Driving back from Boggabri in Northern New South Wales where I and a comrade had been visiting the Leard State Forest anti-coal and CSG blockade it was hard not to notice all the little newspaper banners in local news agents and servos proudly proclaiming the Abbott government’s announcement of a return to Work for the Dole. After flicking through the Daily Telegraph while stopped for coffee it became clear that the announcement had proved a tonic for conservative editors, journalists and commentators alike whose post-Australia Day reporting might normally be a little more subdued by the after effects of beer, sun and meat tubes in bread.
It would be tempting to engage with the debate around the merits of Work for the Dole but previous experience has shown that it was a worthless programme that does nothing for the self esteem of young workers (often touted as a positive feature of the scheme, and the focus of the DT’s editorial on the matter), that it did not place workers in positions that were conducive to the development of employable skills and that it was often unsuccessful at finding lasting employment for the unemployed. There were also accusations that the placement system was being rorted by employment agencies who would delay placement of workers in order to obtain the largest job-finding bounty possible.
With this in mind it begs the question of why a government would commit to returning to such a disastrous policy and, just as importantly, why the conservative media would also be clamouring in support. The answer is simple, and not overly surprising: ideology.
During the last 30 years the social policies of Lawrence Mead have found traction amongst the conservative and “third way” political communities of the US, UK and Australia. One of the few people on the planet to have worn the label “neo-paternalist” with pride in the 1980s and 1990s, Mead has encouraged the development of punitive welfare to combat what he sees as a moral failure on the part of the poor who need greater incentive to solve their poverty. If this sounds familiar that’s because it is essentially the same motivation behind the Poor Laws and scientific charity of 19th century Britain which, as Charlie Fox notes in his history of unemployed politics in Victoria during the Great Depression, was a position that had largely been abandoned by even the most staunch of charitable organizations by the 1920s.
Even before the Great Depression rammed the point home rather forcibly, poverty had been identified as being the result of material conditions. In this day and age neo-paternalism should be seen as an anachronism not consistent with contemporary society.
Yet the pervasiveness of neo-paternalism amongst political parties in the West means that this may not always be immediately apparent. In the case of the Australian Labor Party, support for punitive welfare, condemnation of the long-term unemployed and the introduction of welfare quarantining in aboriginal communities and low-socioeconomic suburbs is indicative of the extent to which the modern party has abandoned the labour movement and serves as a reminder that appeals to the memory of the Light on the Hill are a cynical and deceitful exploitation of the labour legacy. Chifley was hardly perfect but his words have been twisted to support and promote policies that he and his peers so vigorously opposed after having lived and seen the effects of such policies in the 1920s and 1930s.
There is rarely any alternative to neo-paternalist welfare presented to the public or openly advocated by political players. Shaun Wilson and Nick Turnbull have argued that the Howard Government was successful in having the unemployed “distinguished as undeserving welfare beneficiaries and further differentiated from the deserving poor” through the use of wedge politics that tapped into traditional conservative attitudes towards the unemployed. Yet they also argued that Mutual Obligation and the Work for the Dole programme would be unsustainable if they lost their “vitality” or if they began to “consolidate a perception of a threat to social protection.” It is difficult to know how much support the new Work for the Dole programme will receive as a great deal of time has passed since it was last in place (thus removing some of the urgency and intensity of opposition and raising the possibility of a selective remembrance of the programme) and the Abbott government has received a mixed response to a number of its proposals.
For the Coalition, punitive welfare is very much business as usual, especially with at least 25 years of political precedence, the support of the Murdoch, Stokes and Packer media establishments and austerity being the word of the day in the international economic climate. Strong links between the Conservative Party in Britain and the Liberal Party here will also likely be conducive to punitive policies. The British Party has been engaged in reducing access to welfare and payments since its election 2010 and so will have built up a strong wealth of experience in implementing such changes, managing the fall-out and responding to criticisms; one would imagine the Coalition would be eager to make use of this resource, especially given the unpopularity of the current government and it’s economic programme.
Yet the possibility of transnational collaboration is not limited to Tories: there has been spirited opposition to welfare cuts in the UK and much highlighting of the detrimental impacts and human costs of the new changes. If the Abbott government pursues limitations on disability welfare and reassessments of the ability of disability recipients to work as was done in the UK, opponents will be able to point out that these changes may have cost the lives of 32 people per week after their disability pensions were reviewed. Opponents will also be able to point out that another aim of Work for the Dole or Workfare schemes, other than forcing inane 19th century values upon modern workers, is the creation of a hyper-low cost labour force that can be used to fill gaps in (and undermine) the labour market. As the Government talks about making Dole workers pick up litter, one might point out that this will cost the jobs of municipal cleaners who will find their positions undercut by free labour. Another useful example might be that of the London Olympics stewards who were forced to shelter under London Bridge after being bussed in en masse for unpaid work: not only did the workfare scheme mean that these workers went unpaid for their labour, but there have been accusations that these workers were essentially engaged as security workers but, due to their classification as “stewards”, were thus not required to a) be paid or b) be licensed to legally work as security officers. This one incident undermined the health and wellbeing of the workers, denied them the pay they were due for their work and undermined the labour market for other workers, thus placing them at risk.
And then there is the evolution of Workfare to the point that supermarket chain Tescos began offering work experience to the unemployed as shelf-stackers, with the promise that “if their work was up to scratch” they might be offered a full-time position later on down the road. This scheme distintegrated quite quickly, however, after the absurdity of requiring work experience for shelf stacking was pointed out and the accusation made that Tesco was essentially exploiting the Workfare scheme to obtain slave labour and reduce labour costs. Other companies similarly exploited the programme to prop up businesses that were otherwise unprofitable and tax cheats.
If Tesco had 300 positions available for young people then why didn’t they recruit through the usual channels, without forcing them to work for free first. And despite the firms promise of a ‘guaranteed interview’ (big fucking deal), Tesco have forcibly recruited 1,400 people onto workfare since they started using the scheme. So barely 1 in five of them was finally offered a no doubt minimum wage job at the end of it. Are these the only young people Tesco have recruited in that time? [the void]
There is a good chance that, except for certain communities (likely those with large aboriginal, migrant and poor populations), the Work for the Dole scheme will be advertised as voluntary. By making it “voluntary”, the government will be able to laud those keen workers who show leadership and fervour for obtaining honest work. But when a voluntary opportunity not taken results in the cutting off of welfare benefits it is not voluntary, and when participating in the voluntary opportunities means not being paid it means that Work for the Dole is slavery by a different name. This is one of the key contradictions of Work for the Dole: slavery by its very nature robs workers of their dignity, but the programme is promoted for its ability to restore dignity and self-worth to workers.
And if that wasn’t enough, all but one of the UK’s workfare schemes were found to be illegal and violations of human rights as they constituted forced labour. Forced labour is a recognised form of slavery.