Politics

Here’s Why JobSeekers Are Striking Against Pointless Job Search Requirements

"The information being put out by the government and the department and the job agencies themselves is designed to coerce these people and make them believe they will be penalised when they won't"

unemployed workers union strike

Australia is in a recession. There are more people looking for work than ever, in a shrinking pool of jobs. The only thing taking our minds off the economic crisis is the health crisis. Huzzah!

Against this rosy backdrop, last week the government reintroduced mutual obligations for people on JobSeeker and other welfare payments — forcing them to start applying for jobs that quite simply aren’t there.

As a result of this the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union has encouraged recipients to go on strike by refusing to engage with job agencies — who they say are profiting off people’s poverty.

“The government has done everything throughout this whole crisis to protect this industry that is renowned for bullying and harming people and it’s increased the amount of money that industry is getting and at the same time giving that industry more certainty than they’ve given the people who’ve lost their jobs,” AUWU spokesperson Kristin O’Connell said.

The union is reassuring people their payments will not be cut if they strike — but they say Employment Minister Michaelia Cash is deliberately confusing people about this.

“The information being put out by the government and the department and the job agencies themselves is designed to coerce these people and make them believe they will be penalised when they won’t,” Kristin said.

The AUWU is also calling for mutual obligations to be suspended until December 31 — but the government isn’t budging, with Senator Cash last week calling the strike “bizarre”.

“The AUWU is calling for job seekers who are offered jobs to remain on income support, face financial penalties and deny themselves the opportunity of employment and income. In a time of recession you would think that AUWU would be helping Australians find work, rather than finding ways to avoid it,” she told News.com.au.

But the AUWU is having none of that. They say they’re only trying to empower people who have been bullied by job agencies, and would never tell people to turn down work that’s actually suitable for them.

“The minister really in bad faith is claiming we’ve been putting people at risk, and she knows that’s not true because we’ve had confirmation from the minister’s office … job agencies at the moment have no power to impose a penalty,” Kristen said.

What’s The Deal With The Strike?

Last Tuesday mutual obligations were reintroduced for people on on JobSeeker and other welfare payments like Youth Allowance.

As part of these obligations people are being told to engage with job providers, agree to a Job Plan, undertake up to four job searches, and attend activities if it’s safe to do so.

But currently there is no penalty if you don’t do this — a spokesperson from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment confirmed to Junkee that “no payment suspensions or financial penalties will be applied” if a job seeker doesn’t meet these requirements.

The only exception is if you’re offered work. The government can cut off your payment if you refuse to attend a job interview or refuse a suitable job without a valid reason (unless you’re in Victoria, which is exempt).

There are almost one million unemployed Aussies and around 129,000 job vacancies, ABS data shows.

Kristen said some job seekers have told them they’re up against thousands of candidates for the same low paid jobs — which begs the question, what’s the point?

“Putting aside the fact there are currently 15 people on Jobseeker or Youth Allowance for every job that is advertised on Seek right now, the jobs requirement takes a lot of time,” Kristin said.

“It requires people to apply for jobs they know they’re not qualified for, it requires people to apply for jobs that the businesses know they’re not qualified for, so it wastes a lot of time and energy for everyone.

“Most importantly, it’s incredibly demoralising. You’re forcing people to put themselves out there again and again and again for things where they don’t have any hope of a good outcome, and their lack of hope is reinforced by failure every time they don’t get that job.”

The AUWU say they’re simply encouraging people not to engage with job agencies’ pointless activities. In doing this, they say they’re shifting power back into the hands of people who have felt powerless for a long time.

What’s The Problem With Mutual Obligations?

The DESE spokesperson defended mutual obligations, saying as businesses across Australia begin reopening, new job opportunities will become available.

Keep in mind, the unemployment rate is expected to rise to nine percent by Christmas (we’re currently at 7.4 percent, which is still the highest it’s been in more than 20 years).

“The gradual return of mutual obligations will enable jobactive providers to connect job seekers to employers and ensure job seekers are aware of opportunities available for training, upskilling or employment,” the spokesperson said.

So basically, forcing people into “mutual” obligations keeps them engaged with job providers, an industry Kristen said is renowned for “bullying and harming people”.

“The reason they don’t help people find jobs is because they trap people in pointless activities that make money for job agencies and don’t help anyone find long-term secure work,” Kristen said.

She also said people they’ve engaged with have reported that without wasting time on these activities they’re able to put energy into jobs they really want, or skilling themselves so they’re ready when jobs do become available.

Why Don’t They Want To Deal With Job Agencies?

Since the 90s, the government has paid private companies and non-profits to run job centres around the country, which people on welfare are forced to engage with to keep their payments coming.

Jobactive has been our main employment services program since 2015, and the DESE said it’s been a “major success”, organising more than 1.6 million job placements.

That’s about the same number of people who were on JobSeeker in June.

Jobactive agencies are supposed to find people work, and are paid “outcome payments” for every person they find employment for.

But last year a Senate committee found that these outcome payments incentivise agencies to prioritise short-term, precarious or incompatible employment rather than long-term solutions.

This often leads to participants having to return to the jobactive program as they churn through a number of unsuitable jobs.

“What happens is you get into really insecure jobs, often jobs that are the kinds of jobs where people experience wage theft, or abuse or really unsafe conditions. Those jobs don’t last so people get cycled in and out of the system. You might have one person who is placed many times in that five year period,” Kristen said.

That’s not to mention that right now casual employees are particularly vulnerable during the pandemic — with no sick leave available there have been many reports of people going to work even if they feel sick, purely because they can’t afford to take a day off.

The AUWU also says during the pandemic jobactive agencies have received outcome payments for people who were on JobSeeker, but then moved to JobKeeper — literally money for doing nothing.

Junkee tried to confirm this with Senator Cash’s office, but did not receive an answer to that particular question.

Kristen said these outcome payments make it clear the government is not prioritising economics at all.

“They are pouring money into these agencies that achieve nothing. Meanwhile, we know that everyone who has had their rate of JobSeeker lifted above the poverty line has been doing things like spending money in their community, or eating healthily, or getting themselves ready to go out and find work that is meaningful and pays adequately,” she said.

“It’s a very spurious argument to suggest it’s more economically responsible to try and keep this system intact and try and keep the rate of jobseeker down, it just doesn’t hold up.”

As more and more people take part in the strike Kristen said they’ve been contacted by worried welfare recipients who they say have been threatened by job providers and told their payments will be cut off — even though that’s not true.

“We have repeatedly raised the issues of bullying and threats to JobSeekers throughout this time with the minister,” Kristens said.

“We know that the job agencies get paid for seeing people, so … if they don’t try and force people to engage they will not make money, and at the end of the day this is all about job agencies being propped up financially.”

In response, the department said the contract they have with employment service providers who deliver the jobactive program “outlines the expectation of servicing arrangements for jobactive providers, including the nature of engagement with job seekers”.

Kristen says since the pandemic hit — forcing hundreds of thousands of people onto welfare, many for the first time — they’ve seen a real shift in public perception towards “dole bludgers”.

“We know that the unemployment rate is going to skyrocket through to Christmas. So we are saying this (mutual obligations) is completely illogical. Stop confusing people, stop exposing people to this treatment, and give people certainty that they won’t have to worry about this system until at least next year,” she said.


Feature Image: Nicky Minus