'Justice for Josh' rally

a protest against unfair and dangerous Work for the Dole schemes in Sydney on April 19. Photo: Bernadette Smith

A "Justice for Josh" rally organised by the Australian Unemployed Workers' Union (AUWU) was held in Sydney on April 19, as part of a national day of protest demanding action on the federal government's Work for the Dole scheme.

Speakers condemned the federal government's refusal to release a report into the death of Josh Park-Fing in 2016, and called for an end to Work for the Dole.

Speakers at the rally included NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, federal Labor shadow minister for employment Ed Husic and Work for the Dole participants, who gave accounts of their own experiences with the scheme.

The AUWU launched a "Boycott Work for the Dole" campaign at the rally to educate unemployed people on their rights, including the option of not participating in what it says is an "unsafe" program.

The AUWU’s Jeremy Poxon said: "Many employment service providers tell jobseekers that Work for the Dole is their only option in meeting their mutual obligation requirements; however, this simply isn't true."

According to Centrelink's Mutual Obligation Requirement Guide, unemployed workers can avoid the Work for the Dole program if they complete voluntary work, study or participate in accredited training programs.

"Unemployed workers want this punitive, pointless and dangerous program shut down once and for all. Jobseekers should not be forced into a scheme that is both dangerous and ineffectual."

On behalf of the AUWU, Pauline Trennery read out the text of an open letter to Australia's political leaders titled “Stop putting unemployed workers' lives at risk".

"We write to inform you that exactly two years ago, 18-year-old Josh Park-Fing died at his Work for the Dole activity. Josh sustained critical head injuries when he fell from a moving flatbed trailer at the Toowoomba Showgrounds.

"We remind the Coalition [government] that it promised to conduct an investigation into the tragedy and release a report within a month of its conclusion. Two years on and we are still waiting.

"The government has refused a Freedom of Information request for the risk assessment undertaken for the Toowomba site. Regrettably, the incident report by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland is still unavailable to the public. We want to know how the government plans to fix the problems at the site.

"The government has a responsibility to protect the wellbeing of participants in all its programs; however, by choosing to keep rolling out the unregulated Work for the Dole program, the Coalition is putting the lives of more unemployed Australians at risk.

"According to a recent government-commissioned report by Ernst and Young, workplace risk assessments in 64% of Work for the Dole sites did not fully comply with standard workplace health and safety procedures. Participants at 8% of sites with hazardous chemicals had not received training in handling them. The report states that there were six cases where vehicles were used that may not be operating in a 'reliable and effective manner'.

"Injuries have been dramatically increasing because of declining health and safety standards at Work for the Dole workplaces. According to the latest data, in 2015–16 there were 500 unemployed workers injured at Work for the Dole, compared to 92 the year before.

"The Coalition has not taken any steps to address the safety issues faced by more than 100,000 people at sites nationally each year. Just last week, the finger of a young unemployed worker in Cooktown was completely severed by a lawnmower at a Work for the Dole workplace.

"People should not be forced to join a scheme that is dangerous, humiliating and ineffectual. We know that for all [the] trouble it causes, the $648.5 million program only increases participants' chances of securing a 'real' job by 2%.

"We call on the Turnbull government to release the report into Josh's death and detail the action it is taking to ensure health and safety is protected as this program is being replaced. We urge leaders of both main parties to seriously rethink their investment in Work for the Dole, and instead develop safer employment schemes that provide opportunities to gain experience at work that will result in real and meaningful employment."

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