Defend and extend JobKeeper: Young workers bear brunt of coronavirus economic pain

Young people are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn. Photo: Retail and Fast Food Workers Union

In the midst of the worst pandemic in a century and while the focus is on rising COVID-19 case numbers in Victoria, it is easy to forget how many people are hurting economically. Young people, who have only ever had insecure casual jobs, are particularly vulnerable.

According to the May Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures, youth unemployment is now at 16%. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) said on July 3 this is the highest point since July 1997: 37.8% of 15 to 24 year olds are either out of work or need more hours — the highest rate since the ABS started tracking it in 1978.

Given that the ABS defines an employed person as someone who has worked at least one hour a week, it is clear that the current unemployment rate — 7.1% — gives a very inaccurate picture. It is worth noting that this figure excludes those who are currently receiving the JobKeeper payment.

Australia has had more than 28 years of continuous economic growth since the recession of 1991. This means that a 28-year-old born here has never experienced an economic downturn — until now. Their perception is of an economy that endlessly grows.

Australia also has the second highest household debt per capita in the world at around 120% of GDP, with only Switzerland ahead. That figure works out to each adult owning an average of approximately $350,000 in mortgage debt alone.

While there are many reasons for the high debt, as the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry exposed, Australia’s banks were irresponsibly lending to people who could not afford to pay back such high debts relative to their income. This is another reason why so many people are in trouble.

Apart from being some of the most heavily indebted, young people also don’t have any savings. These are all reasons why the federal JobKeeper payment must be extended and the JobSeeker payment (the old Newstart payment with an additional $550 a fortnight Coronavirus supplement) maintained. Pressure is mounting on the federal government to do both.

The government will shed more light on its plans in its economic statement due out on July 23, but it is already hinting that it will extend the JobKeeper subsidy to specific sectors. Treasurer Josh Frydenburg has also said that the already legislated tax cuts will be brought forward and the JobSeeker program will not be rolled back to the original Newstart amount.

But there is still much uncertainty about the JobKeeper program, which already excluded so many, with the government spreading misinformation about young people’s supposed rorting when there is more evidence from the Fair Work Commission that some employers are. According to the Australian Unemployed Worker’s Union, as at July 8, there are 1,640,773 job seekers and 99,283 jobs being advertised.

Secretary of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union Josh Cullinan told Green Left that JobKeeper has largely been taken up by small businesses, but larger businesses that can show their revenue has been reduced by at least 30%, even if they have had a subsequent rebound in sales, can also access it.

Cullinan confirmed that small retail businesses are struggling and said that they will go broke as soon as JobKeeper ends, taking workers down with them. Asked whether there are any positives from the coronavirus crisis, Cullinan said the only good thing is the new collective consciousness among union members as they realise how little interest employers, particularly larger ones, have in the health and safety of their employees.

“There is only one job available for every 12 people looking for one,” ACTU President Michele O’Neil said. “Cutting JobKeeper in September would be a catastrophe for the millions of Australian workers who are currently using it to pay their bills and rent.” The ACTU will be releasing its jobs plan on July 15.

I have been receiving JobSeeker for six weeks and can confirm that Centrelink is not being entirely honest about its jobseeker requirements. Its website advises that there will be no penalties if I do not undertake a Job Plan — a contractually agreed set of activities — with a Job Provider (private enterprise job agency). But I am still being required to sign an agreement to look for 25 jobs each month and enter the details online otherwise I will not be paid.

Clearly, many people are anxious about their fate beyond September. It means we need to keep up the collective pressure for federal assistance to be extended, including a liveable safety net while the pandemic recession continues to bite.

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