The death of Josh Park-Fing highlights the blatant exploitation of unemployed people, as well as the absence of human rights and legal recourse on the Coalition Government's Work for the Dole scheme, writes Jade Manson.
Those charged with breaching the Work Health and Safety Act over Josh's death are the Royal Agricultural Society of Queensland (RASQ), who run the Toowoomba Royal Show and NEATO and Work for the Dole project coordinator, Adrian Strachan. The absence of one guilty party stands out in this case: the Australian Government. Josh would not have been at the Showgrounds in the first place if he had not been forced to work there by the Government.
The RASQ is facing the majority of the charges, with a maximum penalty of a $3 million fine, for failing to implement adequate systems to prevent workers riding on the trailer — including ensuring workers were adequately supervised, and maintaining the tractor in accordance with its duty to provide plant without risks to health and safety.
NEATO is being hit with a maximum penalty of a $500,000 fine for failing to provide adequate supervision when Work for the Dole supervisors were absent from their respective workplaces. Adrian Strachan is charged with a maximum fine of $50,000 for failing to comply with his duty as a worker.
Employment services provider NEATO received a much smaller charge than the RASQ, despite being responsible for Josh’s wellbeing. Having placed him in the role, they were technically his employer, rather than the RASQ.
As the initiator of the Work for the Dole program, the Federal Government is responsible for ensuring workplace health and safety standards are maintained at Work for the Dole sites. On this matter, they have been exceedingly negligent. There are no workplace health and safety laws that apply to the Work for the Dole program whatsoever, so it is at the discretion of the site whether and to what extent safety regulations are implemented.
Any injuries sustained at Work for the Dole sites are not eligible for WorkCover compensation. The Government has capped compensation for deaths at Work for the Dole sites at $250,000, whereas for workers covered by workers' compensation law, the payout can be up to $750 000. To the Government, the lives of people on Work for the Dole are worth less than the lives of paid workers.
Josh’s family resorted to setting up an online fundraising page to pay for his funeral. If there is a payout from the defendants in the case of Josh’s death, it will not go to his family, but to the Government. The injustice of this is that the organisation most responsible for Josh’s death will receive the payout from the case, while it appears on the surface as though his family has received a fair outcome.
The privatisation of welfare services means that the Government can pay workers less for carrying out the same roles and also evade responsibility for the wellbeing of welfare recipients, which in Josh’s case has had fatal consequences. Government employees are held to a higher standard due to legislation in the Australian Public Service Act (APSA) that ensures the Government is held accountable to its citizens and provides a standard of service delivery. The APSA values require employees to be committed to service, ethical, respectful, accountable and impartial. In the private sector, however, there is little in the way of legislation that protects the rights of clients.
The absence of a bill of rights in Australia means that our legally enforceable rights consist only of what is clearly stated in the legislation. This makes it easier for governments to introduce programs – like Work for the Dole – that potentially harm citizens, because they slip through the cracks in our legal system. While there are laws governing workers' rights in Australia, the rights of people on Work for the Dole are limited to those specified in the contracts they are forced to sign.
People on welfare are in the difficult position of being forced to attend job service agency appointments but having no legal recourse to avoid mistreatment and abuse of their rights.
The Work for the Dole program breaches the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 23), which states:
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
However, this is not legislated in Australian law. There is an obvious need for a legal framework for protect people’s basic rights in Australia.
Approximately 30 per cent of people on Newstart are reported to have a diagnosed disability. This means that potentially 30% of Work for the Dole participants could have a disability. Being forced onto Work for the Dole puts their health at risk and further entrenches them in poverty. The lack of compensation for injuries sustained at Work for the Dole sites means that people will have to access the public healthcare system for treatment, which also puts further stress on the economy.
The Government spends about $1 billion of taxpayers' money per year on Work for the Dole and $6.8 billion on the JobActive program. There is no evidence these programs increase job-seekers’ chances of finding a job and, in fact, they may reduce their chances and have a negative impact on their mental health. If job services were defunded, this could raise enough money to increase the Newstart allowance by $50 per week. This will mean job seekers would not be living so far below the poverty line, which would improve their health and chances of finding work.
It’s time for the Federal Government to end the abuse of people on welfare. Josh died because he was unemployed at 18 and forced into Work for the Dole. More people will be unemployed in the future as many of our jobs will become automated. The Government needs to make sure there is sufficient funding for people to carry out necessary work which cannot be funded under the private system.
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