeholders be represented on this committee. I further asked to see where the budget they received from the government to assist unemployed people was being allocated and was told that unemployed people were not privy to this information. I expressed concern that in the interest of transparency, full disclosure of these pertinent details should be readily available to the unemployed. The supervisor seemed quite defensive and evasive dismissing my requests without explanation.

Such secrecy has thrived today protected by commercial confidentiality provisions in taxpayer funded private job agencies. These prevent the unemployed from exercising the Freedom of Information rights they had under earlier government departments such as the Commonwealth Employment Service before it was outsourced to the private sector. Witnessing this incident at Skill Share was an embarrassed-looking employee who I recognised as a senior member of a progressive party that claimed to promote social justice. Perhaps because she was worried about losing her job, she acquiesced while an unemployed person's rights were being trampled on. Tellingly within months of this incident a major conflict of interest at Charlestown Skill Share was uncovered by the media in which the manager without calling for tenders and at taxpayers expense, was profiting from selling his old business computers back to Skill Share at a huge mark up beyond the market value. Ironically, when the government dismantled Skill Share to make way for a new system there was a flurry of letters and statements to the press claiming all the wonderful outcomes Skill Share had achieved for unemployed people and how efficient they were in training unemployed people with cost-effective courses. None of this praise seemed to come from unemployed people but was mainly from those with their own self-serving agenda falsely claiming to speak on behalf of the unemployed.

9. Breaking the Silence
This scenario seemed to repeat itself in March of this year when Job Network was being restructured into Job Services Australia by the new incoming Federal government. Australian Greens senator Rachel Siewart and Catholic social services head Father Frank Quinlan both praised the job services sector in the media[5] but there was little sign they had consulted the long-term unemployed. Frank Quinlan was quoted in the media as asking: “Why would the unemployed want Job Network to close at a time like this?” As an unemployed person I would have liked to tell him exactly why, based on my own family's experience, but when I tracked down his phone number I found it a challenge to get past his efficient secretary. It would have been nice if people in such positions enabled feedback directly from the people they claim to speak for. Greens Senator Rachel Siewert asserts that: “The government … will be directly sending hundreds, if not thousands, of people into unemployment when they take the services (Job Network) away from these community organisations” But in siding with the job service lobby I believe she is not acting in the interests of unemployed people and has not addressed our needs. Paying middle class people to supervise and interfere with the lives of working class Australians is not a viable Greens employment strategy and will ultimately lead to social imbalance and instability. Many long term unemployed take issue with her support for Job Network and business as usual in their treatment of the unemployed. In fact long term unemployed people have experienced an adversarial relationship with job service providers. Indeed a letter to Sydney Morning Herald last year from a Job Network employee who described her role as "helping" the unemployed then went on to publicly villify her clients as "bludgers and scroungers". Yet instead of listening to the jobless the Greens seem to be supporting unfounded claims that job service providers "for the last 20 years have … delivered high quality services with high levels of outcomes" when the evidence from the unemployed suggests otherwise. The Greens seem to advocate jobs supervising and monitoring the lives of unemployed people as somehow a laudable Greens employment strategy. When I contacted Senator Bob Brown to ask why they had taken this position he never wrote back but one of his staffers told me by phone that “ it just depends on who makes the most volume”. This makes it hard for the unemployed to be heard as they are often afraid to speak out publicly for fear they will suffer payback or breaching from the job service sector. Is this Greens policy social justice or political pragmatism?

10. Work for the Dole - The Illegitimacy of Volunteer Work

Much volunteer work these days is compulsory and is used as a way of warehousing the unemployed where they are forced to sit around all day doing nothing. Often their supervisors seem to wipe their hands of any duty of care as far as mental health goes even if they tick the boxes when it comes to other OH & S issues.

In schemes such as Wallsend Work for the Dole at Newcastle Community Art Centre (NCAC) I have witnessed the same doors painted and repainted 3 or 4 times in 6 weeks and scores of participants sitting around for hours bored and miserable with no meaningful work to do. When the NCAC board requested Wallsend Work for the Dole organisers provide meaningful work for all their participants they explained that they only have enough work and supervision for limited numbers but that Centrelink keeps sending far more than they can use in spite of repeated requests.

Ironically some of these work-for-the-dole participants are artists on income support who have been forced out of meaningful work in their studios to repaint doors over and over again that didn't need repainting in the first place. Yet unemployed and underemployed people on welfare assistance who willingly volunteer many useful hours to organisations such as the Wilderness Society, Greenpeace and other environment groups find it doesn't count towards their mutual obligation requirements because the selection of approved volunteer organisations is heavily politicised.


These are the impressions I’ve gained since coming into the Centrelink and job services system ready and willing to participate in the economy yet being denied one’s rightful place. How can the unemployed still be part of Australia while separated from the rest of society by a system of economic apartheid? I’m sitting at the banquet with an empty plate, should I call myself a diner? Through direct experience and observation I’ve witnessed the commodification of the unemployed who are batch processed by a dysfunctional and brutalizing system into second-class citizens. The unemployed are brushed under the carpet of social conscience, denied an authentic voice and made invisible to the wider community while simultaneously subject to an all-encompassing controlling scrutiny, surveillance and coercive supervision by the employment services sector.

In my opinion it is morally bankrupt for the churches to claim that unemployed people need their moral intervention. If the churches are so concerned about morality then they could start by allowing justice for all clergy abuse survivors and heal the train wreck of broken lives they caused. Only a Royal Commission or parliamentary inquiry is ever going to reveal the truth about what’s been happening to survivors of unemployment and clergy abuse. When someone has meaningful work then s/he is granted status and respect in the community and gains pride and confidence. It is more important to change the priorities of society to guarantee full employment and respect for all citizens rather than focusing on changing the unemployed individual because of contrived character flaws. From where I stand job service agencies are just parasites feeding off the misery of others.

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 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.

If we really want to solve unemployment then a 30 hour week and banning overtime would be a good step as would expanding the public service to absorb those unable to find a private employer. This could be paid for by imposing greater government levies on the resources sector to pay its way for continuing to exploit Australia's minerals and energy. Anti-villification laws should be immediately introduced to ban words such as "dole bludger" and “job snobs” that devalue and slander the unemployed and underemployed. It is also time to challenge the stereotypes of what constitutes real work in the post-industrial age.

Long-term jobseekers question why our country's wealth isn't used to invest in equality, utilising and valuing the talents of all citizens to create a society based on cooperation rather than competition. What if we used our common wealth to create millions of jobs instead of a few millionaires? Australia has the resources to create whatever society it wants to if there is political will. Imagine if we used Australia's bountiful resources to create sustainable industries and full employment instead of artificial scarcity and environmental catastrophe.

All photographs and text copyright Bernadette Smith

[1] 17/5/08 Sydney Morning Herald pg 30 'A Whiff of Compassion' by Adele Horin

[2] http://www.cathnews.com/article.aspx?aeid=12790 'Job service changes "madness": Quinlan' April 03, 2009

[3] anonymous comment on ABC TV internet forum on unemployment

[4] http://www.cathnews.com/article.aspx?aeid=12790 3/4/09


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