By Jeremy Lawson
The seminar was held in the plush offices of the local council. I could pick out the other invitees from the people who normally did business in the building.
The receptionist had no trouble doing the same. She silently indicated the appropriate room with a manicured finger even before I could produce my invitation. She could tell I wasn't there to lobby the council for approval for a multimillion-dollar development.
We were labelled with name stickers and ushered into a comfortable meeting room. On one end of the room there were tea, coffee, orange juice and six varieties of biscuits laid out on a long table covered with white linen tablecloths. Real china, silver, milk in glass jugs, sugar in bowls, even. There were even waiters dressed up enough to work in a flash restaurant. But they gave us mysterious looks.
My introduction to the program had come in the mail. I hadn't received a letter that began so positively for some time. For over a year, most letters I'd received were along the lines of "we regret to inform you that your application has been unsuccessful". This one said, "It's not easy to get a job when you've been out of work for a long time. That's why the Government has introduced the NEWSTART strategy ..."
With the promise of free refreshments, it could have been a great invitation, but the author couldn't resist ending with a threat: if you don't turn up, we'll cut off your unemployment benefit.
First we were addressed by a psychologist. She showed us a graph with a line that rose slightly then dived deeply ... it represented the typical morale of an LTU (long term unemployed person). "I usually get to see them when they are down here", she said grimly.
She was followed by someone from CES who told us to cheer up, because we now had NEWSTART to fix all our problems. We would be sent to short courses to learn basic office skills, or how to restore old furniture or how to be waiters ... Precisely at that moment there was a crash from behind the screen that had been pulled across to shield the food end.
"Errrr ... the people who are serving us refreshments are attending one of our hospitality industry courses", explained the speaker, with a nervous glance at the screen.
Lunch was fine. Three huge iced cakes were surrounded by delicately cut sandwiches and fruit. The more reckless LTUs engaged the non-LTUs in awkward conversations while the rest of us retreated to our seats and ate in silence. The three cakes remained untouched, but a few pairs of eyes kept them covered. Suddenly a hospitality trainee marched up with a big knife and cut one cake into four unmanageably large chunks, flashed us a warning glare and marched back into the kitchen. No-one dared touch the cakes, and soon lunch was over; after the screen was drawn across again, we a heard a triumphant yelp. Next on the agenda was "Employer Expectations", introduced by a strange video on how to get a job: always tell the truth to the prospective employer, dress well and understand their point of view. In the dimmed lighting, some LTUs gained confidence and sneered and sniggered a little. One fell asleep and began to snore.
If the video's message was hard to swallow, the three industry representatives who followed were totally unreal. One was employed by the Metal Trades Industry Association to talk to employers about employing NEWSTART people. Well, he said, he spoke to a few companies and they were "very understanding" and his was a "people business" and "it was cool" if we didn't get anything from his talk.
A personnel officer for Coles told us we could always get a job if we wanted and start at the bottom and end up in management ("Look at me", she said). She did admit that Coles had only taken on a few juniors for checkout work in the last year. But you should keep on trying, she insisted.
"Hospitality is an industry you've got to love if you want to work in it", we were advised by a fashionably dressed and coiffured young man with a permanent smile. "You have to love the good side and bad side of customers and the pay is not the best, but the hours are flexible." There was a bit of a problem what with the recession and all, he said, but "What can I say but be happy?"
The new mood triggered memories of school days, mid-afternoon when all the kids would get restless. But here we ranged in age from 23 to 55.
LTUs were getting aggro. "Telling the truth, yeah, that's sure to get me a job". "I've been for jobs and they only want to pay for juniors". "I've been a legal secretary for 15 years, and now they won't look at you unless you're young and pretty — that's the truth". "You try getting a job when there are a million plus people out of work".
By then, the DSS, CES, DEET officers were standing up, ringing the room and looking at us like cops look at demonstrators. A DSS officer in a black leather jacket (who had sat right at the back of the room and who hadn't said a word all day) began an obviously well-rehearsed speech: "Ve haf vays of making you verk. Ve vill verk on you one by one and you vill cooperate or else you vill be cut ..." The psychologist (who had raced to the front) cut in: "Thank you Mr Barbie, that's enough for now". She turned to us, smiled unconvincingly and said: "I hope you found today's seminar useful. You will each be contacted shortly and invited to a personal interview so we can discuss how we can help you."
The tension eased only when "class" was abruptly dismissed and we rushed out like liberated school children.
Two weeks later, I was called in for my interview. I was made to fill in a long and intrusive questionnaire and cautioned that I had to accept any "help" offered by CES, or else I'd be cut off the dole. But to get any help, I'd have to wait for the next interview. In the meantime, I was warned, if their computer showed that I had failed to respond to a letter I was supposed to have been sent, I would be cut off the dole immediately, whether or not I had received that letter. Mr Barbie wasn't there, but it all sounded very familiar.
I sat in silence, shivering with indignation. I wanted to say, I hadn't done anything wrong, that I was just one of a million unemployed. But with the DSS, you soon learn that it's best to stick to name, rank and serial number, because anything you say may be taken as evidence against you and you are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Reading the anger on my face, the CES officer snapped: "We don't mean to offend you, but at this stage, we are not prepared to have our time wasted".
Each day the next week I searched my letter box very carefully and vowed to buy a lock with my next dole cheque. I was convinced they were out to "newfinish" me at the slightest excuse. At the next NEWSTART interview, I was told that there were no suitable jobs vacant so they had enrolled me in a course for retail sales. I'm 38 and I'll never pass as a junior. But I kept my mouth shut because I had got the message — cooperation was compulsory, no matter how ridiculous it may seem.
My course doesn't start for four weeks, some companies are laying off workers by the thousand and I read in the papers the other day that a study has shown that the low-skilled and non-certificate courses offered under NEWSTART will not help people get jobs in times of recession. I guess I shouldn't grumble. In the bad old days they made the unemployed dig holes and fill them up again. n