Stopping robo-debt notices is a workers' rights issue

An AUWU protest in Melbourne. Photo: Nick Fredman
Friday, February 3, 2017

The government has not made a mistake with the Centrelink robo-debt notices. It knows it is sending out incorrect notices.

Centrelink staff warned management the notices would be wrong and the new debt recovery system would incorrectly claim overpayments.

But management carried on with the system, regardless of the advice from staff. It had its marching orders from their political bosses in Canberra. Shockingly, management even instructed staff to not fix obvious errors in debt notices, unless the person complained.

Up to 90% of the debt notices are incorrect. The government does not care that it is billing people for debts they do not owe. This is because the new Centrelink debt system is ideological. The government is trying to dismantle our social security system by cutting public services.

Over the past five years, more than 5000 Centrelink staff has been sacked. The result is that Centrelink is unable to keep up with the rising demand for its services. Last year, 36 million calls to Centrelink went unanswered.

The government has an ulterior motive in sacking staff. It wants to make dealing with Centrelink so difficult that people would prefer to get any job, even if it is on the minimum wage, rather than have to deal with Centrelink.

There has always been a super-exploited group of workers who work below the minimum wage or just on the minimum wage, and in dangerous workplaces. The government wants to expand this super-exploited workforce to make it harder for unions to maintain decent wages and conditions.

The government is hoping it can get away with this massive attack because it has so demonised the unemployed. The corporate media is hunting for people on Centrelink who they describe as “dole bludgers” to smear who has ever received Centrelink payments.

In reality, about 92% of people will need to receive Centrelink payments at some stage of their life. This is what we pay our taxes for, so that when we lose a job, are old or sick there is a social security safety net.

The government is hoping that people do not join the dots — factories and offices closing down and computer technology replacing jobs equals the need to access Newstart. There is a fine line between having a good job and suddenly having a car accident so you cannot work, or suddenly having your employer close down and becoming unemployed.

Abolishing Centrelink’s robo-debt recovery system and treating people on Centrelink fairly is a workers’ rights issue.

The government and its friends in the media are trying to get people to compartmentalise — sympathising with workers losing their jobs over there, but presuming that all Centrelink recipients over here are “bludgers living on your taxes”. The reality is they are the same people.

The government is relying on the fact that enough people have been in full-time work for so long they do not know how difficult it is now to deal with Centrelink now.

This Centrelink debt scam has hit people so broadly that it is an opportunity to unite and fight back against the dismantling of the social security system and to abolish the debt recovery system.

We are all in this together: young and old, working and not working, women and men, single parents and couples, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal and Muslim and non-Muslim. We need to unite and fight to make sure the government does not get away with stripping away our rights.

[This is taken from a speech Socialist Alliance Moreland City Councillor Sue Bolton gave to a protest against robo-debts in Melbourne organised by the Australian Unemployed Workers Union on January 31.]

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