A trip to the job agency: What life is really like for the unemployed

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Despite talk of "jobs and growth", unemployment is not a crisis for the government and job agencies do not exist to help the unemployed find work, says Pas Forgione.

JOB AGENCIES are the government-funded organisations tasked with helping unemployed people find work.

There is growing evidence suggesting this “help” consists of the following:

  • Harassing and bullying job-seekers;
  • Incorrectly cutting or suspending job-seekers' payments;
  • Refusing to recognise job-seekers' medical documentation and physical and mental health issues;
  • Refusing to allow job-seekers to reschedule their appointments, even when they have a "reasonable excuse" for being unable to attend;
  • Incorrectly forcing job-seekers to participate in Work For The Dole; and
  • Consistently failing to inform unemployed people of their rights.

Community organisations like the Australian Unemployed Workers' Union (AUWU) and Anti-Poverty Network SA have documented numerous cases of inappropriate and incorrect conduct from job agencies towards their clients, advocating for unemployed people who have experienced wrongful treatment.

Much of this treatment is documented by the AUWU in its 'National Advocacy Hotline Report', released late last month.

The problems are so widespread that they have become the stuff of cliché. It is a crisis.

But we should be clear about what kind of crisis this is. It is a crisis, not for the government, who have no sympathy for the unemployed, and not for the job agencies, who have done well from the $3 billion-per-year industry. It is a crisis for job-seekers — those having to navigate this complex, punishing and stressful system.

And we need to remember that it is meant to be this way: this is not accidental. Of course, widespread violations of job-seekers' rights are serious issues that must be addressed by governments who fund – and therefore must properly regulate and monitor – job agencies.

But the system would be an unfair and harsh one, even if all the rules were followed.

That is because ultimately, the role of the job agencies is not to help unemployed people find work. After all, there are 19 job-seekers for every job — including the unemployed, the underemployed and the "hidden unemployed". What, really, can job agencies do about that pivotal fact? Nothing, more or less.

Job agencies do not exist to address an under-supply of jobs: only the government itself could do anything about that.

The role of job agencies is to put unemployed people through plenty of frustration and stress, to create as many hoops and hurdles to jump through and over as possible.

Hence the demoralising, endless search for non-existent jobs or unsuitable jobs, simply to make up the numbers. Hence the endless appointments, the flimsy, demeaning courses. "Keep the unemployed busy", is the motto. 

Why? So that they will desperately compete for the limited number of vacancies in the labour market. So that they accept whatever work comes along, regardless of how poorly-paid, unsafe, unpleasant and insecure it is.

Like the outrageously low rate of Newstart Allowance — $263, or $163 below the poverty-line and which has not been raised in real terms for 22 years. The goal of job agencies is to make the experience of unemployment an uncomfortable and undesirable one, to weed out so-called “job snobs” and “dole bludgers”.

When we understand this, stories of incorrect, disrespectful, and sometimes outright hostile treatment, make much more sense.

The following personal testimony, from Eileen Darley, is a vivid example of this sort of treatment.

This is Eileen's account of her recent visit to a job agency in Adelaide's north-western suburbs:

Today's trip to the job agency yields these vignettes of the gross indignity and punitive measures handed out to unemployed workers.

An Aboriginal family, three kids in prams, are outside the door. The two men enter with me and put a couple of forms on the desk. 

The receptionist picks them up and points at them.

"You remember what happens if you don't turn up to these appointments ... we'll get your payments stopped."

They don't answer her, just quietly turn and leave.

The woman beside me sits and waits for her case manager to call her name.

She says:

"I'm 64. I had long-time casual employment at TAFE teaching ESL to new migrants. They scrapped all the funding for casuals, I lost my job and the full-time teachers now have to cover the work we used to do."

She starts to cry as she tells me the job agency has made her do some mickey-mouse Certifcate III course, that at first she thought might be useful but now can't bear the thought of returning to.

She says:

"I'm more qualified to deliver it than those teaching me."

I offer pathetically as she heads off to argue her case:

"Good luck."

My turn.

The child-woman they have assigned to me (the third case manager I've had in as many months) tells me: 

"You haven't been looking for work outside of what you want to do — we're increasing the amount of jobs you have to apply for. You'll be reaching your Work For The Dole phase soon."

"But I'm 54."

"Doesn't matter — your requirements will change."

"I have a child at primary school."

'You've already had a reduction in requirements for that.

"I haven't had a payment for eight fortnights ... I thought it was supposed to be a mutual obligation."

"You don't seem to understand the meaning of mutual." 

"You're less than half my age."

She blushes. My "case-manager” heads off to retrieve my new "job plan" and I overhear the conversation in the booth next door. As my unemployed compadre gets quieter his case-manager gets louder.

Says the unfortunate interviewee:

"Surely I have a say in it. I really don't like the way you're talking to me."

"You're unemployed, I've told you before, you have to do what we say ... and I don't believe for a second you're looking for work."

It goes on like this for some time till the manager goes away to get the interminable job plan.

I poke my head around and say,

"You're a 'client.' "

That's the cover they use for this ritual humiliation.

"Tell him you're a client and you want him to do his job."

"Are you a client?"


'Did you hear the way he talked to me?"

"I did, brother, I heard every word."

Pas Forgione is the coordinator of Anti-Poverty Network SA. You can follow Pas on Twitter at @PasForg.

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