Racist work for the dole scheme is causing real harm

The Community Development Programme discriminates against remote and Aboriginal unemployed people.

A Senate committee inquiry into the Community Development Programme (CDP) — supposedly covering remote employment and community development — has found it causes real harm to people and communities. It is a racist work for the dole scheme and it must be scrapped.

The Senate report included 22 recommended changes, saying the scheme must drop its “onerous obligations” to ensure that CDP participants have the “same legal rights” as other income support participants.

The implication even from its supporters is clear: the scheme, which targets job seekers living in remote regions who receive Newstart Allowance, Parenting Payment or Youth Allowance benefits, is discriminatory and punitive and it must change.

The CDP began on July 1, 2015, replacing the Remote Jobs and Community Programme (RJCP). The government says it helps people find work and allows them to contribute to their communities and gain skills while looking for work.

The reality, however, is very different. Currently, there are about 33,000 CDP participants. Overwhelmingly, those taking part identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Getting a job in remote areas is not an easy task for many reasons, not least of which are: the lack of jobs; the lack of training providers; the lack of infrastructure; the distances to travel to get to the workplace or to an interview; the cost of travelling; cultural differences and more.

The CDP does not pay wages for the 25 hours of work participants have to undertake every week to receive welfare benefits. With benefits clocking in at $290 a week on average, this means participants are earning about $12 an hour, which is far below minimum wage.

The federal government’s policy is: be part of the CDP or get zero dollars for eight weeks.

The Senate inquiry recommends that communities be given a greater say in “how a community development program is delivered in their area”.

But if a policy is discriminatory, it should be scrapped altogether. Forcing unemployed people in remote areas to work up to three times longer than the average jobseeker in metropolitan areas to receive payments is wrong. The cost of living in rural areas is so high it can leave people with no money to spend on food.

An Australian National University study in 2017 showed Indigenous people were 27 times more likely to be penalised by a loss of income than those on a similar program in a largely white area.

Thousands of people in this controversial scheme have been threatened with losing their Centrelink payments for eight weeks. According to the government, “failure to comply” means missing three appointments in a six-month period, leading to a reassessment by Centrelink. Fines of between $50 and $60 are issued when participants are late or miss an activity.

In the two years to June 30, about 15,000 participants in the scheme officially violated the terms of their agreement and were slapped with so-called “serious failures”.

In other words, 43% of those taking part faced being cut off welfare payments for up to two months. People on income support in remote communities were fined for not showing up to hygiene classes and 3D printing training.

In those two years, about 350,000 financial penalties were imposed on participants for missing activities, or being late. More than 90% of those fined were Indigenous people.

Would the Coalition government be able to impose such drastic policies on people who live in cities? The answer is clearly no.

The Senate committee report demanded an overhaul of the scheme, saying it is “causing real harm to people”. Among its proposals were that the hours unemployed people must work be reduced and the cut-off period be removed. Both have been ignored.

The CDP is driving up poverty and crime in some remote Indigenous communities. Labor Senator Pat Dodson said the scheme has affected some communities so badly some have had to “forage for existence”. “People are going hungry because they can’t access the bureaucracy that goes with the Centrelink system,” he said.

“The CDP is leading to kids and young people breaking and entering, getting into trouble with the law, because they’re hungry, because their parents or people aren’t accessing the system.”

Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said the situation in the NT is catastrophic. “In all the years I’ve worked across the Northern Territory, especially in my time as the [Northern Territory] Member for Arnhem, I’ve not seen it as dire as I have now,” she said.

Greens spokesperson Rachel Siewert said the CDP had done more harm than good, but stopped short of calling for it to be abandoned. 

The CDP is racist and discriminatory and needs to be scrapped. Instead, we need to fight for well-funded community-led training and employment programs with award wages that help lead to real and lasting jobs.