Work for the Dole barely working (Meme via Editor | @theREPORTRS)

Social justice activist, Jade Manson, drills down into the Coalition's new PaTH program and warns against adopting another heavy-handed approach to unemployment instead of focussing on job creation.

THERE HAS been continued uncertainty over whether the much criticized Work for the Dole program will continue to go ahead.

Work for the Dole currently requires people who have been unemployed for over 6 months to participate in “mandatory volunteering” in community services. It has a poor track record when it comes to achieving positive outcomes for jobseekers.

Work for the Dole commonly involves job seekers undertaking manual labour, working in op shops or churches. The business is given a government grant of approximately $1000 for every participant. This is intended to cover materials,­­ administration costs, wages for supervisors, and compensation for taking on an unemployed person (despite the fact they are already receiving free labour).

The program has raised many safety concerns, given that Work for the Dole does not meet the same Occupational Health and Safety Standards that Australian workplaces are held to by law. In April this year, 18 year old Josh Park-Fing was killed at a Work for the Dole site after falling from a trailer and sustaining a fatal head injury. 

In February, Mick Smart, a 30 year old man, fell and injured his back at a Work for the Dole site. He was denied WorkCover compensation because he was not technically “employed” by the organization.

If Work for the Dole continues, injuries which are not eligible for compensation under the scheme, may become increasingly common. A common feature of Work for the Dole contracts requires participants to sign a waiver freeing the host organisation from responsibility for the costs of medical care due to injuries. According to the Anti-Poverty Network, one such contract states that the signatory must agree to tell emergency services staff that they are not employed by the host organization and that they take full responsibility for any medical costs incurred while on Work for the Dole.

Reports from researchers have found that Work for the Dole is a rigid program that doesn’t accommodate variation in circumstances. It has the effect of building resentment in participants and creating stigma around volunteering. Work for the Dole participants were found to be no more (and in some cases less) likely to find work than other Centrelink clients (Borland and Tseng, 2015; Carson and colleagues, 2003; Social Research Centre, 2015).  Work for the Dole not only harms job seekers but as a result of this, it taints the reputation of businesses and charities that participate in the program.

The Australian reported on 16 December 2015 that the government was walking away from the Work for the Dole program in its current form and that Work for the Dole would, in future, be reserved for those under 25. However, this change has yet to materialize.

There has been considerable indecision surrounding the program and a lack of public statements by government ministers. It appears that the government prefers silence over owning up to its failure.

Work for the Dole was doomed to be ineffective in helping people find paid employment, as it does nothing to change the economic circumstances that have led to the current job shortage. If “creating jobs” means paying people for their labour, Work for the Dole achieves the opposite. There are always “jobs” to be done in a functioning society. There is, however, a current lack of funds or incentive for people to be paid for doing these jobs.

Instead of figuring out how to incentivize useful work, the government seems intent on putting unemployed people into unpaid work and creating jobs that don’t actually need to exist at all. Many Work for the Dole tasks are unnecessary busy-work, as organizations simply take on participants due to the financial reward. This results in there being zero benefit to job seekers or the community.

The new PaTH program has been proposed in the 2016-2017 budget as a new way of dealing with “youth unemployment”. This program will provide businesses with a $1,000 payment for taking on young interns. Placements are to involve between 15 and 25 hours of work per week, for 12 weeks, and the interns are provided with $100 per week extra payment from Centrelink. If an intern is hired following the placement, the business receives a further $6,500 payment.  

However, compared to ongoing wages for an employee, this is a small sum of money. The proposed pay rate for interns is well below the minimum wage (ranging between $4 and $6.5 per hour), and would leave them continuing to live below the poverty line. As low-skilled jobs are more labour intensive, repetitive and generally less enjoyable than high-skilled and more varied jobs, people in these roles deserve to receive a minimum wage.

The incentive to hire people following their internship is not sufficient in times of financial hardship, when instead businesses will find it more profitable to make use of internships for cheap labour. The program could lead to people being taken on only for a short period during busy times, and then not re-hired.

This looks bad for the person undertaking the internship, despite the fact that the company may have never intended to hire them.

Low-skilled labour does not take long to learn, and therefore, internships in these types of jobs are often not necessary. Instead they would be used as a “try before you buy” approach, which raises ethical problems, such as interns not being hired for superficial reasons.

The program includes an “employability skills training”, which attempts to teach skills such as punctuality, presentation and team-work. This essentially blames people who are unemployed due to a lack of jobs, suggesting they are “unemployable”.

It has also been raised that, like Work for the Dole, the program may involve compulsory components, which would likely lead to similarly poor outcomes.

Due to the fact that small businesses are currently struggling, there is insufficient incentive to hire new employees. Tax cuts for small businesses are planned for the 2016-2017 budget, but these cuts are no higher than cuts for larger corporations. The proposed budget includes a continuation of cuts to social services in health and education, and axing of community sector jobs.

Essentially it is a continuation of the privatization agenda, and will lead to an increase in underpaid, unstable employment which may or may not contribute to society, while important jobs such as those of Centrelink workers and the Australian Tax Office continue to be cut.

The phrase “mutual obligation” gets thrown around as justification for measures such as Work for the Dole. It is used to make it seem reasonable to force Centrelink recipients to comply with the government and job agencies demands, in order to keep their welfare payment.

It never seems to extend to the government’s obligation to make employment available. The fact that the obvious alternative is homelessness and starvation is generally left unmentioned. 

The current government’s rationale seems to be that if someone is dependent on welfare for their livelihood then they are henceforth under the government’s control. They have no protection against changes to policy.

It’s time we recognize that this government does not know how to “fix” the current state of the economy, and that their heavy-handed approach to unemployment and poverty is counter-productive. The government should be working for the people and creating real jobs, instead of forcing people to work for less than a third of the minimum wage.

With the election coming up in July, we should be asking what serious measures will be taken to address unemployment and the continual rights violations of the unemployed.  

You can follow Jade on Twitter @JadeAlanaM.

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