JobSeeker and rights for the unemployed

May 19, 2020
One of the many Centrelink queues.

More than a month after the federal government announced JobSeeker, it finally began to be distributed on April 27. There was so much uptake that the MyGov website crashed and huge queues formed outside Centrelink offices to register for the payment.

JobSeeker ($1100 a fortnight) and JobKeeper ($1500 a fortnight paid by a boss) are the government’s chief income support payments for the more than 1 million people who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

They are both inadequate.

Millions of workers have missed out on access to the inadequate JobKeeper. Disability support pensioners and carers have missed out on the special coronavirus supplement to JobSeeker. The latter payment — which is the much vaunted “doubling” of the previous Newstart payment — only lasts six months.

Barely a couple of weeks after the money started to flow, some MPs are suggesting that they should be wound back. For now, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that that will not happen.

Green Left spoke with Alex North of the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU).

What do you think about the special coronavirus supplement?

The AUWU was a founding member of the Raise the Rate campaign to get Newstart raised by $75 a week, and then by $95 a week. We were campaigning for years for a very modest rise.

The Morrison government’s move to double the payment shows us is that it was completely cynical. Because, it was resolute that it was not going to raise it, despite the cries from Barnaby Joyce and even John Howard. I believe it was to protect his voter base and to avoid a massive backlash with the, at least, 800,000 new people now on JobSeeker.

All those who have been part of the Raise the Rate campaign are now pushing for a higher permanent rate.

Interesting research by The Australia Institute has found that the JobSeeker payment plus the Coronavirus supplement is now just on the Henderson Poverty Line.

In a country like Australia, with so much wealth, asking to keep 4 million people on at least the poverty line is not a crazy ask. It is the minimum society should demand.

What has the pandemic revealed about the welfare system?

This has demonstrated to a lot of people for the first time is that the system is completely broken. Some more privileged workers, who had never experienced the social security system, are now seeing how terrible it really is.

You’ve got to keep in mind that, before this, a lot of people were in debt. I think we were one of the highest nations in the OECD on per capita debt. People were struggling already. So those people who have lost their jobs and were already struggling means that the two-week wait is to much.

What about those already on Newstart? What was the transfer to JobSeeker like?

There was a lot of confusion originally, for instance with wrong amounts on their Centrelink dashboards.

As far as I’m aware, people did get paid correctly. But we have to keep in mind that people are going through a lot of psychological distress. This is people’s next payment when they’re only just surviving, or not even, paycheck to paycheck. People were literally starving before the rate increase. The psychological harm from not knowing whether that payment was going to come in in full was devastating.

What’s going to happen when the government tries to claw back the rate?

The Morrison government is saying that after six months we will return to the pre-COVID-19 rate. For those in the Raise the Rate campaign, including the AUWU, there’s a push for the rate to be kept at the rate it is now.

It is a tiny demand really: we’re not asking for a rate above the poverty line or the minimum wage. We’re asking for the poverty line.

What sort of employment policies should the government be enacting?

People have a human right to employment and dignified work and the government has a responsibility to provide full employment. Going forward, the AUWU has been pushing for a jobs guarantee and for a reinvestment in public works.

[If you are unemployed you can join the AUWU for free. Find out more here.]

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