No sense in work-for-the dole scheme

Published in Courier-Mail, Ed.2, 1 April 1997, p.19

THE Howard Government’s scheme to compel the jobless to work for their benefits has generated widespread public support.

People in comfortable jobs, driven by a concern that unemployed people are getting something for nothing, expect those without work to make a contribution.

As unemployment levels remain above 8 percent, there develops a nagging belief that many who are receiving benefits either don’t want to work or aren’t looking hard enough. Many parents, seeing the unhappiness experienced by their unemployed children, feel that work of any kind will keep their children occupied and work-ready.

Others, in nostalgic mood, remember enjoying public facilities constructed by enforced labour during the 1930s Depression and argue that what was good enough then is good enough now. They forget that “susso” work, as it was then called, kept 30 percent of the nation in poverty and it was only through Keynesian economic expansion, with labourers being paid award wages, that the Depression ended.

Work-for-the-dole programmes have a long history in Australia and overseas. In the United States, such Workfare programmes are widespread. The New Zealand First Party, a partner in a coalition government, is supporting work-for-the-dole in that country and has estimated that an extra $60 million to $80 million will be needed to implement it. At the Beyond Poverty Conference in Auckland in mid-March, academics urged the New Zealand Government to spend the money creating real jobs.

From the early 1970s, government-funded training allowances were phased out in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and replaced by the Community Development Employment Programme, which pays participants at about unemployment benefit rates. Such programmes were compulsory at first, but recognition that the International Labour Organisation’s conventions and United Nations covenants were being breached by enforcement led to the programmes becoming voluntary.

Many Aboriginal and Islander communities reject unemployment benefits, which they call “sit-down money”. Indigenous Australians continue to participate in the CDEP because there is often no alternative work where they live.

The major problem with CDEP is that it maintains the participants in poverty and their communities remain undeveloped and poorly resourced. There is insufficient income generated to allow people to escape the cycle of under-development.

The workers and their employers do not contribute to superannuation so, at the end of their “working” lives, the inequality continues.

During the past several years, economic rationalist governments have removed many of the regulations which constrain business while increasing the complexity of regulations applying to benefits paid to workless Australians.

This has made many feel they are regarded as worthless Australians.

The previous government’s green paper on employment started with the assertion that “the nation’s number one priority is to find jobs for unemployed Australians” and went on to suggest “the loss of production through unemployment is the single greatest source of inefficiency in our economy”. Compelling people who have been long-term unemployed to work for the dole is hardly a sufficient response to such a major inefficiency in our economy.

The Australian Council of Social Service and the National Skillshare Association, like most community welfare agencies, are opposed to compelling the unemployed to work for the dole. They have lamented the recent massive cutback in voluntary training and other labour market programmes.

ACOSS points out that under the Government’s current proposal those 18 to 20-year-old unemployed people forced to undertake 20 hours work for the dole will be $63 a week worse off than someone working 20 hours a week in a job and receiving part unemployment payment.

The work-for-the-dole scheme is an idea from an earlier era; it did not solve the economic problems of the 1930s and it will not solve those of the 1990s. It will not provide a stepping stone to real jobs because the type of work to be done will not provide the sort of training needed to get a real job.

Compelling people to work does not make economic or social sense. If there are socially or environmentally useful jobs which need to be done, they should be undertaken by paid employees or volunteers.

The money expended forcing people to work could be spent providing education and training programmes which people voluntarily want to undertake. Universities, TAFEs and other trainers constantly have to turn people away because of a lack of places. Most social welfare agencies find the number of unemployed volunteers offering to work for them is greater than they can handle. So, the unemployed are making a contribution to society.

In 1981, Keith Windschuttle’s ground-breaking research into modern unemployment in Australia showed that many parents were more likely to believe stereotypes about young dole bludgers than the reality of their own children’s struggles to obtain work.

Work-for-the-dole will reinvigorate the myth that all unemployed people are workshy. The scheme only makes sense if the Government’s intention is to turn unemployed people into social lepers.