Late last year the government’s “Work for Dole” scheme was widely shamed in the media for largely being a big failure. Figures suggested less than 19% of participants found employment after three months on the scheme and only increased the chance of finding full-time work by 2%. This wasn’t surprising to many including welfare groups as well as Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert because it was a placebo program which had no architecture for pathways back into the workforce. As a result it was claimed the government would effectively abandon its expensive flagship failure by restricting it to unemployed people under 25? Almost a year after The Australian reported this it seems not much has changed – an unaccountable Government demanding increased accountability of its most underprivileged constituents, while eroding the core of support and benefits it should be protecting.
Firstly, it’s fucking stressful working full-time to find work. Being poor and in debt and never having any money isn’t fun. Then there’s the internal fight – trying to remain upbeat and maintain a sense of self-worth while battling bouts of depression which get harder the longer you’re unemployed.
Counteracting symptoms of mental strain which afflict the long-term unemployed is probably the biggest selling point of the failed “Work for the Dole” scheme, along with the idea of giving back to the community.
I am fortunate to have the most supportive family ever and live in a country where job seekers are financially supported. The caveat of this government support is not unlike getting a loan from your parents – you’re extremely grateful, but at the same time you know it comes at a cost, like the not-so-gentle reminders and suggestions here and there that you’re possibly not doing enough.
Enforcing this perception are people, who because they are employed, financially secure and pay their taxes decide they are workforce experts. No matter that their industry-specific experience is worlds apart and that they haven’t actively participated in the job market in a decade because they’re so successful – I guess lecturing those who are down on their luck by outlining obvious, out-dated and irrelevant job search tactics makes some people feel they’re being helpful.
So am I surprised to be greeted with a pious sense of condescension in the staff room at Vinnies during my induction?
Aussies love to support the underdog, but we also have a long, proud history of kicking a dog when it’s down.
Two volunteers enter the staff room for morning tea while I’m watching an introductory DVD outlining Vinnie’s global mission to help underprivileged people. They are exactly what I imagine Vinnie volunteers to be – smiling, middle-aged women who gossip loudly about dieting tips while debating whether they will try the dense, rich cake on offer on the staff room table.
I look down at my mobile phone, which out of respect for the work environment I switched to silent. I have a missed call from a Sydney-based recruiter. I decide I’ll wait until the end of the induction, hoping I’ll still be able to get hold of them despite the time difference. As the volunteers sit down and introduce themselves, one leans over to look at the portable DVD screen as it is ending.
‘Ow, is that the new DVD?’ she asks with a buttery Irish accent.
‘I’m not sure,’ I say.
‘It must be – I haven’t seen that one.’
‘Are you here from the dole?’ asks the other volunteer.
‘Is that twenty-five hours?’
‘Ow, that’s a lot,’ says the volunteer sitting next to me then adds, ‘that’s gone up, hasn’t it?’
I realise she’s mistaken my work commitment for the requirement of unemployed people under 30 years. They are required to work 25 hours a week or 50 hours a fortnight. Being in the 30-49 years’ category I am required to work 30 hours a fortnight, which breaks down to two 7.5 hour shifts a week.
‘At least you’re working for your money now,’ says the volunteer sitting opposite me.
‘Well, before you were getting money for nothing, and now you get to work for it.’
Capturing the essence of the program doesn’t stop me feeling a bit confused and insulted. This isn’t helped by the fact I’ve been thumbing through Vinnie’s induction manual while chatting and just arrived at its large type-face list of Personal Qualities and Desired Skills:
I try to widen the volunteer’s perception, ‘Well I guess it depends on whether one prefers to work towards getting a job, or work on staying on the dole.’
If this was an open-minded arena I might have also addressed the following key points in opposition to her clear support for the scheme:
- The “Work for the Dole” scheme has already been widely regarded as a failure.
- Previous government initiatives including wage subsidies and intense training programs were way more successful with data indicating positive job outcomes of between 47 % and 65%.
- If the “Work for the Dole” scheme was actually interested at getting me back into the workforce, why does it appear they’re only in the business of farming out cheap labour to government contractors?
The support staff’s views are nothing new. Enduring the public air of suspicion directed at people on welfare benefits is an added cost of being on the dole. In my experience strong opinions don’t require understanding, and sanctimony is often the entitlement volunteers bestow upon themselves when working for nothing in not-for-profits.
Even the word “dole” is full of negative connotations. The Department of Human Services calls the so-called “handout” the Newstart Allowance – which is why I don’t think it’s wrong to question the political motives behind the branding of the failed “Work for the Dole” scheme.
Why can’t the Department of Employment be more like the hospitality industry? They colourfully label coffee makers “baristas”, sandwich makers “artists” and cocktail barpersons “masters of mixology”. It’s not hard to put a positive spin on words, trust me – it’s my job. Here are a few alternatives off the top of my head:
- Newstart Volunteer Corp
- Newstart Workers Alliance
- Newstart Community Outreach program
My Jobactive Provider occupies a small rented cubicle that takes me 45 minutes on my bike to get to. The meetings themselves feel somewhere between therapy and a parole obligation where my job provider’s stolid demeanour levers me to recount and update him on my job search activities for the past two weeks. There is a catharsis I guess to the half-hour appointments which I appreciate, along with the physical exercise to get there. But there is little guidance or support because how can one provider be expected to understand the nuances of every industry-specific job and the ever-changing demands in the global job market.
Actually, now that I think about it in four months the only think I was provided with was my “Work for the Dole” contract and a Police Clearance Certificate to be eligible to work at Vinnies.
My Jobactive Provider didn’t even provide much of a choice. Only four contracts were available and two were same retail/sorting position at Vinnies in different location. One involved a lengthy commute for a gardening position at a residential park. The other contract was for general maintenance duties at a horse racecourse, which seem a bit dubious given the scheme claims activities can only be hosted by not-for-profit organisations and government agencies (and preferably those not linked to animal cruelty).
Personally, I’m really happy to be working at Vinnes because I love new experiences and strongly support the ethos guiding the St Vincent de Paul organisation. It’s just that I would prefer to be giving back to the community in a role which actually improves my chances of a positive job outcome – rather than being taken out of the job market for two days a week to sort clothes.
Don’t get me wrong I’m happy to do any work that pays an award wage. It’s just that considering I’m now working for my dole, which breaks down to an hourly rate of $6.82, wouldn’t it make more sense to spend my time approaching prospective employers with a wage subsidy offer of $6.82 per/hour in an effort to find sustainable long-term employment.