In A Time Of Crisis, Labor Is Choosing To Punish The Poor

The Albanese government is introducing a new system of targeted harassment and misery that jeopardises the pittance we currently survive on.

poverty protest photo

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After months of resisting calls from welfare recipients and advocates — and anyone with a conscience — the government has chosen to roll out Workforce Australia to hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers on July 1st.

Starting tomorrow, welfare recipients have to battle a new, mostly automated, and deeply punitive, system to receive their $46/day entitlement. An algorithm will now determine who has “low barriers” to work, and who has “high barriers” — the former will perform all their activities online, while the latter will still be forced to use face-to-face employment service providers. Rather than discussing their complex needs with an actual human being, poor people will be determined as “job-ready” by a digital sorting hat.

Given the government’s recent track record of using digital tools to destroy people’s lives, the prospect of this algorithm is already scaring the shit out of us: we do not trust it to correctly assess people’s needs or ability to work. We can only assume there’ll be mass errors in the way welfare recipients will be “sorted” — if people facing extreme disadvantage are mistakenly classified as “job-ready”, they’ll face the full gamut of mutual obligations and be put at immediate risk of losing their payments.

Also starting tomorrow, unemployed workers will be forced to “earn” up to 100 points worth of activities a month via the government’s notorious new points table. We’ve previously described this Points Based Activation System (PBAS) as “the Hunger Games crossed with Black Mirror”: if you don’t “score” the right number of points in this carnival of doom, you’ll be automatically cut off your poverty payment.

This is a disturbing gamification of the welfare system — it’s like Duolingo, except this time, the owl is the government and it can kill you.

It’s Time To Protest

In the weeks leading up to tomorrow’s roll-out, Employment Minister Tony Burke has effectively stonewalled the AUWU, the Antipoverty Centre, ACOSS, Anglicare, and any poor person who has tried to approach him about Workforce Australia. Despite our constant protestations to him on the phone, via email, and in the media, he has chosen to go ahead with a system that he knows will trample over poor people’s lives.

That’s why we’ve organised a rally tomorrow at Tony Burke’s office in Punchbowl. We want to send a message to this new government: we refuse to bear the brunt of this regressive system, which deliberately exposes hundreds of thousands of people to harm. Instead, we demand an alternative to the cruel welfare system, an alternative to mass punishment and payment suspensions, and an alternative to a government that simply refuses to recognise we exist.

We demand unconditional access to social security. The ability to eat and keep a roof over our heads without the threat of constant punishment from private providers. The very basics to live a decent, dignified life.

We have told the minister, numerous times, that, at the very least, he can reassure the people terrified of this new system by guaranteeing that no one will be penalised for at least 90 days after it is introduced. Failing to commit to this has already caused immeasurable levels of unnecessary distress and fear.

The suffering of welfare recipients can no longer be ignored. As it stands, they are at a breaking point. Recently, the AUWU conducted a survey of over 400 people facing this new Workforce system: 78.5 percent expected “some or severe impact from the new requirements”, and 83.5 percent anticipated that the new points system will fail to account for their circumstances.

Heartbreakingly, members are already telling us that this new system will break them. “…I have told my psychologist because if this happens it will put me at risk of suicide. I am so so scared I am going to end up in that dark place again and I don’t want to go back there…,” said one member.

And another told us: “The mere thought of PBAS has made me feel suicidal and I’ve started self-harming again after not having done so in four years.”

These are only a few examples. All too frequently we’re hearing from people who don’t think they’ll survive the new system. We’ve sent these stories directly to the Minister for Employment, and (surprise, surprise) he’s yet to respond.

With millions facing poverty, Labor should be working to lift everyone to the Henderson poverty line; instead, they’re choosing to crush people with potentially the worst system of mutual obligations this country has ever seen. Really, welfare recipients have no choice but to protest.

In a press release this week, Minister Burke promised some toothless reforms, and had the nerve to say that this new system “…will give participants more choice and control over how they meet their mutual obligation.”

Instead, they’re choosing to crush people with potentially the worst system of mutual obligations this country has ever seen.

This is clearly farcical: the Minister is crowing about the “choice” this system provides, but if we don’t “choose” to do the arbitrary activities put in front of us, we’ve basically “chosen” to starve. I can’t think of a system more dehumanising, or disempowering than this; but, I’m sure the Department of Education, Skills & Employment can, and will, in a few years.

Burke tries to hide the system’s coercion and cruelty in the cheery rhetoric of empowerment, but anyone forced into Workforce Australia (like Jobactive before it) knows what it aims to do: punish us for being unemployed, regardless of our health issues, caring and parenting responsibilities, or the lack of opportunities in the labour market.

With the price of utilities soaring, and heads of lettuce ballooning past $10, welfare recipients need targeted support to survive — we need mutual obligations abolished, and our income raised to the Henderson poverty line; instead, Labor is introducing a new system of targeted harassment and misery that jeopardises the pittance we currently survive on.

Of course, the true joke of ‘mutual’ obligations is that, clearly, the government has never felt the obligation to do right by us. But, quite simply, if Labor refuses to radically change its approach, there’ll soon be blood on its hands. Tomorrow, outside the Minister’s office, we plan to yell and agitate so these pricks can’t escape accountability for it.

Jeremy Poxon is an organiser with the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union. For more details of tomorrow’s protest, head here