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Turnbull's Work for the Dole reforms a win for everyone except the unemployed

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Social justice activist Eleanor Green documents the depressing experiences of three Work for the Dole participants.

THE WORK for the Dole program was one of the major failures of the Abbott/Turnbull government.

Core problems with it included safety concerns surrounding the absence of worker’s insurance, the prevalence of meaningless busywork that does not give workers new skills or improve their chances of obtaining a job, and the negative emotional impact of being forced to work without pay.

The government has announced that work for the dole will be reformed. However, the proposed reforms provide little improvement

The government plans to implement a "youth internship" program which sees young people being paid $4-6 per hour, well below the minimum wage. The program could be abused by businesses looking for cheap labour, and if the businesses involved are pre-existing ones, then the influx of cheap workers could also threaten adequately paid jobs and dismantle the minimum wage.

Like Work for the Dole, this will most likely have negative effects on young people's wellbeing, by sending the message that their work and talents are worth less than that of others, in particular their parents’ generation. The Turnbull Government seems determined to break the natural idealism, imagination and the possibility of change that young people bring to the work-force. Not to mention, age-discrimination should be something we are working to reduce, not promote.

Even more shocking is the fact that the Turnbull Government plans to retain the Community Development Plan, which is an equivalent to Work for the Dole in regional areas, and includes approximately 80 per cent Indigenous Australians.

Forcing indigenous people to work without pay, while others in similar programs will receive a wage is patently discriminatory. It is the latest in a series of failed programs that have contributed to the oppression and systemic abuse of Indigenous Australians.  These have included the Stolen Generations, the Northern Territory intervention, ongoing Aboriginal deaths in custody, income restrictions, Indigenous Community Closures, and the destruction of land and forced removal of Indigenous people for mining projects.

Work for the Dole, the Community Development Program and the youth internship program are Band-Aid approaches that hurt participants more than they help.

The Turnbull Government needs to take serious measures toward job creation. The reluctance of organizations to take on new workers, which both results from and contributes to economic stagnation, needs to be addressed. This was exacerbated, if not created, by the Abbott government, which invented a false "debt crisis" as part of its election campaign, to justify major cuts to public services.

In fact our national debt at the time was much lower than many other developed countries, including the USA, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and remains so. Our national debt is four times lower than that of the USA.

The government has, in fact, been in debt to a far greater extent than in present times, for most of the 20th Century. This continued until economic growth from the 1960s onward reduced public debt. Private debt has increased far more rapidly, making people reticent to spend money. The Turnbull Government is capable of increasing spending in order to fulfill its promise of job creation.

The best way to create jobs without lowering the minimum wage is to put more money in the hands of citizens and small businesses, and to invest in innovations that will benefit society.  

Grants and subsidies would achieve this, as would reducing taxes for everyday Australians and removing loopholes that allow corporate tax avoidance (so basically the opposite of what the Turnbull Government is doing). Tax reform is important, as currently low income earners pay a larger proportion of their income in tax, if GST is included, than 54 millionaires and 675 corporations who pay no tax whatsoever.

The interviews below document the experiences of three Work For The Dole participants, who are members of the Anti-Poverty Network:

What organisation is hosting your work?

J: A new "internet radio station", run on Work for the Dole labour called AIRS FM.

C: The last site I was on was the West Croydon Kilkenny ­RSL, which I finished in June 2016.

B: My current site is a Scout Hall in Taperoo, on Strathfield Terrace.

How easy do you find it to schedule job interviews and job searching around your Work for the Dole hours?

J: Not at all easy. It is two full days less time that I could be looking for work, and I usually  require a day of recovery after, which means I end up looking for work less often.

C: Not as easy as it used to be actually. If I were off Work for the Dole for an interview or whatever valid reason, instead of dealing with the host or supervisor, as most circumstances allow, I had to ring my job agency, Jobs Statewide.

B: I’m in the fortunate position to know that job interviews take precedence over the other Work for the Dole obligations. However, when doing work for the dole I have two weights - first the pains and strains of living in poverty, having to juggle needs. And second the added expenses of working that are not even nearly made up by the extra 20 bucks a fortnight.

Do you have any safety concerns with your placement?

J: The building is very old, and I sometimes think it is not safe to work in, as the lifts often break down. I have a back problem, which is exacerbated by sitting in a chair all day. I have breaks, but it is still a problem.

C: Yes, absolutely. As far as protective equipment was concerned, I had to wait for it to be approved, which took a few weeks, and I was the only one to wing a pair of workpants. Our supervisor, while having a trades background, had no qualms about wearing shorts and runners. Other than the hi-vis and steel caps he didn't care what anyone else wore.

B: My current site’s the first Work for the Dole safety induction I’ve participated in where it was treated as more than some inane protocol that needs to be done. There was no assumption of any prior knowledge and the supervisor, Johnny, told me what avenues could be followed if he or another supervisor tried to make me do something I felt was unsafe.

One of the reasons I expect that Johnny had no problem making participants aware of the avenues of complaint that could potentially be used to nail him over safety, is that Johnny simply won’t be nailed over safety. The man borders on the good side of pedantic when it comes to equipment safety and maintenance. He demonstrates as well as explains and will usually repeat the key points at least once. He also watches for signs of acknowledgment and explains at each stage why things are done the way they are done.

How do you feel you are treated in your workplace?

J: I do not feel like I am treated with respect by the supervisors. On one of the first days there, I had a disagreement with the main supervisor, because I knew something job related that he didn’t, and he wouldn’t believe me (he was later proven wrong). He uses manipulation to get people to work, although it is largely unsuccessful. He does not respect personal space, and told us we cannot talk about politics.

C: That was more a function of which supervisor was concerned. The first supervisor, Shane, got given the sack six weeks out from the end. Under Shane, I was under-utilized, as was anyone else who had prior experience, because of his own indifference. Whitney, his replacement, on the other hand leveraged everyone's experience to the betterment of the project.

B: There's a general dichotomy of supervisor behaviour that runs between "Stoner who wants to be your best friend" and "Authoritarian". There are pitfalls at both extremes and as usual best practice falls between the two.

Johnny is an example of one of these people. Johnny manages to elicit enough respect and make sure everyone acts safely, without putting participants in undue danger of breaching like some other supervisors, by frankly being condescending.Johnny makes a point of passing on any positive feedback. I’ve been made aware they want to throw a "thank you" thing on the last day for the participants.

That’s really sweet, helps the thing “feel” like volunteerism rather than some shit we are forced to do. I’ve been given the impression that the hosts are giving the supervisor a decent amount of leeway as far as projects go both in terms of demand and time frame. This has been a boon for projects going smoothly and without fickle/needless/frustrating changes.

How did doing Work for the Dole make you feel?

J: Worthless, because I am not paid a fair wage for my work. It makes me feel helpless and trapped, because I have to get medical certificates every time I am not well enough to go, which has been many times since the start of my placement. I found a different volunteering activity that I would have preferred to do because it would have given me new skills and experience relevant to the work I want to do in the future, but the job agency would not let me change to volunteer anywhere that wasn’t one of their approved Work for the Dole placements.

C: To be honest, I've been pretty indifferent to it. The project itself was relatively cushy with early knock-offs more often than not, and not a whole lot of work to be done overall. Was it a waste of my time? Absolutely. Honestly, they got more out of my skills than I got skills out of them. I was the only one who could actually do a half decent job of buffing the dance floor. If you do something well, don't do it for free. They got their dancefloor mopped and buffed every week by someone who used to do that as a cleaner.

B: The reason I do Work for the Dole is because the hours have slowed down a great deal at my real job. I feel a creeping sense of fear and frustration that my actual job is being replaced by Work for the Dole. Additionally, I feel disgust that I’m involved in this program that sees everybody profit off of the unemployed. Everybody wins from this program except for the unemployed people at the bottom of the food chain.

Do you find this work useful, either to you, the organisation or the community?

J: No. It is a radio station being started entirely with Work for the Dole labour. I doubt its capacity be successful as we do not have the proper equipment, technology, or internet to get much done. Most people there do not do any work, or do as little as possible. It does not inspire confidence or pride in what we are doing. 

C: The work performed was of value to the host. If it actually serves the community, good. But when are the public at large going to look at this now painted fence? ANZAC day, possibly while looking out from the bar. On a regular basis it only served the RSL and co-located bowls club.

B: The work is useful to me only in that I can do networking of behalf of the Anti-Poverty Network. Besides that, learning "Weekend Warrior" methods of painting and restoration doesn’t help me find work or enhance my personal life. I would say the work helps the host, and perhaps even the community.

Do you think employers will recognise this as useful work experience?

J: I will not be putting it on my resume. If employers were simply to google the organisation, they would realise it is a Work for the Dole placement, and did not exist as a functioning business prior to Work for the Dole.

C: Honestly, no. Years ago on a project we were told not to say that we had done Work for the Dole, but had done six months "in the trade industry", and evade giving any real detail. You might be able to score a reference out of it but that’s questionable with Work For The Dole placements.

B: The experience may help a little, but employers and businesses, even in painting and restoration use very different methods and equipment when compared to a Work for the Dole site.

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