Robbie lives in regional Victoria. He lost his job and can’t live off his savings. He is forced to go begging at the welfare office. The 20-year-old behind the counter told him he wasn’t trying hard enough. “You need to get out there and really pound the pavement”, she said to the 61-year-old who has worked all his life.
The situation for unemployed people is about to get worse. As of 1 July, privately run employment service providers have gained new powers to suspend payments and fine job seekers for missing appointments. People like Robbie better brace themselves.
As part of the new $5.1 billion Jobactive employment service contract, compulsory work for the dole will also be extended, kicking-in earlier and requiring more hours for young job seekers.
Tropes about the unemployed are well worn. They’re “bludgers” and “rorters”, we’re told. Social services minister Scott Morrison has labelled social security a “career choice”.
But as Owen Bennett from the Australian Unemployment Union (AUU) told Red Flag, life for the unemployed –
surviving on a payment that is $280 a fortnight less than the poverty line – is tough.
“Given the skyrocketing price of housing, utilities and food, many unemployed people have to sacrifice many comforts of life. Not only does their health deteriorate as a result, but also this lack of money means unemployed people can’t afford to maintain an active social life. This leads to social isolation and in some cases serious mental issues”, Bennett said.
The research backs this up. The latest General Social Survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that while life satisfaction ratings among the overall population averaged 7.6 out of 10, 25 percent of unemployed people had ratings of 5 or less.
As if trying to juggle bill payments on a subsistence allowance while filling in job applications isn’t hard enough, the unemployed have to jump through hoops for their employment service provider: irrelevant training, pointless appointments, work for the dole commitments of up to 25 hours per week.
For the one in four people on Newstart allowances that have a significant disability, meeting these requirements can be impossible. Bennet argues that this is the point: “The aim of the welfare system is to make the experience of unemployment so humiliating that unemployed people become so desperate, so impoverished that they would be willing to accept any work no matter how bad the conditions”.
With 767,500 unemployed people in Australia competing for around 150,000 jobs, even finding an undesirable job can be difficult. Add in the more than one million underemployed, and there are on average around 11 people competing for every job. These are not appealing odds.
While the poverty and indignity accompanying unemployment are getting worse, there are winners in this story. Job service providers have received $18 billion in government funding since the sector was privatised in 1998. The tap stays on, despite recurring revelations of fraud and widespread rorting.
Bennett believes that the structural over-supply of available workers places a downward pressure on wages and conditions more generally. “Real wages are at their lowest growth rate in 17 years,” he said, “paving the way for larger profits for business – the real goal of this cruel policy toward the unemployed”.