We’re not considered. We are not respected. We’re painted with the same brush, as though for some reason we’re criminals because we’re in need. Where are the jobs?
In addition to receiving many written submissions from individuals, throughout the inquiry the committee heard deeply-personal verbal testimony from individuals with direct experiences of jobactive, unemployment and underemployment. Many of these individuals who provided powerful evidence to the inquiry do not feel that their voices are heard under the current system. At a time when employment services are being redesigned, Australia's peak social services organisation has highlighted the importance of these voices being heard:
It is absolutely vital that governments and employment services, and peak bodies and advocates such as ACOSS [Australian Council of Social Service], listen to the voices of people who are unemployed when redesigning employment services. These services can make a crucial difference to people's prospects of securing paid work, especially for people facing disadvantages such as long-term unemployment. The way in which employment services, Centrelink, governments and the media treat people – especially in monitoring compliance with activity requirements – also makes a huge difference to people's experience of unemployment.
By setting out direct quotes, this chapter aims to build a picture of the challenges faced by participants in finding work and engaging with jobactive. These voices serve to highlight the profound impact of government policies on the lives of participants and the need for appropriate and effective employment services.
A common theme for many jobactive participants is that requirements under jobactive did not assist them to find work and in some cases operated as a barrier to employment.
There are approximately 631 000 jobactive participants across Australia. The following quotes therefore represent only a sample of the experiences of all participants. Further testimonials are included throughout this report.
Ms Jaki Wilson, a job seeker from the New South Wales Central Coast, gave evidence about the difficulties she faced finding work after taking a voluntary redundancy:
I applied for a job at the ATO [Australian Taxation Office], which was touted as a great thing for employment on the Central Coast—and I'm sure it was for the people who did secure work there—but I got a rejection email from that application, which is unusual. This one was particularly unusual in that it told me how many applicants there had been—1,048 applicants—and of those the email said 19 would be progressed in the selection process. I don't actually know how many roles there were, but let's say they were going to interview three people for each of the roles. That makes about 170 applicants for each role. I maintain that there are just not enough jobs for all of the people. I am sure that there is regional variation and skill mismatches and so on, but overall there are not enough jobs for all of the people who are looking for work.
A jobactive participant with a background in retail and a Certificate III in Hospitality, who lives in Adelaide, described the destructive impact of being unemployed since 2013:
The thing that holds me back more than anything is my lack of self-esteem. My confidence is completely shattered. Due to my poor diet, my looks are rapidly fading, my skin is dull, my hair is thinning, the bags under my eyes look like I have black eyes some days. I have mental health issues that I cannot afford to get treatment for, even with the rebate. I haven't updated my prescription glasses in over 5 years. I am stressed constantly. I feel isolated, judged and incredibly alone…
Nobody wants to hire a person who looks dishevelled and malnourished…
I would rather have a job and support myself than to live like I do now.
Mr Shae Dwyer, a young man who works in the kitchen at Northern Community Church of Christ, located in inner Melbourne, spoke about the barriers to employment he faces:
I'm someone who really wants to work. I've got qualifications. But one of my barriers is not driving, not having a licence—which is somewhat understandable, but there's public transport. I'm reliable. I'm never late to work—my Work for the Dole—always on time, and I get knocked back just because I don't drive. I had a call not long ago and was asked a list of questions by someone who called me up for a job I applied for. The last question was, 'Do you drive?' And they said that they don't need me, just because of that…
I know that getting a job first is hard enough. I want to get a job first so I have the money to get a car and pay for lessons, because I don't know anyone that can really teach me, even if I did. There is the cost of running a car and everything—I can barely afford to live as it is—and paying rent before I can think of getting a car. So, really, I need work before I can get my licence and get a car. I could get my licence, but I wouldn't be able to drive and it would make things a lot harder…
Job agencies are not connecting well enough with the places that are set up for people to go to and work for the dole. They're not connecting enough to know exactly what kind of work people are doing and exactly where to place them. I've got a set amount of jobs to apply for each month; that's 20. I even have to apply for some jobs that I don't necessarily want to do, and even my job provider will apply for jobs for me at places I don't necessarily want to work at.
Ms Kim Pendlebury, a jobactive participant who works at the op-shop and in the office at Northern Community Church of Christ, gave evidence about her frustrations with jobactive:
I think there are many frustrations associated with being a jobseeker these days, especially being an older jobseeker, like dealing with job service providers whose main interest, despite what we're told, I believe, is not helping you but ensuring their own pockets are fully lined with the cash they receive for their services. Why is it that the JSP [Job Service Provider] is still paid an amount by the Commonwealth when you source your own employment independently? I can understand their getting paid if they referred you for a role which you then get, but how is it fair if an external agency has done all the legwork and they get the credit for it—and I've heard that that is the case.
Also, the high staff turnover within the JSPs is often incredibly frustrating. You deal with one person for a few months only to be informed on one visit that they're moving on, and you've got to get to know a new consultant. I reckon that in my almost six years I've dealt with at least half‑a-dozen consultants, if not more, at one agency.
The Australian Unemployed Workers' Union (AUWU) provided the following testimonial, from a de-identified jobactive participant who works casually, about the excessive rigidity of the current system:
I was inappropriately cut off from Newstart. I had phoned to say I was unable to attend an appointment because I would be working so they cut me off. This then took more time and stress phoning the relevant government departments to get reinstated... As I have casual work I often have to try to reschedule appointments but there is no flexibility and I always just get another appointment automatically set for me without checking with me to see if I can make it, which almost always I cannot... I have had increasing amounts of work but the agency wanted me to come in every week for an hour at their designated time irrespective of my change in circumstances. It seems the only way to stop these job providers from trying to harass me is to turn down work so I can jump through their inflexible hoops that don't lead me to employment anyhow. I have been bullied, and I don't use that word lightly, by an agency trying to make me sign a job plan that was not suitable for my circumstances.
Mr Michael Smart, a creative artist who lived and worked in the United States for several years, gave evidence to the committee. He has been unemployed for five years after moving back to Australia. Mr Smart informed the committee that he was badly injured whilst completing Work for the Dole:
I am a creative artist—a graphic web designer, photographer, videographer, writer and musician. I have an associate degree in visual communications and social sciences, which is basically a fancy way of saying IT and graphic design. I have worked in multiple industries: building, construction, warehousing, forklift operator, furnace cleanout, building maintenance—pretty much, you name it and I've been there.
Three years ago I suffered an injury during Work for the Dole activities. I have suffered major mobility issues. Basically, my life has been destroyed and I'm a shadow of my former self. I have a chronic pain condition. I have mobility issues and I now walk with a cane and my partner now takes care of me...
Mr Smart explained the catastrophic impact of his injury on his physical and mental health:
I have had a diagnosis of disc herniation, disc protrusion and nerve impingement. It has given me sciatica and loss of bowel and bladder sensation. I have internal bleeding. I pass blood with every bowel movement. I also have abnormal straightening of the cervical spine in my neck and possible radiculopathy, which causes nerve pain through my shoulder and numbness and tingling in my left hand. And I don't sleep anymore. With my first injury, I fell down a retaining wall. I reported it. I thought I was okay. I kept working into the next week. I lifted a heavily loaded wheelbarrow and a sharp shooting pain went up my spine and dropped me down on my knees. Pretty much from that point on, I have been losing the ability to walk. I thought I would lose my legs. I was going to end my life, if not for my partner at the time. I ended up getting a walking aid. I have basically been my own physiotherapist, my own doctor and my own psychologist since this occurred, because there is no WorkCover under the Work for the Dole program. Basically, I have taken out advance payments to pay for my own specialists and waited six to eight months in between. And there have been issues. I've had to continue getting medical certificates to sustain the new exemption since my condition was neither stabilised or treated. It is classed as permanent and I have been told I am going to be dealing with this for the rest of my life. So it has been pretty catastrophic to my life. I am basically a different person because of this. I have had to learn to live within limitations. It has been pretty catastrophic.
Ms Tracey Ashmore, a jobactive participant and advocacy officer for the AUWU, gave evidence to the committee about the calls she receives from other participants. These include calls from participants who are suicidal:
I hear a lot of stories. People call me each week about the struggle—not only struggling to survive on Newstart but the added pressure and abuse that is dealt to them by the job service providers, these agencies who don't even help us find work. In fact they hinder us. Their unrealistic demands don't take into account our location or our circumstances. They don't consider our goals. For instance, somebody might have started studies in something, and they'll cancel that because they want them to go off into some other area. All I can say is that call after call that I've received as an advocacy officer is the same story over and over. People are driven into severe depression. I'm talking to people who want to kill themselves because they feel like they're worthless. I can honestly say, from my own experience, that I know that feeling. That's why I became an advocacy officer.
Years ago I started an apprenticeship. This was through a job agency. As a mature-age woman, this was quite an achievement for me. It was like a dream come true. I'm going to be a chef. I can start to see my future. I'm excited about this and I'm so passionate because I really want this to work. They changed the cook to someone who was not qualified to train me. Instead of finding me another restaurant to carry on my apprenticeship, the job service provider made me cancel my apprenticeship and hand in all my cooking tools and equipment and my uniform. When I questioned them on this, they said it was because the restaurant is happy to keep me on as a kitchen hand. Can you imagine what that did to me?
Mr Thomas Studans, a jobactive participant from New South Wales, provided the following evidence about how his job search requirements do not reflect his circumstances or how he finds work:
I have major depressive, anxiety and panic disorders so assessed by a range of treating professionals, which limit my ability to participate in the labour market as it exists. However, the biggest obstacles I have faced in accessing this market comes not from my mental illness, but the Employment Services industry itself…
Frequently, the jobs that I apply for to satisfy Centrelink or 'jobactive' requirements are unrelated to the real and measurable work that I do, because it pays cash, or because Employment Services or Centrelink doesn't see it as 'a real job'. This arrangement is inflexible, and doesn't take into account realities of the modern labour market, let alone for those with severe mental illness who have to make do.
Mr Jeremy Poxon, a jobactive participant from Melbourne, provided the following evidence about the severe consequences of being unable to reschedule an appointment due to casual work:
A few weeks ago, I was cut off my payments for “failing to attend an appointment” with my agent. I was unable to attend that appointment, because I had been called in, last minute, to work a shift at my casual job--a job I got, mind you, without any help from a job agent. I tried to call and call my agency but nobody there every answers the phone. (I brought this up at a later date and my [Job Services Provider] said they’re too understaffed to answer the phones). Because I couldn’t get through to re-schedule my appointment (i.e. my compliance demand) I received a text message to say that I was immediately stripped of payments.
According to Mr Joel Reynolds, another jobactive participant, jobactive is unhelpful and actually gets in the way of finding employment:
I have been on Newstart for around 2 years, and my job agency has done little to nothing to help me find work. My appointments and obligations they make me do are more pointless busy work that is a waste of time then anything helpful.
They are almost always late when I go to appointments. Between 15 mins to an hour, as well as every time I go to an appointment, I see a different person, and most of my time there is spent repeating basic information about myself and my work history that I have told them at every other appointment. This is on top of once being cut off of my payment for being 10 minutes late to my job agency due to issues with buses, then having to spend 3 hours going between there and centrelink to get it back on, both of them insisting it is the others responsibility.
Any courses I have done through my agency has not been in the fields of work I have experience in, despite my requests.
They offered no help in the cost of transport to get to my obligations, nor did they help at all with my required work for the dole, which I organised myself in order to get further experience in work I have already done, rather than the work for the [dole] site they tried to make me do.
I have found them to be pointless and more of a hindrance to finding work than anything else.
Ms Karen Jennings, a jobactive participant, described the challenges of balancing jobactive requirements with casual employment:
The main issue I had with my job active provider (I’m now with a different one) is that they did not consult with me, when doing a new assessment for my updated job active pathway plan, as to what days I was working, hours, etc, as to what works best with me when attending the job activities at their office. This had resulted in my Newstart payments suspended several times, after I’d called in to let them know the day before, sometimes 2–3 days before, that I was unable to attend, due to work commitments. They had me down in their job activity plan, to attend 3 days a week, 2 hours each time, when I was already doing a 13–14 hour week of work every week. Their job activities consist of sitting at one of their computers doing “job research.” Either that, or it’s go on a Work For The Dole Activity Program, I was told by them, which I’d done twice before in the past few years. I’m 49 years of age now and this is just ridiculous. These job activity requirements need to be consistent with the job seeker and made to fit in with their working schedules (for those already working).
The following heart-breaking account of a participant's first day doing Work for the Dole was provided to the committee:
I believe they think I am crying because of how long it took me to get there, as this is all I have told them so far. In fact I am crying because the pervasive sense that I can’t get a job, therefore nobody wants to pay me to do anything, therefore I have no value to my society, therefore I am worthless, has just been experientially confirmed.
A 57 year old jobactive participant from Western Australia who has worked the majority of her life, felt as though she was treated like a ‘dole bludger’:
I have been unemployed since 2014 and have had four different Job Search Providers due to them losing their contracts for not meeting the so-called Government Targets. I have received no assistance at all from them except to jump through hoops. I am currently doing a Cert 3 in Business course as part of my work for the dole program, yet it will not help me get a job at all. The JSP has admitted it is just to meet the Government idea of earning my unemployment benefit. I am now 57 years old and have worked the majority of my life paying taxes, and I am now treated like a dole bludger who does not want to work. For four years, I have been applying for 20 jobs per month and have not had one interview.
Ms Kylie Wright, an employment services consultant from a remote area of Tasmania, provided the following account about the deleterious consequences of jobactive for a young participant:
We have in our midst a dynamic young fellow (aged 23) who is working hard for youth engagement through his volunteer work at our local Neighbourhood House. He is a Youth advisor on the Neighbourhood House Tasmania committee , and is also employed in a part time paid role within the house through it's thrive program. He also recently stood for local Council and is on the Youth Advisory committee for local Council. He is also studying part time. His job service provider demanded that he take on a low paid traineeship, which would have prevented his involvement in the important work he is doing in youth services in our community, plus lost his position on the board, and his paid role, which will ultimately lead him to working with the community in an area that he is passionate. He would also have had to cease his study, which he travels to Launceston for. His provider insisted that he take on this traineeships, and when he refused to, he was penalized by his provider and cut off his centrelink payments, and forced to re-apply after a waiting period of 4 to 6 weeks, and has been forced to live on his meager income of just $300 per fortnight. This to me is disgraceful. The traineeship would never have lead him to sustainable long term employment as his current work will, and he should never have been forced into this situation. He has his future mapped out for himself. He stuck to his guns and stood up for what he knows is right for this community and was penalised for it. Despite the manager of the Neighbourhood House writing to an appeal for him. He is still waiting on the outcome of the appeal. He has been without any Centrelink assistance for more than 8 weeks now.
These personal experiences demonstrate that many jobactive participants feel punished by the program, rather than assisted and supported to find long-term and meaningful employment. These issues are explored in more detail throughout this report.