A tale of ritual humiliation at the job agency

We are in the midst of a crisis for jobseekers.
Friday, January 13, 2017

Job agencies are the government-funded organisations tasked with helping unemployed people find work.

There is growing evidence suggesting this “help” consists of the following:

  • Harassing and bullying jobseekers;
  • Incorrectly cutting or suspending jobseekers' payments;
  • Refusing to recognise jobseekers' medical documentation, and physical and mental health issues;
  • Refusing to allow jobseekers to reschedule their appointments, even when they have a “reasonable excuse” for being unable to attend;
  • Incorrectly forcing job-seekers to participate in Work For The Dole; and
  • Consistently failing to inform unemployed people of their rights.

Community organisations like the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) and Anti-Poverty Network SA have documented numerous cases of inappropriate and incorrect conduct from job agencies towards their clients. They advocate for unemployed people who have experienced wrongful treatment.

Much of this treatment is documented by the AUWU in its National Advocacy Hotline Report, released late last year.

The problems are so widespread that they have become the stuff of cliche. It is a crisis.

But we should be clear about what kind of crisis this is. It is a crisis, not for the government, who have no sympathy for the unemployed, and not for the job agencies, who have done well from the $3 billion a year industry.

It is a crisis for jobseekers, those having to navigate this complex, punishing and stressful system.

We need to remember that it is meant to be this way: this is not accidental. Of course, widespread violations of jobseekers rights' are serious issues that must be addressed by governments, who fund job agencies and therefore must properly regulate and monitor them.

But the system would be an unfair and harsh one, even if all the rules were followed.

This is because ultimately, the role of job agencies is not to help unemployed people find work. After all, there are 19 jobseekers for every job — including the unemployed, the underemployed and the “hidden unemployed”. What can job agencies really do about that? Nothing.

Job agencies do not exist to address an under-supply of jobs: only the government itself could do anything about that. The role of job agencies is to put unemployed people through plenty of frustration and stress, to create as many hoops and hurdles to jump through and over as possible.

Hence the demoralising, endless search for non-existent jobs, or jobs one is not suited to, simply to make-up the numbers. Hence the endless appointments and flimsy, demeaning courses. “Keep the unemployed busy” is the motto. 

Why? So they will desperately compete for the limited number of vacancies in the labour market. So they accept whatever work comes along, regardless of how poorly-paid, unsafe, unpleasant and insecure it is.

Like the outrageously low rate of Newstart Allowance — $263 which is $163 below the poverty line and has not been raised in real terms for 22 years — the goal of job agencies is to make the experience of unemployment an uncomfortable, undesirable one, to weed out so-called “job snobs” and “dole bludgers”.

When we understand this, stories of incorrect, disrespectful and sometimes outright-hostile treatment make much more sense. The following personal testimony from Eileen Darley is a vivid example of this sort of treatment. This is her account of a recent visit to a job agency in Adelaide's north-western suburbs.

* * *

Today's trip to the job agency yields these vignettes of the gross indignity and punitive measures handed out to unemployed workers.

An Aboriginal family, three kids in prams, are outside the door. The two men enter with me and put a couple of forms on the desk. The receptionist picks them up and points at them. “You remember what happens if you don't turn up to these appointments ... we'll get your payments stopped.” They don't answer her, just quietly turn and leave.

The woman sitting beside me waits for her case-manager to call her name. “I'm 64,” she says. “I had long-time casual employment at TAFE teaching ESL to new migrants. They scrapped all the funding for casuals, I lost my job and the full-time teachers now have to cover the work we used to do.”

She starts to cry as she tells me the job agency has made her do some mickey mouse Cert 3, that at first she thought might be useful, but now can't bear the thought of returning to.

“I’m more qualified to deliver it than those teaching me,” she says. “Good luck,” I offer pathetically as she heads off to argue her case.

My turn: the child-woman they have assigned to me, the third case-manager I've had in as many months, tells me: “You haven’t been looking for work outside of what you want to do. We're increasing the amount of jobs you have to apply for. You'll be reaching your Work for the Dole phase soon.”

“But I’m 54.”

“Doesn’t matter, your requirements will change.”

“I have a child at primary school.”

“You've already had a reduction in requirements for that.”

“I haven't had a payment for eight fortnights ... I thought it was supposed to be a mutual obligation. You don’t seem to understand the meaning of mutual. You’re less than half my age.”

She blushes.

My “case-manager” heads off to retrieve my new “job plan” and I overhear the conversation in the booth next door. As my unemployed comrade gets quieter his case-manager gets louder.

“Surely I have a say in it. I really don’t like the way you're talking to me,” says the unfortunate interviewee.

“You're unemployed. I've told you before, you have to do what we say ... and I don't believe for a second you're looking for work.”

It goes on like this for some time till the manager goes away to get the interminable job plan. I poke my head around and say: “You're a ‘client’. That's the cover they use for this ritual humiliation. Tell him you're a client and you want him to do his job.”

“Are you a client?”

“Apparently.”

“Did you hear the way he talked to me?”

“I did, brother. I heard every word.”

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