Government Policies Will Not Improve the Labour Market

Recent government announcements of the escalation of the Work for the Dole scheme and the re-introduction of the “Green Army” are aimed, according to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Environment Minister Greg Hunt and Social Services Kevin Andrews, at improving the lot of the unemployed and get them ‘job ready’ for returning to the labour market.

The Green Army takes unemployed people between the ages of 17 and 24 and gives them up to 30 hours a week manual labour around clearing creeks and waterways, fencing and tree planting. Those enlisted (not ‘participants’, they are ‘enlisted’ to give it that military feel) will be paid half the minimum wage. As this sits between $304.20 and $493.70 a week, this is a big step up from the Newstart payments of $250.00 per week for singles. Sounds great for any young person needing a bit of a leg up and job-confidence, right? Especially as there is also training held as part of the program? Well, there’s more. Participants will be exempt from Federal Workplace Laws, including Work Health and Safety, the Fair Work Act and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. Occupational Health and Safety Laws and insurances held by “service providers” and government will be the only cover afforded.

The Work For The Dole scheme is a policy long loved by the Coalition. First introduced by John Howard, Work For the Dole was seen as a way of giving the unemployed the ability to do community work to receive Centrelink benefits. Under the previous Howard Government’s program, all job seekers aged 18-24 and receiving unemployed benefits for 6 months were required to take part. It was expanded in 2000 to include jobseekers aged 34-39, with voluntary participation for jobseekers aged 40-49. The Labor government elected in 2007 sought to remove the compulsory requirements and left it as a volunteer program. Under the new program announced by the Prime Minister and Social Services Minister, the “jobs” under Work for the Dole will be limited to 3 month tenures to prevent employers replacing permanent workforces with unemployed participants. There will be no training, as such, and the roles offered under the program will generally involve menial, cleaning, community and potentially aged care work.

Both schemes seem, on paper, to be designed to get the unemployed job ready and allow smooth transition from unemployment to employment, with the government banking on it to reduce unemployment and help achieve its ‘1 million jobs’ promise it took to the 2013 election.

However, there are doubts that these schemes will achieve nothing of real value.

The Green Army has several glaring problems that will likely be a jobs inhibitor rather than a creator. Apart from the fact that participants are not covered by a number of safety laws, placing significant risks on the heads of the jobseeker, the facts are that job creation just doesn’t happen. Under the Howard Government ‘Green Army’ plan (when now-PM Abbott was a parliamentary secretary), the prospects of employment coming from it was seen as negligible. Of the 15,000 participants, only a small percentage of those actually got work as a direct result of the program. This is coupled with the programs having little to no environmental benefit. As Murdoch University Professor of Sustainability Glenn Albrecht said to New Matilda (13th August 2013):

“If it’s really just weeding and tree planting, similar to the sorts of things that were done under the Howard government’s programs, a lot of that work, particularly in periods of savage drought, was simply undone because there was no long-term follow up,” he said.

Coupled with the participants not covered by Federal safety laws, which would make anyone eligible for the program with even a passing interest in laws or politics question the validity of such a move, and the scheme seems to be nothing more than, dare I say it, glorified slave labour.

The Work For The Dole scheme is and has always been, a ridiculous idea. Instead of being aimed at raising skills of the long-term unemployed, participants are given the most menial, demeaning and ultimately pointless tasks in the name of skills creation. Imagine if you are a qualified accountant, down on your luck having to do tree planting or mopping up at an aged care facility or picking up litter off the side of a freeway. Would that make you skilled-up for the workforce?

The projects under WfD are often those that no one would want to do. In some cases, particularly the last time the program was in full swing, some jobs were made redundant, only to be refilled by WfD participants.

It had nothing to do with ‘upskilling’ or ‘job-readiness’.

In fact, the WfD participants, as well as the Green Army enlistees will be classed as ’employed’, reducing the unemployed rate, allowing the government to boast it is fulfilling it’s commitment to create jobs. In other words, these two schemes are purely political in their scope and nature.

In the real world, the schemes do not provide jobs growth, do not provide the unemployed with additional skills and certainly do not increase their lot. With mental health issues around depression, anxiety and desperation a part of the unemployed’s day, this will do nothing to address those serious barriers to employment.

It is something I know all too well having worked at the coalface with the long-term unemployed. I have seen the desperation, the depression and outright fear of these programs, the lack of benefit from them and the inherent distrust manifested as a result. Not one participant I saw gained employment as a result. It served only to increase frustrations and make them even less job-ready than before.

I have seen it and can say with qualification: as far as labour market reform is concerned – these programs do not and will not work.