New campaign to ‘Dump demerit points’

“We call on the federal government to scrap the [NewStart Allowance] ‘demerit points plan’ and stop demonising the unemployed,” NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon told a public forum at UnionsNSW on July 4.

The forum was hosted by the national and Western Sydney branches of the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU). The AUWU is conducting a nationwide campaign, called “Dump Your Demerit Points”, to educate members on how to fight back against this punitive system.

“The government is authorising private job search agencies to issue ‘demerit points’ to their clients, which can determine people’s future,” Rhiannon said. “The system is driving unemployed people off welfare. This is one cruel result of the creeping privatisation of the social welfare system.

“Already, under the existing system, two million people copped financial penalties for alleged breaches of job search rules in 2015–16. Now, according to official government estimates, 80,000 people will lose their payments in the first 12 months of the new ‘demerit points’ scheme.”

From July 1, the government's unjust Demerit Point System commenced at all job agencies. The new system means unemployed workers attending private job agencies have been stripped of their right to appeal against financial penalties for alleged jobsearch requirement breaches to the government social welfare agency Centrelink.

Peter Davidson from the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) told the forum: “Australia has one of the toughest activity tests for the unemployed in the wealthy countries. It also has the lowest unemployment payment in the OECD.

“Australia spends less than half the amount on employment services that some other OECD countries spend. We have had 24 years of no real increase in the NewStart Allowance payment. ACOSS is campaigning to lift the NSA by $75 a week. The campaign is winning broad support around the country.

“Any compliance system should be fair and reasonable, but these changes are not. The Job Network agencies now have an obligation to breach under the new system, whereas before it was discretionary. Also, private providers are taking on a function that belongs with government. Centrelink now has no right of review for job search breaches, which they previously had.

“These changes in the Job Network rules are intended to save money and in no way improve a jobseeker’s chances of getting a job.”

AUWU president Owen Bennett explained that past reviews had shown a "50% error rate in the application of penalties. We need to build a groundswell of support to demand the dumping of the demerit points system."

There has been a huge increase in the number of job search penalties over the years, Bennett pointed out. Last year, there were 200,000 penalties, compared to only 12,000 in 1989.

“The new system is an attack on all workers,” Bennett said. “The punishment of the unemployed is aimed in the end against the whole workforce and especially at undermining unionisation.

“A key point of our struggle is to get the unions on board,” he stressed.

He urged all unemployed people to join the campaign against demerit points by keeping detailed records of all dealings with job agencies and being prepared to complain in writing to all relevant bodies, including the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).

[Unemployed workers can join the AUWU for free at unemployedworkersunion.com or call the AUWU hotline on (03) 8394 5266. They can also sign up to the Job Agency Action Group at unemployedworkersunion.com/actiongroup.]