When volunteering isn’t valued: Welfare to Work and mutual obligation requirements

Previously we have published 2 blogs (here and here) written by Juanita McLaren, a student intern with the Women’s Research, Advocacy and Policy (WRAP) Centre at Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand.  As a part of her research, Juanita is interviewing single mothers who are registered with the JobActive (Welfare to Work) scheme.  Here Juanita relates “Gloria’s” (not her real name) story, who simultaneously won a community award for her volunteerism while also failing to adhere to Centrelink’s requirements for volunteer service. 

Gloria is a smart, composed, savvy woman in her mid-50’s who has been a single mother, carer, and valuable contributor to her local community for nearly two decades. She knows her rights within the welfare system but also knows that she cannot afford to miss one week of Newstart Allowance for failure to comply. She has been on this cycle of poverty for too long.

Several years ago, Gloria ended her marriage due to her husband’s alcoholism, raising four children as a single mother.  At that time, she had been out of paid employment or on maternity leave for a couple of years while raising her youngest two children as newborns and toddlers. Prior to that, Gloria had had a successful career, working full time whilst her older two were in full-time care.

She has also been primary carer for her parents as they aged, both of whom acquired Parkinson’s disease.  Her father passed away last year and her mother is now in a nursing home.  However, Gloria still needs the flexibility to tend to her mother who experiences panic attacks and other Parkinson’s-related anxiety issues, which are unpredictable in their onset and duration. There is also an assumption from her male siblings that she is the one to tend to her parents as she was “already on carers payments anyway.”

As well as caring for her mother, Gloria’s youngest son, now 16, has mental health issues that often mean she is house-bound in the mornings as it is a difficult process getting him out the door and off to school. With flexibility an imperative for her various caring roles, and having been out of the paid working environment for over 20 years, Gloria understands that finding paid work is becoming less likely, especially paid work that gives her the flexibility that her volunteering does.

Now that she is 55, Gloria can apply to contribute 15 hours per week of voluntary work to meet what she refers to as mutual obligation requirements for receiving a Newstart Allowance from Centrelink.  A year ago she was moved to the Newstart Allowance once her mother went into a nursing home, after years of being moved around from Parenting Payment to Carers Allowances or combinations of the two.

Gloria consistently does 15 hours of volunteering per week - ten at a major hospital as a librarian and with the Patient Health and Information service, and five at a local charity op shop where she is one of the main coordinators. In addition, Gloria is passionate about her local community and has sat on many community- and not-for-profit boards, participated in the planning committees of local initiatives, and is a consumer representative on the local hospital committee, which meets monthly.  On Newstart, and with no exemptions left (that is, allowances for not meeting compliance obligations), Gloria is also required to apply for 20 jobs per month.

Last year her Job Network Provider and Centrelink determined that her voluntary work, particularly that done at the hospital, was not considered ‘approved participation’ and her request to maintain it as her mutual obligation activity for NewStart was rejected. 

In lieu, they suggested two alternative volunteer roles: either chopping vegetables or producing stuffed toys – both in factories located in an outer suburb with a 45-minute train trip and the incumbent travel expenses that she doesn’t incur volunteering in her local community. Gloria has had it explained to her that the factory work meets more with approved activities because the Job Network Provider has a relationship with them whereby they have assessed the company and working space, which they have not done with the hospital where she currently volunteers.  (It is unknown why factory work is voluntary, rather than paid.)

Centrelink also wants her to commit to a set schedule for voluntary activities, whereas Gloria has an understanding with all her places of volunteer work that she sometimes requires flexibility to accommodate other commitments, such as appointments for her son.

Imagine how frustrating it is for Gloria, who was awarded her local Council's 2017 Citizen of the Year for all the investment she has given to her local community for the past 25 years, to have this work rejected as an approved activity.

“One level of government (local) recognises my voluntary work by giving me the highest award for volunteering that it can give one of its residents, yet another level of government (federal) rejects my application [to continue my voluntary work].” 

Gloria agreed to let us share her story as she feels the public need to understand how the system is so disrespectful of the people it serves, dismissive of the complexity in their lives, and uninterested in the very genuine ways that they contribute back to society. “I must admit I go between an attitude of 'I'm not scared of them' [Centrelink] to being worried that they can suspend or cut off my benefit and the time it would take me to try to address this with them. I have already spoken to my Federal MP and I plan to speak with my State MP as well.”  Due to fears of recriminations, she has requested we use a pseudonym for this blog. (This is not an irrational fear, as demonstrated in the unauthorised release of personal information by Centrelink from a client who was publicly critical.)

Gloria's experiences illustrate a number of issues with the ambiguity of approved participation. Where she participates and contributes fully to her community to the point of local government awarding her for her services, Centrelink and her Job Network Provider exercise micro-invalidations, rejecting her request to perform this voluntary work as 'mutual obligation' in exchange for her NewStart Allowance.  Their reasons?  Because it's not within specified days and times and it's not a location that they have a relationship with, highlighting a problem with the privatisation of monitoring compliance. The exchange of money between Centrelink and the JobNetwork Providers and the organisations they place people with for work or volunteering place no consideration on the individual needs and skills set of this remarkable 55-year-old woman who has contributed more than full time, although not within the 9-5 of an archaic working regime, as a mother, daughter and volunteer for much of her adult life.  When Centrelink stops trying to streamline operations through privatisation and box-ticking, the system might be able to see the true value of individuals like Gloria, and – who knows – save some of their welfare expenses along the way.