In January, the Abbott government announced that it was due to embark on a review of welfare services, particularly with an eye to reintroducing Work for the Dole. In the months following there have been similar decrees issued, culminating in the announcement that the government intends to force job seekers to apply for 40 jobs a month and work a minimum of 25 hours a week (equivalent to three and a half full days or five half days per week) to receive unemployment benefits.

For the most part commentators have been eager to dismiss the scheme, most often by looking back to the Work for the Dole scheme piloted by the Howard government. While it is obviously useful to be able to challenge Work for the Dole on the grounds that it is demonstrably useless (and often detrimental) to unemployed workers; that applying for 40 jobs per month is an impracticable waste of time (except where jobseekers are able to game the system) made all the more pointless by the realisation that more job applications do not create more jobs; and unemployment benefits are too low to sustain workers, let alone facilitate their finding of relevant and worthwhile employment, the critique must not end here. It was disappointing (albeit unsurprising) to see GetUp! fail to make this distinction in its “The Adventures of Senator Abetz and Friends” cartoon, which largely concentrated on attacking the new Work for the Dole scheme on the grounds it was inefficient and ineffective policy, rather than a direct assault on the dignity of the unemployed. Work for the Dole and the philosophy of “mutual obligation” that drives it must be seen as class issues and considered for their role in forcing down wages and living conditions and denying basic worker dignity.

The Howard government’s mutual obligation policy was an attempt to provoke a significant change in the Australian social contract: whereas, roughly speaking, the expectation had been that citizens could derive benefit from the state in times of hardship or illness and this would be funded through taxation, Howard and the then Minister for Vocational Education and Training, Dr David Kemp, believed that it was “fair to require the person receiving that support to put something back into their community” (with an assumption that the unemployed had not, did not and would not pay tax, or something). Then, as now, mutual obligation sought not an equal distribution of obligation but instead a much greater burden on the part of the individual and is guided by a moral framework that sees unemployment and poverty as the result of personal moral failings. This neo-paternalism, most heavily influenced by Lawrence Mead, implicitly seeks to impart certain cultural and moral values upon welfare recipients so that they might lift themselves out of their socio-economic rut and, unsurprisingly, these cultural and moral values have a distinctly old-fashioned (reactionary) tinge to them. As one of Mead’s colleagues has said,

“…paternalism needs to be revived and strengthened where it is already accepted … and enlarged and extended for people – the homeless, criminals, drug addicts, deadbeat dads, unmarried teenage mothers, and single mothers claiming welfare benefits – who have by their behaviour indicated that they do not display the minimal level of self-control expected of decent citizens.”

Personally, I find that Mead’s “neo-paternalism” lends credence to the phrase “you cannot kill an idea” as it harks back to the scientific charity of the late 19th century; indeed, Mary Hawkesworth has even labelled Mead’s conception of unemployment as a “pathological theory of unemployment”. When seen alongside Workchoices, attacks on fundamental elements of the welfare state (such as universal healthcare) and the rabid anti-unionism that has coloured both the Howard and Abbott ministries it becomes clear that the Coalition’s ultimate aim is to regress Australian social conditions by about 100 years.

It is for this reason that I believe we need to re-examine the history of the Great Depression in Australia. At this time, the idea that wages should provide a minimum standard of living was still relatively new and under not infrequent challenge; also, the state had minimal involvement in the provision of welfare and the burden of ensuring the survival of the poorest and most vulnerable fell to private charities such as the Ladies Benevolent Society. It was also, as Charlie Fox has acknowledged, a time at which all but the most conservative of charitable organisations had abandoned the poverty as a result of moral failings explanation.1 It also followed nearly a decade’s worth of economic growth and development that, when viewed uncritically, obscured serious poverty and disadvantage. Ostensibly a time of near unbridled prosperity and often personified by the “flapper girl”, the 1920s actually saw profound inequality and economic despair in working class communities and by the onset of the Depression intermittent unemployment had become “a way of life” in Newcastle and other industrial towns. Under capitalism, poverty and suffering will be masked so long as we use the middle classes to gauge the health of our society and I believe that this is a lesson largely forgotten in Australia.

As the crisis of the Great Depression deepened and unemployment grew unabated, the charities faltered and increasing pressure was put upon state and federal governments to intervene as worker organised mutual aid organisations struggled to provide basic services, supplies and social interaction for the poor. In Victoria, labour groups were instrumental in applying pressure on the Hogan state government to provide additional funding for work projects, to provide unemployment insurance and to provide adequate sustenance and relief wages that would ensure the basic survival and dignity of the unemployed. To this end, the labour movement found itself facing intense political opposition. The original Unemployed Workers Relief Bill of 1930 was attacked as unfair and motivated by “sectional interests”, ultimately being rejected by the Upper House with the retort that “the bill was a scheme to subsidise idleness” rather than work. The President of the Geelong Chamber of Commerce and Manufactures evoked a familiar theme when he called for a “fairer” distribution of the tax burden to fund the Bill:

[if] sacrifices were necessary, it was reasonable that they should be borne by all… the contribution of the smaller paid man in the shape of his weekly stamp would not press hardly on the community, whereas the larger amount taken out of the funds of industry might have a serious effect upon unemployment.”

The President of the national body, the Associated Chambers of Commerce, went further in blaming the poor economic conditions on arbitration and the living wage – or, as he put it, “artificial systems of keeping wages and hours to a certain standard” – while the editor of the Geelong Advertiser attacked unionism for having engendered “a Shylock-like desire to secure as much payment and so many concessions as possible without giving adequate return in labor(sic) and service.” These arguments, albeit with a more modern lingo, remain a frequent feature of the Industrial Relations debate in Australia.

At a rally of 10,000 unemployed workers held in Melbourne on the 11th of January, 1931, the President of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council (Don Cameron) opined that unemployment was growing worse in spite of all that had been done by the Hogan labor government and that the metropolitan labour councils were wholly unsatisfied with the offer of 12s. 11d. per day (equivalent to $54.51 in 2013 terms) for workers engaged on relief works. As workers would only be allowed four days’ work per week this meant that they would only be able to earn a maximum of £2/11/8 ($218.02) per week; in country areas the weekly rate was capped at £2/6/- ($194.10) but with a compulsory deduction for food costs of 19/- this left country relief workers with a real maximum wage of £1/11/8 ($133.60), well below the minimum wage of the time (£3/10/2 or $269 [2]). In Ballarat, where from August 1931 workers were engaged a Work for the Dole programme that required them to perform 20 hours’ work every third week, sustenance workers could earn a only maximum of 8s. 6d. per week ($35.87) on municipal works and were attacked for having “surrendered themselves to idleness” when they offered resistance to such low pay.

Incidentally, under the proposed changes to unemployment welfare announced by Senator Abetz and Luke Hartsuyker, workers who find themselves unemployed after 1 July 2015 will be eligible for a maximum weekly payment of $255.25 (less than $40 more than the rate for unemployed workers in 1931 and $13.75 less than the minimum wage in 1931) unless they are aged between 22 and 24 (in which case they will be put on Youth Allowance at a weekly rate of $207.40 per week) or are enduring one of the one-to-six month periods of payment embargoes as encouragement to seek employment.

Returning to 1931, work for sustenance (Work for the Dole) schemes were lucrative opportunities for municipal councils hit hard by their own financial strife: the councils were still obliged to provide costs for materials and supervision but labour costs were to be worn by the State government and at a considerably cheaper rate than if those workers had been engaged as employees of the municipality. Work for sustenance schemes were also offered support from some sections of the unemployed who were generally from middle-class areas or associated with a more conservative world view (such as returned soldiers) and who performed work for councils for free in the belief that it demonstrated their “genuineness” as welfare recipients. In 1932, the Packer Plan enacted by the Caulfield City Council attempted to use sustenance pay as a subsidy for workers’ wages by allowing local employers to pay the difference in pay between the value of the work and the sustenance rate.

Within the labour movement, work for sustenance was considered labour conscription and a denial of the basic right to withdraw one’s labour; the Packer Plan and underpayment of those engaged on municipal works generally were rightly seen as attempts to drive down labour costs and exploitation of the unemployed. Formal opposition to work for sustenance was driven by two main groups: the Central Unemployed Committee (CUC), run by the various trades hall councils; and, the Unemployed Worker Movement (UWM) which was run by the Communists.

When in late-1931 the conservative opposition tried to force an amendment to the Victorian Labor government’s Unemployment Relief Act to make work for sustenance compulsory the CUC used its connections with the internal structures of the Labor Party and the unemployed masses to oppose the amendment. It sought and won the support of the Trades Hall Council and the ALP State Conference and instructed MPs and municipal representatives to reject the scheme, while also telling unemployed workers to reject the first calls to work and instead picket the call-ups to prevent their coming into operation. The UWM also called upon the unemployed to reject the call, albeit in the typically more emotive language of the Communist Party at the time. At this time their efforts were vindicated and the amendment rejected but the issue arose again in 1932 after the election of the conservative United Australia Party (UAP) to power.

The UAP government endeavoured to force local councils to adopt work for sustenance when providing sustenance, but local unemployed groups provided fierce resistance. They faced not inconsequential penalties and those workers who refused the call were immediately struck from the register and barred from accessing sustenance payments. During 1932 and into 1933 call ups in Blackburn, Mitcham, Ringwood, Caulfield, Dandenong, Broadmeadows, Footscray, Coburg and Essendon were not only unsuccessful but were also in many cases picketed, leading to the government agreeing to raise the rate of pay to the minimum wage under the Municipal Employees’ Union award and some municipal councils to abandon the scheme altogether.

The latter development prompted the UAP government to intervene and create public works directly under its control through which it could force workers into work for sustenance. Two of these works now form some of Melbourne’s best known landmarks: the surrounds of the Shrine of Remembrance and Yarra Boulevard, and all came with a promise of increased pay. The new rates meant that single men would be paid 8s. ($37.10) per week of work, a married man with no children 13s. ($60.30), a married man with wife and one child 15s. 6d. ($71.85), with an additional 1s. 6d. ($6.95) to be paid for each additional child thereafter.

The CUC was unimpressed with the payrise and moves were quickly made to declare the works black. Their demands remained consistent: more days of work per week and a pay rise to the minimum wage to see single workers paid £1/1/6 ($99.70) for 2 days’ work, married workers with no, one or two children £1/12/3 ($149.50) for three days’ and, at the highest end of the scale, £3/4/6 ($299) for married men with eight or more children. By the end of July workers from Fitzroy, Collingwood, South Melbourne, Geelong, Northcote and Preston were out on strike and every unemployed worker from Port Melbourne was struck from the register for refusing to work, leading to the abandonment of the project to reclaim lands at Fisherman’s Bend.

While the strike may have been called by the CUC it was local men and women, local strike committees and the radical-dominated Central Strike Committee that did the leg work. Yet the extraordinary solidarity and work put into the campaign by the local committees was ultimately undermined by the THC Executive, who had repeatedly snubbed the rank-and-file during the campaign, when they sought parley with the government and negotiated to return to work. A small pay increase had been won but even the THC Executive conceded that they were “quite insufficient to supply the bare necessities of existence”.

The 1933 strike was by no means the first withdrawal of labour from sustenance works, nor its last, but it offers several important lessons to us as we look down the barrel of Work for the Dole: Redux. Firstly, we must remember that the ability of workers to withdraw their labour is a fundamental right that Work for the Dole threatens. In the UK, where the Abbott government is drawing considerable inspiration for its Work for the Dole scheme, all but one of the government’s Workfare schemes were found to be unlawful forced labour (that is, slavery) because workers were unable to withdraw their labour without punishment (in this case, being unable to afford food or shelter due to the revocation of welfare payments). The consistent and significant underpaying of unemployed workers in the 1930s and 1990s illustrates the vulnerability of this section of the workforce and, as municipal councils in the 1930s and large multinational companies based in Britain more recently have found, Work for the Dole is an effective way to minimise or even eliminate labour costs. As the old saying goes, “touch one, touch all!”

Secondly, the maintenance of opposition to exploitative and unfair labour practices required strong support from the community and the organisation of mutual aid efforts (as opposed to charity) to sustain the unemployed. If we learned nothing else from Occupy in Australia we should remember that creating alternative infrastructure to support a community campaign is very achievable and would be even more so if the considerable resources of the unions is brought to bear. A reasonable body of literature has been cultivated by academics and writers embedded in political campaigns over the last few decades and volumes such as Protest Camps by Anna Feigenbaum, Fabian Frenzel and Patrick McCurdy when taken with the countless zines and other non-professional resources offer an opportunity to learn from and build upon similar movements that have come before. In terms of organisational models, Adelaide’s Anti-Poverty Network (representing a wide range of social and political organisations), Auckland Action Against Poverty and the UK’s Boycott Workfare are only a few of many organisations worth drawing inspiration from.

Political organisation is also vital for the unemployed, to ensure that basic work rights can be guaranteed and to provide infrastructure for the articulation of unemployed workers’ needs. Such organisations must be led and directed by the unemployed and be allowed to flourish even when their desires do not match up with the organised labour movement. But, whatever form or direction such organisations take I would strongly suggest they regard the Australian Labor Party as an enemy and withhold the temptation to be pulled under their wing if such an offer is made.

When the Howard government announced its intention to legislate the mutual obligation the then ALP Leader, Kim Beazley, not only suggested that the policy was an adaptation of policies developed by the ALP and then put into effect by Tony Blair in Britain but even claimed that the Coalition had stolen the term “mutual obligation” from the Keating Government’s Working Nation scheme. It was the ALP who extended welfare quarantining (income management) from Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory to working class suburbs, who held out against increasing the old age pension whilst simultaneously conceding that the rate was “totally inadequate”, who went from claiming to be the friend of Toyota workers laid off en masse one month to promising to increase Newstart payments by a paltry $4 per week the next (while fully aware that the payments were already inadequate to maintain a suitable quality of life), and who cut single parent payments – amongst many other things. The rightward drift of the ALP has not only cost it its voter-base, it has also paved the way to our current situation; expecting such a group to act in the interests of the unemployed is a false hope.

The reintroduction of Work for the Dole and expansion of mutual obligation is a real and present danger for the more vulnerable members of our society. It is a scheme that seeks to bulldoze labour rights and conditions in the most egregious manner and, when considered in the context of the rest of the Coalition’s legislative programme, would be an important step in sending us back to a past we cannot afford to relive. Our opposition must start now.

1 Though one might like to compare the quote above from James Wilson with one from the Secretary of the Victorian Government’s Charities Board in 1930:
As case after case is brought before you, the conclusion is at length inescapable that some weak point in character is at the bottom of almost every case of distress and to strengthen character … is the only remedy worth applying.”
2 After the 10 per cent wage cut ordered by the Commonwealth Arbitration Court that became operational on February 1, 1931.

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