Standing up for unemployed workers' rights

In today's post, Dr Veronica Sheen covers the recent Australian Unemployed Workers' Union conference and casts a critical eye on Australia's current 'activation method' for reducing unemployment. "Standing up for rights through time honoured methods of protest, organising, and civil disobedience", she argues, "is sometimes the only way of getting action when governments fail to do what is right by segments of its citizenry". 

In April, I attended the conference Solving Our Employment Crisis organised by the Australian Unemployed Workers' Union (AUWU). The conference included speakers in leadership roles from various organisations including the trade union movement. But more importantly, it included the compelling voices of unemployed people themselves, from the membership of the AUWU. The conference brought into focus the hardships they face trying to survive on Newstart Allowance, well below the poverty line,* with the added burdens of the punitive and unhelpful activation requirements to maintain eligibility. The worst of these is the ineffective work for the dole program which had become such a large portion of the activation requirements under the Abbott government. It has been wound back in the 2016 Budget – but not abolished. The keynote speakers provided context and affirmation of the need for the campaign work of the AUWU and for greater collaboration between organisations on the issues raised at the conference.

The AUWU brings a much needed new perspective on unemployed workers' rights - and a platform for action. It is noteworthy that the entity has framed itself as a union, in accordance with some historical models as described on the AUWU website, rather than as a self help or representative organisation. This is an important distinction and raises many issues about where it sits within the broader trade union movement and within the framework of labour rights. While policy organisations such as the peak body ACOSS advocate for a better deal for unemployed people, they do not offer membership to the unemployed or a platform for activism. Most of the additional advocacy for the unemployed comes through service organisations who deal with the unemployed as clients but not as members or decision-makers. Most of these organisations' policy work comes from a service and income support improvement perspective rather than a fundamental reform agenda.

Social protection is of course an element of the mandate of labour rightsIts central element is a basic payment to individuals while out of work and while they search for work. But in Australia as in other OECD countries, income support for unemployed people has become conflated with objectives of 'activation'. Indeed, the latest iteration of the Australian government funded employment service system is termed jobactive (written in lower case for some reason).

The concept of activation is linked to a view of unemployed people as requiring specific stimulus to search for and find work due to their deficits in this regard without any acknowledgement of labour market failures and lack of jobs for all who want them.  It is heavily defensive against unwarranted and undeserved welfare receipt. To this end, the Australian government work for the dole policy mandates work itself as a condition of income support – from October 2016 after 12 months on Newstart Allowance but until then after 6 months with age-based hourly requirements. This marks a significant departure from the post-war formulation of unemployment payments as a minimal survival payment for temporary hard times. It marks a return to systems of statute or enforced labour that should have ended with feudalism, notwithstanding its continuing practice in some parts of the world. Crucially, work for the dole embeds an unemployment payment, in a paradigm of working for it outside a labour law framework. This contravenes international labour covenants and should be strongly opposed by the trade union movement. It constitutes a major area of dispute for the AUWU.

But work for the dole as it took form under the Abbott government, is just one aspect of the problematic activation method of dealing with unemployment which has advanced in policy terms as part of the ongoing assault on social welfare for the last 20 years or more. International evidence on the effectiveness of generic activation policies in employment outcomes is not strong so there is no other explanation for why a government would go down this track.

At the AUWU conference, unemployed people spoke of the impossible demands of job search requirements in difficult local labour markets and against the odds, if facing barriers such as disability or age. They also spoke of the absurd programs and training they were subjected to, which added little or no value to their job prospects. The founder of the AUWU, Owen Bennett, made the point that the main purpose of the activation policies was to discourage people from social welfare and to drive them into accepting the lowest paying jobs. This accords with my analysis about the role of employment service providers in turning unemployed people over to low wage, casual jobs (and the topic of a paper I gave at the ILO in 2013).

The Australian Unemployed Workers Union has taken on a major challenge in representing unemployed people and fighting for their rights. It has emerged at an important moment in Australian social history and its formation is indebted to Owen Bennett. There are many issues that the AUWU will need to take forward in its agenda as discussed at the conference which was an important step in consolidating its profile. It is advancing these with the production of the booklet The Unemployed Workers Rights: A Guide and its campaign for better insurance coverage as well as better health and safety caveats for those in work for the dole placements. It has been active in advocacy against proposed legislation that further impinges on the rights of unemployed people as well as organizing direct protests.

Over the last couple of months, I have been following the growth of the youth protest movement in France now termed Nuit debout (staying up all night, standing all night) against changes to labour laws the French government has been trying to implement in favour of greater flexibility in hiring and firing. But the movement is taking on a range of grievances and inequalities along the lines of the Occupy movement. Standing up for rights, through time honoured methods of protest, organising, and civil disobedience, is sometimes the only way of getting action when governments fail to do what is right by segments of its citizenry. At this time in Australia, that includes unemployed people.

*The Henderson Poverty Line for a single person in the workforce including as unemployed, and  to cover housing costs sits at $520 per week.  Newstart is $263 per week, with a maximum rent assistance subsidy of an additional $65 per week, so altogether a maximum payment of $328 per week or $192 below the poverty line.