The Australian Greens are supportive of the recommendations in the Majority Report but consider more needs to be done to address the issues raised during this inquiry.
The inquiry clearly demonstrates that the jobactive system is not fit for purpose and is failing unemployed workers. We are particularly concerned that the jobactive system is being undermined from the outset because the government is prioritising compliance over genuine assistance.
The Government’s approach to employment services has meant that providers are more focused on enforcing compliance rather than assisting people into fulfilling employment pathways, particularly since the introduction of the Targeted Compliance Framework (TCF).
Through the inquiry process the committee has overwhelmingly heard that the focus is on punishing people for minor infractions, rather than looking at the individual and addressing the barriers they face.
The relationship between employment providers and people looking for work has significantly deteriorated following the introduction of the TCF because it is no longer the Department imposing penalties for non-compliance, it is a job provider who they have regular contact with.
Since jobactive started in July 2015, 5.2 million penalties have been imposed on people looking for work. Half of those penalties were overturned by Centrelink. Under the TCF the capacity for Centrelink to overturn penalties no longer exists, raising concerns about how many of the penalties applied by providers are in fact in error.
The high rate of penalties applied demonstrates the punitive nature of the Government’s approach to income support, where people are losing payments because they can’t make a job appointment or access Centrelink, often because they are living in poverty or face other barriers to employment.
Poverty is a barrier to employment so 'punishing' people by taking away their income ultimately defeats its own purpose.
We are concerned that employment consultants aren’t required to have any formal qualifications and are working in stressful environments. They have the power to apply sanctions, including suspending and cutting the payments of vulnerable people with little to no training. The churn rate in this sector is at around 40 per cent which points to systemic problems.
The jobactive model, the low rate of Newstart, mutual obligations requirements and the TCF are exacerbating existing mental health issues and have left people feeling there is little hope for the future and are causing distress and humiliation.
People are applying for jobs just to be compliant and businesses and providers are left paper shuffling for the sake of compliance.
With little oversight, the Government is outsourcing its responsibilities to private contractors who make millions of dollars to implement ineffective and punitive programs that ultimately punish people on income support.
The Government has taken an ideological approach to unemployment, framing it as a personal moral failing of individuals rather than addressing the systemic issues such as poverty, intergenerational trauma and job market conditions.
Jobactive and mutual obligation requirements are blunt instruments, a one size fits all approach that does not work and is causing harm. We need an approach that fits individual circumstances and barriers, particularly for young people, older Australians, disabled people and First Nations peoples.
Australia is a party to seven core international human rights treaties, one of which is the right to social security contained in article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Despite this, our social safety net is consistently eroded and people on income support are a target for savings.
Australia currently spends well-below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average on employment services and there is a strong case for more investment in this sector.
Urgent increase to Newstart and Youth Allowance
Until poverty is recognised as a barrier to employment by both major parties it will be difficult to fully resolve the issues that have been raised through the jobactive inquiry process.
It is widely accepted by the business and social services sector that poverty is a barrier to employment and that the current rate of Newstart and Youth Allowance is too low.
Even with the most supportive employment service provider, if people cannot eat, pay their rent, afford transport or access online services they will be very limited in their capacity to engage with the system and find employment.
Despite being the second wealthiest country in the world, poverty rates have remained entrenched at a high level, with 3 million people including 739 000 children living below the poverty line.
Increasing Newstart and Youth Allowance by $75 a week would significantly help people struggling to try to make ends meet, and is one of the measures we need to take to address poverty and unemployment.
Newstart is no longer a transitional payment as is so often claimed by the Government. 46 per cent of people on Newstart are on the payment for more than two years and there are just not enough jobs to go around. Conservative assessments show that depending on qualification levels there is as low as one job available for every 8 applicants who are unemployed or underemployed. Yet, people looking for work are left to languish on payments of less than $40 a day.
Evidence was presented to the inquiry that people are stealing food after having their payments cut off.
We already know that people on Newstart are food insecure and living below the poverty line. When their payments are suspended or cancelled, sometimes because they couldn’t afford to get to an appointment in the first place, they are left in a desperate situation.
Newstart must be urgently increased so that those who cannot find work or are facing barriers to employment are not condemned to live in poverty.
That Newstart and Youth Allowance be immediately increased by $75 a week.
That an independent body be established to provide regular, independent advice to the Government and Parliament on income support payment rates.
Drug and alcohol addiction
Changes to drug and alcohol rules and mutual obligation requirements brought in with the Welfare Reform legislation have made things worse for people with addiction accessing the social safety net, and were opposed by the Greens.
It is the Australian Greens' view that the committee recommendation that the Government take steps to improve provider awareness of recent policy changes for participation in drug or alcohol treatment programs counting towards annual activity requirements do not go far enough in assisting people on income support dealing with addiction.
The draconian TCF, removal of exemptions for drug or alcohol dependence, and changes to what qualifies as a reasonable excuse means that addiction is not treated as a health issue. It enforces compliance measures on people with addiction, who are worse off and face significant risk of further disadvantage. These Welfare Reform measures should be reversed.
Concerning evidence was presented by peak drug and alcohol body the Western Australian Network of Alcohol and other Drug Agencies about the impact of the recent changes for people with drug and alcohol addiction on income support in residential treatment:
People who are accessing services are receiving inappropriate job plans. Those are plans requiring them to continue looking for work even though they are in this intensive treatment program. They have had requests for additional medical certificates. They typically have, in the past, provided medical certificates. They've been required to attend multiple external meetings as well, despite being in this residential, intensive, full-time program. In terms of the impact on the staff of services, while previously it was dealt with through the assessment process for a residential program, now welfare workers are spending up to 30 per cent of their time just dealing with the jobactive processes of their clients. There are multiple instances where the job network providers and Centrelink have sought changes to medical certificates to remove or amend the identification of alcohol and other drug issues. People have reported that their job network providers have been saying, 'Just put down that they have a mental health problem. Just change it.' They have actually been contacting GPs as well to make these amendments. That's just to make it easier, I suppose, for them to process this.
The changes are resulting in welfare support officers having to spend up to 30 per cent of their time on administration activities related to mutual obligation, rather than providing supports to the individual.
The Greens are deeply concerned by reports that jobactive providers are asking doctors to change client’s diagnosis.
Drug and alcohol treatment is complex, and recovery, treatment and future employment is being hindered by employment providers being forced, in many cases, to treat addiction as a compliance issue rather than a health issue.
That welfare reform measures relating to removal of exemptions for drug or alcohol dependence are reversed.
That additional funding for training for job providers in assisting people on income support with addiction is made available.
That activity exceptions are allowed for people diagnosed with or people seeking treatment for an alcohol or drug addiction.
There has been overwhelming evidence presented throughout this inquiry, and many other Senate inquiries including into the Cashless Debit Card, Community Development Program and Robo-Debt, regarding the negative impact of mutual obligation is having on people on income support.
There was significant evidence presented to this inquiry from income support recipients who have had payments cut for a variety reasons that demonstrate the barriers people face in the current system, including:
not being able to get in touch with Centrelink both in person or through telephone or online services;
insufficient income to attend appointments or use online services from home;
no public transport in the region;
Centrelink or job provider losing their records;
unable to reach job providers;
inaccurate advice given by job provider or Centrelink; and
language barriers to using Centrelink services and lack of interpretation services.
Uniting Care said in their submission:
We note that the imposition of Mutual Obligation requirements on unemployed jobseekers is based on the assumption that individuals are able to exercise a degree of control over their situation in accepting welfare benefits. We challenge this assumption, however, in the context of our modern economy that is subject to structural unemployment, which means that for many people, there is no real alternative to accepting welfare benefits. This is especially true for unemployed people with limited skills and capacities, or those who experience forms of discrimination that further prevent them from entering and remaining in the labour market. It is our view that equitable welfare policy should acknowledge that the need for support to compensate for structural unemployment, rather than attribute joblessness solely to the personal failings of jobseekers. Employment policies and programs should therefore be developed in a way that acknowledges this, so as to reflect true mutuality—it is imperative that where obligations are accepted by income support recipients, there are realistic alternatives that provide meaningful employment opportunity and choice.
Recent research on welfare conditionality in the United Kingdom shows that mutual obligations are consistently ineffective in facilitating paid work. It demonstrated that mutual obligations result in negative behaviour change and outcomes, such as disengagement from the social security system, increased poverty and exacerbated poor health.
We note that the Majority Report points out the significant problems with mutual obligations but it does not go far enough in calling for reform to these punitive measures.
That a framework of true mutuality is developed that ensures unemployed workers are getting the support they need, but are not punished for being unable to find employment when there is a low supply of jobs.
That any new system introducing mutual obligations ensures that it is the Government agency that imposes any penalties, not employment services providers
Targeted Compliance Framework
The committee heard troubling evidence from submitters about the harsh impact of penalties imposed under the TCF. The Australian Greens did not support the introduction of the TCF and the evidence presented to the inquiry has shown the problems with this approach. The TCF should be abandoned. The Majority Report does not go far enough in its recommendations regarding the compliance framework. There was overwhelming evidence presented to the committee that the Targeted Compliance Framework is a barrier to employment and is keeping people in poverty.
That the Government immediately abandon the Targeted Compliance Framework.
The committee heard extensive evidence about unemployed workers being placed in an incorrect stream under jobactive. As pointed out in the Majority Report, the process for streaming is rudimentary. This results in many people being inappropriately assessed and therefore unlikely to receive the appropriate level of support.
The assessment process needs to change to more accurately identify strengths and barriers and ensure that unemployed workers feel more comfortable disclosing personal barriers. The Australian Greens believe that changes to the streaming process cannot wait and must occur as soon as possible.
That a new stream is developed for long term and very long term unemployed workers which provides additional support and special assistance.
That the process is immediately changed so that current jobactive participants are placed in the correct stream.
Job Plans and job search requirements
The committee heard evidence that unemployed workers are overwhelmingly given standardised Job Plans which are not tailored to their individual circumstances. This is concerning given Job Plans are part of a participant’s mutual obligation requirements.
The Australian Greens recognise that setting an arbitrary number of jobs to apply for each month is not improving people’s chances of gaining employment.
That jobactive providers negotiate Job Plans in good faith, that are individualised, include long term employment goals and training, and reflect changes to individual circumstances.
That a default approach to job search requirements be applied for everyone accessing employment services, in recognition that each person will have different skills, barriers and needs, and that this tailored approach is reflected in Job Plans.
Employment services consultants
Employment services consultants play an essential role in helping unemployed workers find work. Under jobactive, consultants experience large caseloads, inadequate training, time constraints, and high staff turnover rates. The Australian Greens are concerned about the qualifications of employment services consultants and the quality of the training they receive.
The Australian Greens disagree with the committee’s view that employment services consultants should not be required to have particular qualifications.
That a minimum standard of skills and training for all employment services consultants be immediately introduced.
That the development of a vocational training course or tertiary education course for employment services consultants be investigated.
Public service delivery of employment services
The Australian Greens are supportive of the public service delivering employment services for unemployed workers who face fewer barriers to finding a job. The committee received evidence that specialised services by not-for-profits, such as the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Victorian Council of Social Services, are having a positive impact for those that face complex and multiple barriers.
That employment services be restored to the public service for unemployed workers who are job ready and face minimal barriers.
That significant investment is made in specialised services for unemployed workers who face complex and multiple barriers to be delivered by the not-for-profit sector.
The committee heard evidence that jobactive is not tailored to meet the needs of unemployed workers with disability. Submitters to the inquiry described how some people with disability are being referred to jobactive who are unable to work. It is clear some of these people should have been receiving a Disability Support Pension. The Australian Greens are concerned about the number of people who are being denied a Disability Support Pension and forced onto Newstart because of changes to the impairment tables and the so-called program of support.
That the Disability Support Pension impairment tables are reformed to ensure people are properly assessed and provided with income support payments that meet their needs and circumstances.
Young unemployed workers
The Australian Greens do not support programs like the Youth Jobs PaTH program. These programs exploit young people by paying them less than the minimum wage and replacing paid jobs.
That access to a program of individualised support is offered to all young people, such as transition to work, and extended to people who are under 25 years old.
Older unemployed workers
The committee heard from older Australians who struggled to find work and faced multiple barriers to employment. This is exacerbated by the lack of understanding and training for employment services consultants around supporting older unemployed workers.
That a specialised stream be established for older unemployed workers that provides access to appropriate training and recognises their qualifications and work experience.
Humanitarian entrants and migrants
The committee heard a lot of disturbing evidence about the inadequacy of services and support for humanitarian entrants and migrants, including people missing English language classes to attend jobactive appointments. This is a perverse outcome given the importance of English language skills in securing employment.
The Australian Greens strongly support jobactive providers having the discretion to alter mutual obligations for humanitarian entrants participating in the Humanitarian Settlement Program and attending English language classes. We also support the improvement of services for humanitarian entrants and migrants overall in recognition of the additional barriers these people face to employment.
That humanitarian entrants and migrants are given more flexibility over when they start jobactive, including staggering the commencement of services and mutual obligations, especially if they are engaging in the Humanitarian Settlement Program or English language classes.
That participants can more easily reschedule appointments with jobactive providers, especially when appointments conflict with paid employment or activities that improve employment outcomes such as English language classes.
That eligibility of employment services is extended to provisional visa holders or permanent residents where needed.
The Australian Greens are concerned that some newly arrived migrants, such as those with provisional visas, are excluded from employment services.
The committee heard evidence from the Department of Jobs and Small Business that unemployed workers are generally satisfied with the quality of jobactive services. However, this is contradicted by the lived experience of unemployed workers interacting with the jobactive system. This raises the question about how comfortable unemployed workers are to provide their true opinions on jobactive if they know the Department is undertaking the survey.
That an independent body be established to monitor the quality of employment services. This would be separate to the committee’s recommendation for an ombudsman to resolve complaints.
Work for the Dole
The overwhelming amount of evidence received in the inquiry highlighted that the Work for the Dole program is not effective at helping people into work. The Work for the Dole program does not recognise people’s qualifications and can be a barrier to finding employment. It is not fit for purpose and does not significantly improve people’s chances at finding short or long term employment.
The Australian Greens believe the Majority Report does not go far enough in its recommendations around the Work for the Dole program.
That the Work for the Dole program be abolished.
The Australian Greens note the committee’s view that any online compliance system must be fully tested, both with providers and unemployed workers participating in the program, before proceeding.
That the Government takes a cautious approach when undertaking implementation of a new online compliance system.
Senator Rachel Siewert