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Issue #1810      February 14, 2018

Oppose Welfare Reform Bill

To: Senate Cross Bench

The Turnbull government’s Social Services Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform) Bill 2017 is scheduled to return to the upper house this month.

As the representative body for unemployed workers, we write to you to express our strong opposition to a series of brutal “reforms” that are designed to make life even tougher for welfare recipients who are locked out of the labour market through no fault of their own.

Far from providing basic security and care for an ever-growing number of un/underemployed workers, this new Bill will relegate job seekers to a constant state of deprivation, anxiety and stress.

As senators, you have the power to prevent the passage of such a needlessly cruel and punitive Bill. These “reforms” are a shameless attempt by this government to shift the responsibility for the unemployment crisis away from its policies and onto the unemployed themselves.

The Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union is calling on the Senate Crossbench to protect the unemployed from such unjust, unreasoned policies.

Why is this important?

This Bill proposes three major attacks on the rights and dignity of unemployed Australians.

First, there is the demerit point system.

The Bill will impose harsher financial penalties on unemployed workers through a new demerit point system that can dock job seekers up to a month of pay for failing to attend the barrage of appointments, Work for the Dole activities, training programs, and “volunteer” work placements.

Job seekers who miss appointments due to serious drug or alcohol related illnesses won’t even be allowed to exempt themselves from incurring demerit point penalties under this new scheme.

Here, private job agencies are to be given unprecedented powers to make compliance decisions without any governmental oversight; while unemployed workers will be left with no ability to launch appeals against judgments of their supposed “non-compliance”.

Gifting job agencies even more power over the unemployed is disturbingly ill-advised, especially when you consider how many of these (primarily for-profit) companies are already failing to enforce the compliance system fairly.

As documented recently by the National Welfare Rights Network, “nearly half of [job agency] provider [compliance] reports are rejected by Centrelink.”

Yet, the government plans to remove all checks and balances in a dysfunctional system it already knows needs closer regulation and scrutiny. Under the new reforms, Centrelink will no longer be in a position to consider whether suspending someone’s pay will cause undue financial hardship (i.e. is likely to result in homelessness) when making its determinations.

According to the government’s spin, the demerit point system is designed to get unemployed workers “more engaged” with their activity requirements. Revealingly, in almost the same breath, the Coalition predicts that this system will also yield a budget “saving” of $204 million over four years by imposing more financial penalties.

This is an extraordinary admission that, rather than being “engaged” with these requirements, many people (in their failure to comply) will in fact be punished and stigmatised by them.

Considering that, in 2015-16, the number of penalties imposed on job seekers by their agencies exceeded two million for the first time (an increase of around seven-fold since 2011) this Bill will make surviving on Newstart that much more difficult and stressful.

Second, there is the increased job seeker requirements.

Despite already having one of the strictest requirements in the world, the Coalition wants to enforce more demands on unemployed Australians to “justify” their claim of benefits.

Under the Bill, close to 300,000 people aged between 30-49 will be forced to clock 50 hours a fortnight of Work for the Dole and other job seeking activities (20 more hours than currently required).

Unemployed citizens aged 50-59 will have to attend 30 hours of work and training per fortnight (up from 15 hours). While jobseekers 60 and over will now have to attend at least 10 hours of “voluntary” work per fortnight to keep paltry benefits that are almost $200/week below the poverty line.

It beggars belief that the government wants to force hundreds of thousands of unemployed Australians to attend significantly more hours at a Work for the Dole activity. This is a program that, according to two separate reports commissioned by the Coalition, is both dangerous and pointless.

As a result of these ramped-up requirements, the government estimates that 80,000 people will lose one to four week’s worth of their Newstart. This is a devastating punishment for those who rely on paltry payments to survive.

Undoubtedly, such a punishment will directly result in homelessness and destitution for tens of thousands of Australians.

Finally, there is the longer waiting period for Newstart.

It’s no secret that, through this Bill, the government wants to make applying for Newstart significantly harder.

Currently, jobseekers are able to receive payments from the day they submit their application (i.e. the day they start requiring support). However, under the new reforms, unemployed workers won’t receive their first Newstart payment until the day they attend their first appointment with a job agency.

Going by current processing times, this means a delay of at least 16 working days – a devastatingly long time to leave vulnerable Australians without an income.

The government estimates that unemployed workers will lose $198 million worth of payments as a result of this measure.

Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union

Next article – How the union movement can un-break itself

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