Australian Unemployment Union 'fights the fine'

Protest defending rights of the jobless in Adelaide, March 4. Photo: Amity Pearson.

Owen Bennett is the founder of the Australian Unemployment Union. He recently spoke at a public forum in Adelaide hosted by Anti-Poverty Network SA on why attacks on employed and unemployed people are connected.

Pas Forgione from Anti-Poverty Network SA spoke to him about how these attacks are related and the Australian Unemployment Union's latest campaign.

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How are attacks on welfare recipients and attacks on workers connected?

To answer this question, I’m going to have to briefly explain the history of how successive Australian governments since the 1970s have systematically undermined the power of workers by bashing the unemployed.

Between 1942 and 1974, the unemployment rate in Australia averaged around 2%, and as a result working people had unprecedented security and bargaining power in negotiations over the sale of their labour power. Trade unions flourished during this period. This was a familiar story throughout the OECD.

By the 1970s, big business and their representatives had become deeply frustrated at the political and economic power that full employment gave to workers. By the 1970s, there was a push by big business to have full employment abandoned as the favoured economic policy in order to weaken the power of organised labour.

After 1975, unemployment in Australia rapidly tripled to 6% and has averaged about 7% ever since. This tactic worked spectacularly well for business, as trade union membership plummeted, which in turn led to a massive stagnation of real wages and higher profits for business. As the pool of impoverished unemployed and underemployed workers skyrocketed, business found they could play workers off against each other in order to drive wages down and weaken the power of trade unions.

The idea is to make the unemployed and underemployed so desperate, so impoverished, that they would be willing to accept almost any work at any conditions. As a result of this, today the growth of real wages has fallen to its lowest rate for 17 years.

Making life difficult for welfare recipients is an essential part of this wider plan of attacking working people. The insufficient rate of the Newstart benefit — which has not been increased in real terms since 1994 — must be viewed in this way.

So too the Work for the Dole scheme, which after July will be expanded, forcing unemployed people to conduct unpaid labour much sooner into their period of unemployment (six months instead of one year), and for longer (25 hours per week instead of 15 for those aged under 30).

Income Management, the harsh eligibility requirements for Disability Support Pension, the raising of the retirement age, the tightening of the sole parent payments, and low rates of payments across the board are further examples.

It is no exaggeration to say that as a result of these ongoing attacks now is the worst time in Australia’s post-war history to be unemployed.

In order to prevent the continual decline of the working movement, it is essential that unemployed and employed workers unite in a common struggle to achieve full employment and ultimately a more humane society.

What is the Australian Unemployment Union's “Fight The Fine” campaign?

In July legislation will come into force that will effectively give the privately owned and operated employment service providers the unprecedented power to fine the unemployed for missing Job Search appointments.

If they are found to have missed an appointment without a “reasonable excuse”, Newstart recipients may be fined one-tenth of their Newstart entitlement, or roughly $50. Considering the already inadequate rate of Newstart benefit, which is $280 per fortnight below the poverty line, this punitive measure will push the unemployed further into poverty.

The Australian Unemployment Union will be running a national “Fight the Fine” campaign and have organised events in Melbourne and Adelaide on July 1. A number of employment service providers — including the “charitable” agencies — have been exposed as money-hungry organisations that treat the unemployed merely as a means to make money.

Recently, US-owned employment service provider Max Employment threatened to sue the Australian Unemployment Union over our campaign.

After receiving two letters of legal threats, we decided to organise protests outside Max Employment's offices in Melbourne and Adelaide.

As an activist, what are some of the most common myths you have encountered about welfare and unemployment?

The biggest and more enduring myth around unemployment is undoubtedly that unemployed people could find work if they tried hard enough, and are therefore labelled “dole bludgers” and “job snobs”. This belief completely ignores the wider picture of the Australian economy in which, according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics report, there are 11 job seekers competing for each job vacancy.

How important is it to challenge the government's use of language and how it defines key concepts, when it comes to poor people?

The way the government and the mass media present the unemployed is a major barrier. By demonising the unemployed as “job snobs”, “leaners”, “welfare cheats” and “lazy”, the government is not only trying to turn workers against the unemployed, it is also is deeply humiliating for unemployed people themselves.

While handing out leaflets in Centrelinks, on many occasions I get a lukewarm reception from the unemployed. They are embarrassed to even be there. The last thing they want to do is rise up and fight for the rights and dignity of the unemployed. Being unemployed is as much an internal struggle as anything else. It is no surprise then, that it was recently found that unemployment is a major cause of mental illness and even suicide.

What we need to do then is reframe unemployment by smashing the myth of the “job snob” and educating people on the reality of unemployment.

[If you are interested in helping us organise a Fight the Fine rally in your area, please contact contact@unempoymentunion.com.au or Facebook.com/australianunemploymentunion.]

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