Budget extends forced labour programs

Issue 

By Jonathan Singer

The federal government's budget has increased the push to impose compulsory work on the unemployed in return for dole payments. The government is to enforce "mutual obligation" — the obligation on the jobless to work for nothing in order to receive government income support which is below the poverty line.

The number of people in the work for the dole program — involving an average of two days work each week for six months — is expected to double to 50,000 by 2000-2001. School leavers unemployed for more than three months (a waiting period in which they would not normally receive any unemployment benefits) and 25 to 34 year-olds unemployed for more than a year may be compelled to take part. For this, they receive an allowance of $20 per fortnight.

The Greencorps full-time work and training scheme will be expanded to 6800 six-month places over the next four years. Community Development Employment Projects, an existing work for the dole scheme for indigenous people, will now be one of 14 mutual obligation programs. These include the work for the dole scheme, Greencorps, and compulsory literacy and numeracy testing and education programs.

The government expects more than 300,000 unemployed people to participate in at least one mutual obligation activity each year by 2000-2001. Most long-term unemployed will be forced to do so.

But none of this will reduce unemployment; the government projects no fall in the official rate of about 7.5% in the next year. In fact, the work for the dole schemes increase unemployment. The work done would otherwise have been done by up to 10,000 full-time paid workers. The talk of "mutual obligation" is a cover for forced labour on community projects.

The government is also planning to provide this free labour directly to private businesses.

The government claims that work for the dole schemes, while not required to provide skills training, give unemployed people experiences and habits that help them get jobs. Yet it has withdrawn funds from a scheme providing intensive help for those people having the greatest difficulty finding work.

The employment department's evaluation of the work for the dole scheme imposed on 18 to 24 year-olds to date compares it favourably to the previous Labor government's Working Nation programs in terms of the jobs obtained after completion of the scheme. However, the evaluation fails to consider what proportion of scheme participants would have found jobs anyway.

While unemployed people who have been in work for the dole schemes may have more success in the job market than others, the fundamental issue is the lack of jobs to allow all who want to work to do so. There are now 700,000 people officially unemployed, more than 100,000 "discouraged job seekers" and more than 500,000 part-time workers who would like more work.

"Mutual obligation" blames the unemployed for the social problem of unemployment. According to the May 12 Sydney Morning Herald, employment minister Peter Reith said that work for the dole "sends a message to young unemployed people about their responsibilities", while employment services minister Tony Abbott said its aim was to eradicate Australia's "tribe of job snobs".

The government is further stigmatising the unemployed in order to bludgeon them into accepting greatly reduced rights and living standards. Its fundamental aim is to squash the idea that income support for the unemployed is a right, not a privilege that brings obligations with it.

This is paralleled by the "reciprocal obligation" policy proposals of Labor Party figures like family and community services spokesperson Wayne Swan and former Cape York Land Council chairperson Noel Pearson, whose rhetoric of "welfare dependency" also blames the victim rather than the cause.