Recent months have seen repeated and unprecedented attacks on the unemployed and other income support recipients, with the federal budget and McLure and Forrest Reviews proposing cuts to payments for job-seekers, restricting access to the Disability Support Pension, and expanding Work for the Dole and income management.
But there are signs of resistance. Pas Forgione from the Anti-Poverty Network SA spoke to Owen Bennett, who set up the Australian Unemployment Union.
What is the Australian Unemployment Union and what are its goals?
The Australian Unemployment Union (AUU) is an organisation run by the unemployed, for the unemployed. AUU’s mission is to protect the interests of the 750,000 people currently unemployed and stop the government’s ongoing assault on Australia’s welfare state.
While we formed recently, the idea behind the union is a product of the way Australia has been treating the unemployed for the past two decades. Successive Australian governments have been making it harder and harder for the unemployed to collect income support payments.
What are some of the major problems facing unemployed people and other income support (Centrelink) clients today?
Our major concern is the government's plan to cut all unemployed people under the age of 30 from any unemployment benefits for six months when they have already spent more than six months on benefits.
By the government’s own estimates, this will plunge 110,000 people a year into extreme poverty. This policy will essentially move these people out of the dole queue and into the streets begging for assistance from charities.
This attack represents the most significant assault ever on our welfare state. Even the conservative Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies acknowledged in 1944 that people should be able to collect unemployment and sickness benefits as “a matter of right”.
It is not just the unemployed who will feel the effects, but also everyone else. If people can no longer ... afford adequate food, clothes and housing, crime will surely sky-rocket.
AUU is also strongly focussed on lifting the current low rate of Newstart, which hasn’t lifted in real terms since 1994. Relative to the average wage, for the last two decades the unemployment benefit has been in free-fall. While in 1996 the unemployment benefit was 23.7% of the average male wage, recently Newstart was calculated to be only 18.5% of the average male wage.
The Melbourne Institute calculated that a single Australian with housing costs needed $1017.04 a fortnight to live above the poverty line. Today, Newstart is $510.50 a fortnight.
What do you think of Eric Abetz's proposal to expand Work for the Dole to all job seekers under 50 and double the number of jobs that job seekers must apply for to 40 a month?
The planned expansion of Work for the Dole is a major attack. When it is introduced on July 1 next year, this plan will force all unemployed people to do Work for the Dole regardless of how long they have been looking for work.
Under this plan, unemployed people under the age of 30 will be required to do Work for the Dole for 25 hours a week, unemployed people between the ages of 30 to 49 for 15 hours a week, and unemployed people between the ages of 50 to 60 will be required to do an “approved activity” for 15 hours a week.
When you consider the complete lack of jobs available in Australia, forcing hundreds of thousands of unemployed people to do Work for the Dole can be seen as nothing other than a cruel punishment.
To top it off, the government are also expecting all unemployed people to apply for 40 jobs a month, double the previous rate. This means each month there will be over 30 million applications being lodged to the 146,000 job vacancies currently available in Australia.
These attacks on the unemployed are not trying to get unemployed people into work at all. What the government really wants is to change our attitude to how Australian society should operate. According to the government, unemployed people are not “entitled” to any government support. They have to work for it. Students are not “entitled” to an education; they have to pay for it. The sick, disabled, and elderly are not “entitled” to health care; they have to pay for it. If you want something, no matter who you are, you will have to work for it.
Why do you think unemployed people and others on income support payments are so frequently attacked by governments?
With capitalist societies like ours, you are only truly valued by the government if you are “economically productive”. Thus people who don’t fall into this category, such as the elderly, unemployed and disabled, are easy targets for those in power. As long as there is no opposition, the government has nothing to lose by attacking those who are “economically unproductive”.
How important is it to build bridges between people on income support payments and workers?
As soon as the unemployed and employed realise their common interest is in creating a humane and fair welfare state in Australia, then we will be able to create a humane welfare state.
The more people who are unemployed, the more competition there [is] for jobs. Over time, this will drive down wages and conditions. The more difficult the government makes it to be unemployed, the more desperate the unemployed will be to accept work [under] any conditions, and the more workers will be undercut. After our extensive campaign to build union links, we received official endorsements from the National Union of Workers and the Electrical Trades Union.
How important is it to counter the myths spread by governments and the media about unemployed people?
Labelling the unemployed “job-snobs” and “dole bludgers” and blaming them for governments failures to create enough jobs serve two important functions. It allows government to avoid any blame or responsibility for its continual failure to create enough employment and instead direct all blame against the unemployed themselves. And it is a way of keeping employed and unemployed people divided — if they were united and organised it would be a potential threat to the government’s power.
How can individuals and organisations get involved?
We encourage anyone interested in helping to visit our volunteer page on our website and read our three-step plan to protect the unemployed and the welfare state.