Australia’s jobless to face mutual obligation rule despite few job vacancies | Australia news

Jobseekers face the renewed threat of benefit suspension after the federal government announced the return of welfare mutual obligations.

From 28 September, about 1.5 million people receiving unemployment benefits will need to search for up to eight jobs a month, sign a job search plan and participate in meetings with an employment services provider.

That’s despite limited job availability amid the Covid-19 recession, with analysis of government data showing there are 13 jobseekers for every job vacancy across Australia.

Benefits suspensions – which have been paused during the pandemic – will recommence, meaning jobseekers can have their payments stopped for not meeting these obligations.

In a move condemned by advocates who doubt its value and whether it is safe, the controversial work for the dole program for longer-term unemployed will also return in cases where the government believes it is “safe to do so and all health and safety requirements are met”.

Mutual obligations will remain paused in Victoriaas it grapples with tough coronavirus restrictions.

The changes coincide with a $300-a-fortnight cut to the coronavirus supplement – added to jobseeker, student and parenting benefits – on 25 September, a move that may cost the economy $31bn and 145,000 full-time jobs over two years.

Kristin O’Connell, spokesperson for the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, said the government was putting “unemployment cops back on the beat while there are no jobs to be had”.

“While ‘mutual’ obligations were suspended, we received countless reports from people saying they feel properly equipped to look for work for the first time,” she said.

“Without any penalties for not applying for jobs, job ads were receiving more applications than ever before.”

Cassandra Goldie, chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Service, said requiring jobseekers to search for eight jobs a month was “too high in the highly competitive jobs market”.

She added that the Work for the Dole program “does nothing to improve employment prospects [and] could put people at risk under Covid-19”.

Greens senator Rachel Siewert also added to the criticism, blasting the government for throwing struggling Australians under the bus to “line the pockets of private companies”.

“We are in the midst of a recession, the jobs are not there and we are basically making people chase their tails, pushing paper to keep this government happy, and line the pockets of private companies who are making a lot of money out of the unemployment industry,” she said.

Since 2015, the government has awarded more than $7bn worth of welfare-to-work contracts to private employment service providers.

Guardian Australia has reported extensively on the blunt nature of the welfare compliance regime, which saw jobseekers’ payments temporarily stopped 2.3 million times in 2018-19.

Of the 581,866 people who had their payments suspended last financial year, 121,604 were later found to have had a reasonable excuse.

In a joint statement, the employment minister, Michaelia Cash, and social services minister, Anne Ruston, said labour force data showed Australians were “returning to the workforce and many businesses are looking for workers”.

On Thursday, the ABS said unemployment fell by 0.7% to 6.8% in August. Economists said the shift was mostly driven by an increase in people describing themselves as self-employed, likely reflecting a boost to gig economy jobs such as food delivery.

But government data on jobseeker payment recipients shows there was a negligible change in recipients between July and August. The figure stood at 1.5 million in both months. There was little difference among those who recorded employment income.

The ministers said the government was also focusing on upskilling jobseekers as the labour market shifts due to the pandemic.

“Given the changing nature of the labour market, with many roles changing significantly because of Covid-19, the government is also increasing opportunities for jobseekers to train and upskill to become more employable in areas of high skill demand,” they said.

The ministers said short education or training courses would also count towards mutual obligation requirements under more flexible rules.

They said the government acknowledged it was “a challenging time for those looking for work” and encouraged people to access the support services made available.

This included “skills training, assistance for other work preparation activities and referral to relevant support services – including mental health services, if required”.

Labor’s employment spokesman, Brendan O’Connor, said the opposition supported the “principle of mutual obligation” but it should not be punitive and the government needed to create jobs, rather than just cut benefits.

Exemptions from mutual obligations will be available for those who can demonstrate special circumstances.

The new rules will apply to people on the jobactive program, the new online employment services program, disability employment services and ParentsNext.

In the case of ParentsNext, it means participants, who are mostly single mothers, may have their payments stopped for failing to attend activities that have previously included things like taking their children to playgroup or StoryTime session at the library.

Although people can have their payments restarted by “re-engaging” with their job agency, critics argue a delay to welfare payments often leaves those on benefits struggling to afford essentials and cover bills.

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Navigating the mutual obligation system has been humiliating and counterproductive | Jinghua Qian | Opinion

In March I finished up a fixed-term contract as a writer and editor for an arts media outlet. Soon after, the pandemic shut down much of the sector. Plays that I’d been booked to review were cancelled. Exhibitions that I’d been commissioned to write catalogue essays for were postponed. Editors I pitched to said their budgets were frozen.

I didn’t think I’d be eligible for jobkeeper because I’d only just returned to freelancing, so I applied for jobseeker. I started getting payments in April, along with emails telling me to sign a job plan.

The job plan outlined my compulsory mutual obligation requirements: I had to attend appointments with a job service provider, contact employers as directed by the provider, report evidence of my job search efforts, and various other obligations. “I am aware that I need to look for any suitable work, not just work that I would like to do”, the plan said.

Obviously I wasn’t keen on the prospect of abandoning the career that I’ve devoted my life to, but the emails from the department made it sound like I didn’t have the option to refuse, so I signed.

The job service provider I was assigned to didn’t have any understanding of the arts sector, the media industry, or my career prospects. I tried to explain that I was constantly pitching to editors and applying for grants, fellowships and residencies – with some success – but none of that helped me meet mutual obligation requirements.

I asked if the job provider could help me with expanding my client base for copywriting, proofreading or transcribing – just a few of the side hustles I’ve developed in the endless pivot that is journalism today – and it told me it didn’t do that. It only deals with “jobs”.

But work in Australia is increasingly insecure – freelance, part time, casual, contract – especially in arts and media. When every other week comes with announcements of mass redundancies in the media, the likelihood that I’ll find a full-time job as a writer is low. It seems sensible that I would try to patch together a livelihood as a freelancer instead.

While I’ve been on jobseeker, I have been constantly working and looking for work, but none of it counts towards mutual obligations. Neither does any of my volunteer work.

I know that it’s hard to make a living as a writer. That’s why I also do editing, proofreading, transcribing, copywriting, audio production, web design, public speaking, and consulting. I’m not fussy about accepting gigs: I write news and features, arts criticism, political opinion, lifestyle columns, listicles, but also résumés and grant applications. I’ll write you a break-up text if you hire me. With more and more podcasts and online events popping up as lockdown continues, I’ve been building my transcription business and learning how to provide captioning services. I think I’m pretty realistic about my career. I know my industry, and I know what to do to improve my prospects.

It’s frustrating and humiliating discussing my career with someone at a job service provider who seems wholly uninterested in understanding my situation. It’s even more infuriating when I remember that the government spends about $1.3bn a year paying for this. In 2018-19, job service providers reaped more than half a billion in bonuses when their clients found work, even when the client said that the provider was more hindrance than help. That’s the real welfare scam – yet many taxpayers seem unfazed that these providers are paid to demoralise and punish the unemployed, waste their time, and obstruct their search for work.

Eventually, after months of calling Centrelink and being given the runaround, I received a temporary exemption from mutual obligations. It turns out I was entitled to an exemption all along – thanks to the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, I was alerted to a news item on the Centrelink website that stated: “If you’re a sole trader or self-employed, you don’t have to meet mutual obligation requirements. This is so you can work to restart your business.” Yet no one I had spoken to at Centrelink was aware of this.

I’m fortunate that I know how to wade through policy documents, navigate bureaucracy, and advocate for my rights. Given my education and work experience, I’m better placed to negotiate than many others. I’m spared the worst of this system. But it still disgusts me to see how it’s designed around suspicion and disdain rather than aid.

As unemployed people have been saying for decades, the mutual obligation system is pointless, punitive and counterproductive. It’s a waste of time and money. It does nothing to help people find work. It’s just a complicated, expensive way of penalising people for being poor.

This farcical process of making people jump through hoops for sport is even more sadistic in the context of a pandemic and a recession, when there are far more unemployed people than there are jobs. There’s nothing mutual about these obligations, and it’s time to put an end to this nonsense.

Jinghua Qian is a writer, editor and arts critic

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