The Australian Unemployed Workers Union: helping the vulnerable

January 28, 2017
According to Roy Morgan Research, in October a total of 2.5 million Australians, or 19% of the workforce, were either unemployed or under-employed.

There are about 13 million people in the Australian workforce. According to Roy Morgan Research, in October a total of 2.5 million Australians, or 19% of the workforce, were either unemployed (1,188,000) or under-employed (1,266,000). This is up 256,000 from October 2015.

According to an ANZ report on vacant jobs data, at the moment there are about 165,000 jobs advertised per week. Such a shortage of available jobs for the number of people needing a job, or more work, means we have a jobs crisis.

The Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU) is an organisation run by the unemployed, for the unemployed. Formed in early 2015, the AUWU’s mission is to protect the interests of unemployed people and stop the government’s ongoing assault against the welfare state. The AUWU is not affiliated with any political parties, and is entirely self-funded with a rapidly increasing membership, currently about 7000.

AUWU is not a registered union. It is more an advocacy network of volunteers providing advice to welfare recipients, especially people who need help dealing with Job Network agencies and Centrelink. It is free to join online.

Political representation

The AUWU strongly believes that unemployed people, as some of the most vulnerable people in our society, should be politically represented. This is simply not the case now.

In a capitalist society like ours, people who are “economically unproductive” — such as the elderly, disabled and unemployed — are always going to be easy targets for governments looking to cut their costs.

The AUWU has released its 2015–2016 National Advocacy Hotline Report, which was launched at the Solving Our Job Agency Crisis public forum held in Melbourne on November 27.  About 70 people attended the forum, which dealt with the rights of the unemployed and job agency issues. There were speeches from guests who had issues with agencies and a panel with David Thompson, CEO Jobs Australia; Sue Bolton, Moreland Socialist Alliance Councillor; Pas Forgione, Coordinator, Anti Poverty Network South Australia; Owen Bennett, President, AUWU; and Godfrey Moase, Assistant Secretary, National Union of Workers.

The advocacy report clearly shows that the government's $3 billion-a-year employment services industry is both dysfunctional and punitive. Since the Commonwealth Employment Service was privatised in 1998, the government has spent about $18 billion dollars on both for-profit and charitable employment services providers.

Work for the Dole

The report revealed that 30% of unemployed workers who called the hotline reported Work for the Dole safety issues and numerous examples of unemployed workers being abused by job agencies.

The AUWU also revealed that an unemployed worker was exposed to asbestos at a government-approved Work for the Dole site in Adelaide. However, as Work for the Dole participants are not legally considered to be “workers”, SafeWork SA informed the participant that they could not help him.

This is a disgrace. He is only one of many unemployed workers concerned about their safety at Work for the Dole programs across Australia.

In 2016, there were 500 Work for the Dole injuries reported, including the tragic death of Josh Park Fing at a site in Toowoomba, compared to 90 the previous year.

Clearly the government can no longer guarantee the safety of Work for the Dole participants. The program must be shut down.

Job Network agencies are enterprises profiteering from the vulnerable unemployed. As well as managing the unemployed, they have the right to run education programs and Work for the Dole programs where they supervise participants. If legislation is passed by the Senate, Job Network agencies will also have the right to penalise participants by suspending or cancelling their payments and fining them as well if they fail to meet strict criteria.

The AUWU has been received very well by The Anti-Poverty Network in South Australia. They have been particularly helpful and have been a major source of encouragement. The response from trade unions has also been very encouraging. After an extensive campaign to build union links, the AUWU has received official endorsement from the National Union of Workers and the Electrical Trades Union. It is in contact with a number of other unions across Australia, hoping to build a strong relationship between unemployed and employed people.

Socialist Alliance has a good ongoing relationship with AUWU. Articles have been published in Green Left Weekly and interviews with AUWU activists have been broadcast on Green Left Radio.

Fight the Fine Campaign

In 2015, the federal coalition Government wanted to introduce legislation that would effectively give privately owned and operated employment service providers the unprecedented power to fine unemployed people for missing their Job Search appointments, or approved activities, without a ‘reasonable excuse’. All fines (roughly $55.00) would be deducted immediately.

Unemployed Australians who felt they had been unfairly fined would be required to go through Centrelink’s arduous appeals process to get their money back — a procedure that can take up to four months.

This is now being pursued by the current government.

Raise Newstart to the Poverty Line campaign

Today, Australia’s unemployment benefit — known as the Newstart Allowance — is about $530 a fortnight. With the poverty line at $426 per week, this means the Newstart Allowance is $320 a fortnight below the poverty line. This makes Australia’s unemployment benefit one of the lowest unemployment benefits in the developed world.

This is a national disgrace. It has been 21 years since the Newstart Allowance was increased in real terms. The government’s claim that this low rate of Newstart is necessary to push people into work, it is a lie; it is more likely to push people into hopelessness and in many cases homelessness.

Say No To Cashless Welfare campaign

The Healthy Welfare Card is a Coalition government policy that will forcibly restrict 80% of unemployed Australians’ Newstart entitlements to a VISA-style debit card. Under the pretext of preventing unemployed workers from buying alcohol and drugs, the card can only be used at approved government locations.

The Healthy Welfare Card is a much tougher version of the punitive and completely discredited Basics Card, which restricts 50% of unemployed Australians’ Newstart entitlements. Currently, the Basics Card affects more than 20,000 people (mostly Indigenous) across Australia.

The Healthy Welfare Card is an attack on the rights and dignity of all unemployed people.

It is a shameless attempt by the Coalition government to present unemployed workers’ money management skills as the main problem. It is clear that the government is using the Healthy Welfare Card as yet another way to attack and vilify unemployed Australians.

The Healthy Welfare Card was proposed by billionaire mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest in 2014. The fact that this card was proposed and supported by both major parties, and by a billionaire mining magnate, is a complete slap in the face of Australian democracy.

Other AUWU campaigns include the abolition of Work for the Dole schemes.

History of the AUWU

Historically, there have been a number of unemployed workers movement uprisings in Australia.

In the 1920s and ’30s there was no welfare. Unemployed workers relied on charities for welfare or food packages. Outside of union help, if workers wanted a job they could register at the government's Labour Exchange. Some unions used to pay unemployed benefits if you were out of work and a financial member, but that only carried on for a certain period of time.

For thousands of people out of work there was no assistance of any kind except through voluntary organisations like the Ladies Benevolent Society. The Victorian Trades Hall would also organise food parcels at unemployed workers meetings.

There was a row between the ACTU, the Trades Hall Council and individual unions on what to do with the unemployed.

In frustration at the lack of response from unions, an unemployed workers movement was formed to put pressure on the unions to present their demands in parliament.

In 1945 unemployment and sickness benefits were introduced.

In 1973 the unemployment benefit was paid at the same rate as the age pension.

More recently there was a short-lived Unemployment Workers Union set up in the 1990s.

In the past, the movement’s struggle was about jobs and survival.

The current AUWU movement is about all of the above plus a more evil aspect that was not a factor in the past: the privatisation of services to unemployed workers. As we well know, once you privatise a public service, profit becomes paramount and the people who really need a top service for survival, suffer with a punitive government system that drives unemployed workers further into despair.

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