By Brad Adamson
and Peter Chiltern
BRISBANE — Newstart "agreements" being forced on long-term unemployed people could include references to matters such as medical treatment, dress, appearance and body weight, Social Security Minister Graham Richardson admitted in the Senate on June 5.
"I am not going to rule out the possibility that it might be suggested", said Richardson when asked if unemployed people might be asked to undertake programs such as weight loss courses. He also said that "there can be references to medical treatment", and "I cannot rule out the possibility that on some occasions it will be suggested to a client that something might be done about appearance".
A Queensland welfare rights organisation has already reported one case of compulsory psychological treatment being included in a Newstart contract.
According to the Commonwealth Employment Service's Staff Update, "since November 1990 resources have been increased by 48% for functions such as agreement negotiations and review interviews". These are functions unemployed and welfare activists fear may be misused for harassment of long-term unemployed people.
Reflecting the steep increase in unemployment, staffing estimates for Newstart and Jobstart, the two programs that replaced the old unemployment benefit, have increased by 31% since November. But even then, the CES staff newsletter admits that it will take until July 1992 to conclude Newstart agreements with the roughly 200,000 who had already been unemployed for 12 months on July 1, when Newstart began.
When the scheme is fully operational, long-term unemployed people will face three interviews a year. At each of these, agreements will be reviewed, and unemployment payments may be terminated. While Newstart agreements are officially voluntary, "The effect is to attack the unemployed while making no real attempt to improve their chances of acquiring a job; there is no mutual agreement between the CES officer and the unemployed person with a gun at their head", says Paul Glenning of the Newstart Opposition Group in Brisbane.
The Australian Council of Social Services is also critical of the Newstart agreements. "It is nonsense for the government to call them agreements at all, as all of the power rests with the CES, including the power to cancel payment if the client doesn't accept the terms proposed by the CES or is — in
the opinion of the CES — delaying or not being cooperative", says ACOSS president Merle Mitchell.
"We have consistently supported a new approach for unemployed people, particularly those out of work for more than a year. However, we have always opposed the coercive elements of the new scheme, which will punish people who are already extremely disadvantaged and are the main victims of the recession", adds another ACOSS spokesperson, Rob Hudson.
ACOSS estimates that there are presently 27 people seeking work for every job vacancy. The organisation says the unemployment benefits system had already been excessively tightened before the introduction of Newstart.
Unionists are concerned that Newstart will be used to intimidate people into accepting below-standard rates of pay and working and safety conditions.
Reflecting these concerns, unemployed, union and welfare activists in Brisbane have organised a rally for budget eve, August 20, in King George Square. This will be followed by a march to Parliament House and a ceremonial burning of a giant Newstart contract form.