Image by Department of Human Services

You’ve just turned 18. You know that university isn’t for you, so you immediately head down to your main street, apply for a bunch of jobs. You wait. There’s no response.

In the meantime, you head down to Centrelink, to help get some more income flowing into your already cash-strapped household. As usual, the local Centrelink office is overcrowded, hot, and full of screaming toddlers, swearing ferals, stern-looking security guards and emotionless Centrelink workers. You line up in the queue, freshly-printed Health Care Card in hand, tell the officer what you want to do—sign up with Newstart. You’re shuffled off to the overcrowded sea of chairs, fill out your papers while you wait and wait. An hour later, your name is called, and you’re lead off into a cramped office, face-to-face with the stern-faced Centrelink case worker assigned to deal with you.

You’ve been assigned to a job agency, also known as a jobactive provider. Under the Government’s latest rules, in order to receive Newstart, you must sign up with a job agency, as well as Work for the Dole. After an appointment with the job agency, you’re assigned rubbish pick-up at the Toowoomba Showgrounds as part of your Work for the Dole. You’re excited, but also nervous. At least you’re now receiving your meager barely-minimum wage: $218.75AUD (approx $175USD) per week.

You soon learn rubbish pick-up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Your job agency’s on your back about applying for your set amount of jobs every week, but you’re exhausted and overworked picking up rubbish every day. One day, you’re injured, but your job agency doesn’t believe you. Your mum says to take the day off work anyway, but you know the agency will screw you every way from Sunday if you do so, so you go to work anyway. Anyway, you’re not even allowed to fill out injury paperwork. So you go to work. It is on this day—the 21st of April, 2016—that you go to work. While you have no experience or qualifications doing so, you’re assigned to work on the tractor, but your bosses—already uncaring of you, since you’re not really a proper worker anyway, just one of those lazy dole bludgers—don’t really care about what you’re doing. It doesn’t end well. You fall from a flatbed trailer, towed by a tractor, in the midst of your hard work. Perhaps your prior injury made it difficult to do this already challenging work? Perhaps the tractor slipped a gear and jolted, causing you to fall.

You die from your injuries. Your name is Josh Park-Fing, and you are the face of the travesty that is Centrelink’s Work for the Dole program.

According to the Australian Government’s Department of Jobs and Small Business:

Work for the Dole places job seekers in activities where they can gain skills and experience that give back to the community and can help them find a job.

Eligible job seekers registered with a jobactive provider will need to participate in Work for the Dole or another approved activity for six months each year to keep receiving their income support if they have mutual obligation requirements.

What this supposedly means is that the Government will place unemployed Australians into an approved work program, in order to meet their unemployment payments (also known as Newstart). Under the layers of public relations jargon, however, is the truth, and the truth does not meet what is being said by the Australian Government.

According to those who have previously—or are currently—undertaking the Work for the Dole program, it is allegedly nothing more than Government-sanctioned slavery. And what’s worse? Despite what is being said by the Department of Jobs and Small Business, it is not the intention of Work for the Dole to help unemployed Australians “gain skills and experience [to] help them find a job”. And this very ignorance is killing jobseeking Australians.

According to Unemployed Workers’ Union president Owen Bennett, in an interview with Buzzfeed News, he says Work for the Dole injuries have increased fivefold under the Liberal National Party’s (LNP) latest incarnation of the program. Between 2015 and 2016, there were 500 injuries out of 106,000 participants in Work for the Dole, which includes the death of Josh Park-Fing.

This is not the only bad news. According to a government-commissioned report by Ernst & Young in June 2016, in a health and safety audit of 200 Work for the Dole work sites, it showed a number of issues, including:

  • 64 per cent of Work for the Dole risk assessments failed to fully comply with standard workplace health and safety procedures
  • 18 per cent of activities required participants to work at heights greater than 1.8 meters, hence potentially exposing them to a fall
  • 12 per cent of activities lacked comprehensive descriptions of potential hazards on work sites
  • While there was majority working equipment on work sites, many of these were not tagged and tested adequately
  • There were a lack of fire extinguishers and first aid kits at every site
  • Two per cent of work sites did not use any personal protective equipment, and 31 per cent were not using these adequately.
  • Two per cent of “workers” were not told how to report incidents
  • Despite the low frequency of “workers” exposed to moving vehicles, the risk of fatal incident was considered high
  • 47 percent of work sites exposed “workers” to hazardous substances or dangerous goods. Participants at eight per cent of these had not received training

Despite being forced into at least twenty-five hours a week of Work for the Dole (fifteen hours if you’re over thirty) in order to receive Newstart benefits, young jobseekers are not entitled to Work Cover, as they are classified as volunteers and not actual workers. What is Work Cover? Exactly what is sounds like. It means that employees are entitled to basic rights and compensation as employees, including the right to take time off and be paid while injured. In other words: if Work for the Dole recipients received Work Cover, Josh Park-Fing would still be alive.

In light of the outrageous treatment of jobseeking Australians, how is Work for the Dole still allowed to exist? Simple. Because many Australians do not see jobseeking Australians as deserving of humane treatment. This extends to Centrelink and jobactive provider workers themselves, who do not see Newstart recipients as those deserving of a chance, just a “strain on the system”. They fall under the belief that unemployed Australians are all “dole bludgers“, a slur that implies unemployed Australians are lazy and entitled, and just want to get money for doing nothing, despite this being the opposite of the truth in the majority of cases.

Take Ann Scott, who told Facebook page Work for the Dole Horror Stories that she had dutifully worked most of her life, but at sixty-three, found herself with extreme pain from a bulging disc in her back, arthritis and more. However, those at Centrelink believe that Ms. Scott can do fifteen hours of voluntary work a week, and if she does not attend these sessions, her payments will be cut.

On the same Facebook page, Tim Osgerby talks about his experience working fifty hours per week with disabled people, yet his jobactive provider didn’t consider it work as the income was too low, and asserted he must still undertake Work for the Dole.

In another case, an anonymous member of the page recounted their experience on a Work for the Dole site, where they were injured by another staff member. Despite proof of their injuries, their jobactive provider refused to accept the evidence and bullied them into continuing the work. Only Centrelink themselves have believed the allegedly abhorrent behavior of this specific job provider.

These are not lone examples. Centrelink and jobactive providers are supposed to be providing a service that helps vulnerable Australians into the workforce, yet it is seemingly the opposite. According to both the Welfare Rights Centre and Australian Council for Social Services, only 19 per cent of jobseekers found a job after participating in Work for the Dole. In a shocking comparison, the previous Labor Government’s “wage-connect” program had a 47 per cent success rate. A Senate hearing in 2016 showed Work for the Dole had only improved the probability of finding work by two percentage points.

Twenty-five hours of work a week, for only a slightly higher chance than before of finding work? However, what these statistics do not account for is that many jobseeking Australians have found work on their own, only for Centrelink and jobactive providers to ignore this and force the jobseeker into sanctioned Work for the Dole.

The aforementioned Tim Osgerby found fifty hours a week of work on his own, only to be turned down because the job did not fit the Government’s strict guidelines. Others have been turned down because, while their jobs may be completely legitimate, they fail Centrelink’s guidelines because they do not have set hours (such as self-employment and freelancing, which are not considered “real” work), they lack pay slips, or the hours fall outside the jobactive provider’s specific guidelines.

What this is effectively telling potential jobseekers is that you can only have a job under our exact, non-binding terms. And those specific non-binding terms have been proven to be incredibly dangerous, and potentially fatal.

The case of Josh Park-Fing should have been a catalyst for changing the entire jobseeking system. However, almost two years on, nothing has changed. Despite Centrelink’s alleged responsibility for Josh’s death, his family had to turn to GoFundMe to raise the $15,000AUD for his funeral, as he was not considered a worker—only a “volunteer”. Where was the sympathy from the Australian Government? According to New Matilda:

The Department denies the claim of discrimination, again on the basis that people placed in Work for the Dole are not classified as paid workers.

If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about the travesty that is the lethal combination of Centrelink, jobactive providers and Work for the Dole, then what will?

We should be asking questions about the Australian Government’s treatment of potential jobseekers, especially in an age where juvenile delinquents seemingly receive better treatment. Otherwise, more innocent Australians will die on Work for the Dole sites, and more, and more, until the Australian Government will have numerous grieving families to answer to.

If we truly want to get more unemployed Australians into work, how about treating them as human beings, not as yet another check box to tick off for inept, hazardous programs as Work for the Dole?