Movieland does capture the sombre charm of the unemployed working class and Job Club initiatives in films such as The Full Monte, which show the Post Thatcher Decline of the UK. But in Australia the abundance of sun always makes things brighter – even when you chaffing your hand down the side of couches and dusting knuckles in return slots for spare change to live on. Either way those of us unfortunate enough to find ourselves retrenched, or out of work always feel we must prove some vague sense of innocence.
I have been involved in the creative industries for many years – and it is often quipped, ‘unemployment is an occupation hazard of the job.’ That is why I am publishing my experiences on the dole that have perforated the last 15 years of my life for moderate periods.
As I am currently out of work, to keep myself motivated I want to illuminate the humour and frustrations of life on benefits that is often overlooked in the press and on the screen. Traversing from 1997 to 2002, onto 2008/09 to 2010 and now the present I hope this series of blogs will also elaborate both changes and defiance in attitudes and policies.
April 2009 – St Kilda, Melbourne, Australia
Some vague time in the morning because the feeble battery in my hand-me-down mobile has died, and I have no watch or spare money to get a time piece or new battery
It’s a pristine Thursday afternoon – the sort of day in Melbourne that reminds Australians a season still exists between summer and winter called autumn. I’m in my nominated Job Support Network Provider, the Salvation Army in St Kilda East because it’s the closet to my house – a half hour walk away. Walking is necessary on the dole because it gives no allowance for luxuries like public transport – unless deemed essential such as a job interview.
I’m there because after thirteen weeks on the dole I have to sign an Activity Agreement for Job Club training, which has been renamed since I was last on the dole. It’s now called the Employment Pathways Plan, even though everyone still calls it an Activity Agreement – which makes me wish I had the job renaming policy shite. It is legally binding. Any breach or refusal will result in suspension of payment
It’s peculiar turn of phrase to label something mandatory an ‘agreement’. But naming and relabelling has always been a handy tool for maintaining authority and power. Aside from a title change I haven’t noticed any discernible change in allowance, policy, or controlled opinion since I was first on the dole in 1997. But amidst the embers of the global meltdown the media surprisingly is treating the embattled, new generation of unemployed youthful graduates with compassion.
When I graduated high school then tertiary study amidst Keating’s ‘recession we had to have,’ I don’t remember the capricious press suddenly acknowledging young educated Australians on benefits as hard working – coping like true blue Aussie Battlers in unfortunate and regrettable situations like they are currently doing. So I don’t feel a pang of empathy towards the youth of today. Financial crisis to me feels like a rite of passage now, and like Chicken Pox best get it out of the way when you’re young.
At least on this sunny Thursday it’s nice to see in the media everyone discussing ways to help those that deserve it (except those who are out of work). The Government is still handing out $950 to tax payers before declaring a $1000 Christmas present to every child in the country, like an absent uncle to augment its stimulus package. They announce the aged pension will been increased and debate schemes to support mortgage repayments to new home owners who have just been made redundant. And while marginal charities try to incite change over the woeful $32 a day unemployment benefit the Government stubbornly refuses to increase the dole despite also adjusting many other benefits.
For a single adult (+25) it still stands at $453.30 a fortnight. I’m not eligible for Rudd’s back hander despite working and paying tax most of 2008 because the handout is for taxpayers of the last financial year when I was mostly abroad. So from my woeful bunker it’s easy to agree with critics of Rudd’s stimulus package, who claim the payouts will just end up back in banks as tax payers desperately try to pay off loans. The stimulus package certainly has done nothing to secure or maintain jobs in my industry that has been jeopardised like most in the global meltdown. And I think at least if Rudd gave us indentured unemployed a bit more dough at least there would be no doubt we would fuking spend it – maybe not on the cars and houses that the Government would prefer but at least it would go on real shit in real shops, and not to VISA and MasterCard repayments.
It was no surprise two weeks later into Job Club training that the media, like disciples jumped aboard Rudd’s no tolerance ‘Earn or Learn’ bandwagon like it was a revolution. Rudd declared he didn’t want to see a repeat of past mistakes. But it didn’t feel like Howard’s government in the late nineties held a different stance. It was Howard who enacted the Work for the Dole program which established the platform for unemployment retraining, or non-retraining we see today.
This counts as the third time I’ve been on the dole in the last decade. And each time I’ve never experienced a tolerant system for unsupervised job search. Like today, in 1997 and 2002 I was permitted thirteen weeks of unsupervised job search before I was required to commence Job Club training at a Job Support Network Provider. And each time I’ve felt an implicit pressure weighing down on me from cultural preconceptions and authoritative scepticism – because if you can’t hold down a job you’re clearly otiose, shiftless and not doing enough for your handout.
Without a job it’s hard to defend yourself. A job among other things represents independence and security – and in mine like many other countries it armours our social pride. Thus far every single scheduled appointment with supervisors at my Job Support Network Provider has been late. The same supervisors then inculcate me on fundamental job seeking practises (like punctuality) – but I don’t go around protesting the hypocrisy (mainly cos I’d sound like a dickhead).
Dole by its archaic etymology refers to ‘one’s allotted portion,’ and was also used as the noun form of dolorous, indicating grief or sorrow. But in today’s context the dole has evolved into a validation of reward from proven effort – whereas I always thought it was an entitlement to out of work jobseekers.
While signing the Activity Agreement (Employment Pathways Plan) I’m asked to fill in forms asking absurd questions like,
‘How motivated are you at looking for work?’
I state the obvious.
‘The drowning sense of debt accumulating monthly on my VISA card from cash advances cos I’m out of work and the dole covers zilch is pretty fukn solid encouragement man.’
As I hand back the completed form support staff member M. states, ‘I think you’ll really get a lot out of this – you have a very positive attitude, which is good for the class.’
I explain I not sure how useful I will find it because I completed job training programs twice before.
‘Oh really,’ M. chirps, ‘well we updated the course, and I’m sure your CV will change dramatically.’
This is precisely what I was told back in 1997 when I first signed onto Job Club. To its testament I got a job attending that program and have been using a hybrid CV from its training modules to this date. I’m sceptical, despite an updated course as to whether the Salvation Army has re-invented the job-hunting wheel with the past decade. But I’m still happy to attend the Job Club training program because I believe in taking positive experiences from every situation.
Job Club is like going back to school, which I spose is fun for a while. And I already feel like a student since becoming unemployed – routine cycles of checking the sofa for spare change, counting out shrapnel to see if I can afford a take away coffee while cold canvassing, scrapping by on happy hours to get me out of my house and living on homebrand tinned vegetables, fish and instant noodles.
It was just over a decade ago with Keating’s recession a television memory, I attended the last government funded Job Club training. Then came Howard and private Job Support Network Providers were commissioned to assume the role of Jobsearch supervision and training of unemployed jobseekers. The emisary of the East Perth Centre happily declared on the first day,
‘This is the most successful government program to day for finding employment,’ as if it was all because of her.
She was horrible – the Frankenstein parts of primary school teacher, mother and self-help guru (or as she would probably say ‘personal growth instructor’ or some shite). Like a lot of people pushing paper on the other side of desk in the benefits system she stunk of being in the same unemployed situation as me not too long ago. She preached about being a successful business woman and owning her own company – and all of us at Job Club training wondered what the fuck was she doing here then?
She even hung a detestable school bell outside her office, which she made everyone who got a job ring while the rest of us were busy on computers and phone calls to prospective employers.
Compulsory attendance was from 9.30 to 3.30 Monday to Friday. So you were undeniably back in school hours. But I had never really left institutionalised education – heading straight from high school to university and completing a BA with a modicum of efficiency and cynicism that it would lead to a brighter future. Now twenty, with a crisp degree and over ten grand in uni debt I signed on much to my mother’s chagrin.
I briefly enjoyed an ‘Oh Captain, My Captian,’ moment when I finally got a part-time job at a local video store and refused to ring her bell. So she rang it for me – insolent and madly like a sea captain that had been out at sea too long. But all the time I was there I was confounded why the Government was scrapping what proved to be a successful system it in favour of outsourcing and privatising Job Network Support.
It was just like the Job Club training I’m now enrolled in. Groups practised different job search techniques: from cold canvassing, networking, as well as engaging in the open job market on the internet, in various print, as well as the hidden job market. We performed goal setting exercises and identified obstacles to achieving them. We simulated interviews situations and participated in role play scenarios of employers and employees. We were taught how to craft an effective covering letter and given a new template for resumes.
And like today after completing job training we were still required to attend the centre every day at the same time and canvas for work. So the true success of Job Club was somewhat misleading because once you were in Job Club, you didn’t leave Job Club until you got a job. Leave of absence was granted to cold canvas. But precise whereabouts were demanded with proof of job inquires on your return and your movements closely monitored with follow up calls to businesses you applied to.
Two weeks pass at my current Job Club training program at the Salvation Army. And I’ve performed an array of much more playful, ethereal and time-wasting tasks than I had in the past. I’m asked to illustrate an allegory of my desired career path so I sketched myself as a masked crime fighter in a cartoon strip. I’m instructed to design an advert to help sell myself in interviews. I’m required to pick and rank three totem animals in order of preference – so I choose a frog, a sloth and a gibbon that apparently informs me on how I see myself and others see me.
In other exercises, I’m asked to discern the difference between emotional, habitual and calculated decision-making that evokes enneagram exercises in high school. I tolerate lengthy classroom debates about taking early or late coffee breaks and where to display our cartoon drawings on the classroom walls. I partake in long farewell speeches for people finishing the course who the majority of the class barely know. And I complete Holland’s psych test to confirm what I knew – I’m strongly artistic compared to enterprising, investigative, conventional, social and realistic.
On a basic level, job training does create a platform of routine necessary for those dejected, demoralised or demotivated by long-term unemployment. Classes run from 9.30-1.30 Monday to Thursday for two weeks, often finishing early. Ahead of me is an additional, unsupervised week with verified non-contact hours required at a final meeting to prove 100 hours were served over this period. Although I have never been incarcerated, there is a sweet stench of parole to the preceedings. And once completed it is all rather vague what happens to me next. But goddamit I need the money and don’t have the spare time to actually look for a job.
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