As an employee of a particular Job Network Member (JNM) throughout most of last year, I have been given a particularly interesting perspective on the Howard government’s ability to manage unemployment and other social issues.
Many Australians are unaware of the existence of a Job Network and the processes that exist. Essentially, the creation of the Job Network saw the privatisation of what used to be the CES. Contracts were offered to private companies and some charity organisations, to assist unemployed people in their search for work. As part of this contract, JNM’s are required to ensure that “job seekers” are fulfilling their obligations to Centrelink as part of their claim for a Newstart Allowance. These obligations include the requirement to be actively seeking work, to be undertaking a mutual obligation activity (Work for the Dole) for 6 months of every year of unemployment, and a responsibility to take any job that is offered, even if it does not match your particular preference. A breach of any one of these obligations will incur penalties regarding your payments, including having them completely cut-off.
Under the contract, there are several circumstances under which JNM’s can receive a payment from the government for their services to the unemployed. Firstly, payments are received for every “job seeker” that signs up with a particular JNM. This acts on a referral basis with Centrelink, whereby the government agrees to refer a certain market share to JNM’s depending on the specifications of their particular contract. The second payment (and most profitable source of income for JNM’s) is received for placing “job seekers” into paid employment. When placing a “job seeker”, JNM’s will receive an initial payment followed by 13 and 26-week outcomes if the “job seeker” can hold that job.
The major flaw in the Job Network is its inability to target the source of unemployment. Issues such as drugs, alcoholism, poverty, the inability to speak English or communicate effectively, and depression are dealt with superficially. They are recognised but not seen as the target of unemployment. It is genuinely believed by both managers and employees within JNM’s that if an unemployed person finds a job, their problems will suddenly disappear. It is not recognised that long-term unemployment is the by-product of what is often a much larger issue.
The other flaw in the Job Network goes directly back to the government’s economic policy. In its push for economic growth and the “freeing up” of markets, companies have introduced cost cutting measures, mainly the casualisation of their workforces. This has combined with the decline of the decline of the manufacturing sector and transfer of jobs overseas where wages are lower. What these labour market issues mean is that certain groups are particularly vulnerable to being caught up in the vicious trap of long-term unemployment.
One of the hardest hit groups is mature age individuals that were previously employed in low-skilled manufacturing industries. Such companies have either moved offshore or will not employ them because it is easier to employ someone younger for a lower wage. They may take a casual from a recruitment agency that can be removed at will. JNM’s will often force individuals that are 55 years and over to search for work or risk their payments being cut. Not only does this make them insecure financially, it makes them vulnerable to issues such as depression born out of the fact that they face constant rejection. The government’s treasurer, Peter Costello, has recently proposed a plan to encourage people to work until an older age, with complete ignorance to the fact that he has created an economy that ensures it is virtually impossible for mature aged people to find work.
The other main group to be plagued by unemployment is non-English speaking groups. The Job Network has large proportions of people in this category, many of which are highly skilled. Many of these skilled individuals are forced into taking particularly low-skilled jobs at the risk of having their payments cut. I’ll never forget the comments of one particular member of management when, in reference to high-skilled workers, he stated: “Just because they’ve got a degree, doesn’t mean they can’t dig a hole”. Attitudes such as these ensure that vulnerable individuals are forced into jobs where they don’t understand their rights and are not likely to have any union representation.
Perhaps the biggest issue relating to the Job Network is the idea of privatising essential services. There is a major contradiction in the fact that the same types of corporations that are the source of the problem regarding unemployment are now supposed to be equipped to deal with those same problems. Admittedly, there are some charity organisations that run JNM’s (such as Salvation Army and Wesley Mission) who don’t have a drive for profits as their bottom line. However, these organisations only have a small market share compared to some of the larger private organisations. Furthermore, on interaction with some of these JNM’s, I found that they are riddled with the same culture that is embedded in the entire network. Namely, that unemployed people are that way by choice, and most are just rorting the system.
A corporation is a corporation, no matter what industry it operates in. Essentially, the drive for profits will take priority over any issue relating to social policies. It is this policy that undermines the legitimacy of the entire Job Network.