A human rights lens on unemployment and welfare- to-work

Do we have the 'right' to a job, with decent working conditions, and to be protected from unemployment? In this post, social policy researcher Dr Veronica Sheen explores the humans rights implications of Australian labour market policy and activation schemes.

A few days ago at my local suburban shopping centre, I encountered a young man in his early 20s (I’ll call him Danny) outside its main entrance, soliciting money for food. Alarmed and concerned, I asked him what the story was and if he was getting a Centrelink payment. Yes, indeed Danny was getting unemployment benefits, Newstart Allowance of $258 per week, but his rent did not leave him enough out of his allowance and rent assistance to cover his other costs including food. Yes, he did have a social worker and yes he was in touch with the Salvos and the Vinnies. No, he wasn’t spending money on drugs. He looked painfully thin and I had not a moment’s doubt Danny was begging because he was hungry. He said that he was distressed at having to ask for money in this way.

My encounter with Danny took place shortly after reading a powerful article Unemployment and Punitive Activation as Human Rights Issues by Dr. Tania Raffass published July 2014 in the Australian Journal of Human Rights. The article reminds us that the right to work and protection against unemployment are embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was formulated by the United Nations and proclaimed by its General Assembly in 1948.

Specifically Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) says:

  • Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

These belong to a core of rights known as socio-economic human rights as distinct from civil and political human rights which tend to have much wider recognition and application. As Dr. Raffass points out in the article, the socio-economic sections of the UDHR have never gained much traction politically or in human rights endeavours.

In the second decade of the 21st century, around the world, there are many areas of grave human rights violations. The circumstances of children in refugee detention centres draws attention to the need for constant watchfulness on how violations can fester even in an advanced, liberal democracy such as Australia. But do those sorts of violations negate or reduce the socio-economic claims for human rights such as the right to work and protection against unemployment? I guess it depends on whether you see Danny’s situation of being unemployed, having insufficient income to cover basic living costs, begging in a public place in order to eat, and suffering a high level of mental anguish, as a human rights violation.

My doctoral research on midlife women in precarious employment included many who were also intermittently unemployed and reliant on Centrelink payments which is part of the deal with unstable and insecure employment arrangements. I came away from a number of interviews deeply troubled by what I learned of the women’s experiences. Dr. Raffass’ article gave me some new terms of reference for how I thought about their situations. As if being unemployed itself is not a cause for stress and anxiety, as well as sheer economic hardship, it is overlayed by a regime of ‘activation’ or welfare-to-work requirements involving intensive job search, activities such as training demanded by an employment service provider, and requirements under social security law to take any job deemed suitable including part time and casual work. For young people, there are also work for the dole requirements which might be considered a form of corvée or statute labour.

While none of these conditions for unemployment payments may be unreasonable in themselves, my research showed the harmful effects they had where the job market was unable to provide suitable job openings in a reasonable time frame. So conditionality for unemployment payments along the lines of current welfare-to-work strategies degenerates into a bleak and painful repetition of ‘activities’ that fail to break the cycle of unemployment and perhaps make the situation worse.

In my research, one woman had made 600 job applications over three years, resulting in ten job interviews and two probationary jobs that she had lost before the end of the probationary period because her confidence was so low. The activation strategies incumbent on her unemployment payments had served to reduce her job prospects through the damage they caused to her mental health.

There were other cases of women forced to take jobs they did not want to do, mainly care work which is the easiest placement option for midlife women, even though they were trying to acquire qualifications for work they did want and which would be sustainable for them. There were women living in extreme poverty and at risk of homelessness, an issue of increasing concern for older women. (To note, Danny was very worried about his risk of homelessness too).

We can look at these situations from a broad public policy perspective and consider the effectiveness and fairness of the outcomes of welfare-to-work and activation strategies. This is an important and legitimate means of analysis. However, I would argue that this will most likely lead to a tweaking of policy and not get to the roots of the problems.

A human rights perspective provides an alternative frame of reference for how we view the situation of people such as the women in my research and the activation policies they were subject to. Certainly, there were many examples of contravention of Article 23 of the UDHR.

In relation to unemployment, a human rights perspective asks at its core what is acceptable and what is not in the way people who require public assistance are treated because of labour market failure. For the simple fact is that there is a very wide gap between the number of jobs and the number of job seekers and this does not include all those sitting on the sidelines, the marginally attached.

The reality is that governments in Australia, in line with most other OECD countries, have been unable to deliver full employment since the mid 1970s (see unemployment figures contained in this presentation). Since the 1980s, going down the track of neoliberal economic policy, they have resorted to punitive welfare-to-work strategies that squarely place the liability for unemployment on the shoulders of the unemployed themselves. Since the GFC and with Australia’s shifting economic fortunes with the end of the mining boom and the demise of manufacturing, unemployment and underemployment have become more entrenched. This raises disturbing questions for what is around the corner for those unlucky enough to be out of a job in terms of further punitive activation requirements as governments struggle to seal the gap between supply and demand in the labour market.

Dr. Raffass argues in her article that it is time that public policy in relation to unemployment was not only evaluated from a macro-economics perspective but also from a socio-economic rights perspective as embedded in the UDHR. This is in fact a moral perspective. She canvasses the cases for a basic income and public sector job creation or job guarantee acknowledging how unlikely these are to gain any traction any time soon. Nevertheless, as the post GFC employment crisis continues, and uncertainty reigns around the long term future of work perhaps those left-field ideas that link human rights to a broader notion of social participation ‘beyond employment’ might have their day.

I hope for Danny’s sake there are some changes on the way that will enable him to move forward in his life as an active, engaged and happy citizen with an adequate income and an occupation he enjoys – actually simply his full set of human rights.