Vulnerable Jobseekers need strong leadership. A shift away from a budget-savings model to a compassionate, supportive jobseeker-focused model is needed. The diverse needs of jobseekers, particularly vulnerable jobseekers, are ignored within the jobsearch framework and welfare reforms. Vulnerable Jobseekers are becoming increasingly invisible.
Vulnerable Jobseekers – Increasingly Invisible
Think of the word ‘Jobseeker’ and close your eyes. Who do you see?
The jobsearch and welfare framework ignores the diversity of people seeking employment. The shifts in the jobsearch framework over time have sought to encompass more and more welfare recipients. This is a concern because it neutralises the personal circumstances of the individual. The label ‘jobseeker’ will apply to almost all jobless individuals under the current Welfare Reform Bill.
Vulnerable people in dire circumstances and highly experienced former workers are viewed through the lens of sameness and homogeneity.
Invisible and Inexcusable
The term jobseeker is an active term – one who seeks a job. This also disguises the involuntary nature of the act of job seeking for many. Cases of terminally ill individuals forced to seek work have been brought to light over recent years.
The shifts in policy over time, also place a cloak of silence over the most vulnerable in society. Explicit in the current welfare reform bill, and implicit in the language of Government is that the vulnerable people will no longer have ‘excuses’ for not meeting job search requirements.
In other words, legitimate behaviour displayed in the face of complex life circumstances will render vulnerable jobseekers and disabled jobseekers inexcusable. Their normal behavioural response to complex situations, intolerable and punishable by law.
The most vulnerable suffer the most in this type of punitive system.
The aim of Governments over time is to increase participation of disabled people in work. The Liberal-National Coalition and Labor Governments have supported shifting disability support pension (DSP) recipients off the DSP and transferring them to the lower paid Newstart.
The Welfare to Work reforms, under the Howard Government, is the most significant change-point in the jobsearch framework for disabled people. Reducing welfare debt, by decreasing the number of DSP Recipients, was the main economic driver of these reforms.
‘Disabled people should not be left behind’, has been the mantra of both the Coalition and Labor Governments.
The System is the Problem
There are some success stories for enabling vulnerable jobseekers into new work. However, people with an episodic mental illness can experience more distress and increased barriers in this system.
Many disabled recipients are now on the lower rate of Newstart. They do not qualify for the DSP. A review of the Welfare to Work changes indicated that among people with disabilities, 67 percent experienced no change, 29 percent were financially worse off and 3 per cent were better off. Income losses were up to $99 a week.
In addition, since 2006, the financial penalties for ‘non-compliance’ are more wide reaching and harsh.
This will only become more prevalent under the current Welfare Reform Bill. This is because reasonable behavioural responses to complex life problems are considered ‘unacceptable excuses’.
Financial stress is an identified barrier to employment and positive mental health. This is a serious concern because this group already live 20% under the poverty line.
Industry concern at the time of the pilot testing of the Welfare to Work Reforms for disabled participants was the shift to outcome-based payments for service providers.
In essence, a concern of a quick churn out culture. That is a lack of consideration for quality job matching or individual job seeker supports and a focus on placing vulnerable jobseekers in any job.
Some eleven years and five Prime Ministers later, after thousands have experienced disadvantaged, unfair expectations and punishment for non-compliance; the Reference Group for Welfare Reforms (McClure et. al) have highlighted quick throughput as an issue.
The Government recommendation in 2015 was to increase payments linked to outcomes. Seventy percent of funding is now linked to 26-week outcomes. A change from 40% previously. However, this is not particularly ideal.
A Change in Funding Approach
The other change John Howard implemented was a shift from block funding to the outcome-based funding of employment services. Once again, five Prime Minister’s later, this approach has become increasingly accepted and embedded. I despair at the acceptance of this approach by both major parties, with little review or criticism.
Arguments for outcome-based funding models are usually from an economic-centric rationale focused on budget savings – rather than a client-centric rationale – focused on quality outcomes from the client’s perspective.
An Enabling Environment for Attacks on Jobseekers
I would strongly argue that outcome-based funding is a serious contributor to the deteriorating support and cultural attitudes displayed towards jobseekers, as reported by organisations such as the Australian Unemployed Workers Union.
There is a plethora of personal recounts by vulnerable people in extremely dire circumstances. Involuntary jobsearch and financial penalties apply to this group.
Personal Recounts such as:
Are heartbreaking recounts where privately contracted employment agencies not only exacerbated mental health conditions but seemingly were the reason the mental health condition was introduced in the first place.
A Stronger Shift To Outcome Based Funding
Personally, since the late 1990’s I have expressed concern about the shift in funding models. I have had a consistent concern since its inception that the personal financial breaching of jobsearch participants, impedes outcomes and punishes individuals unnecessarily.
I express serious concern that a higher percentage of 26-week outcome-based funding for employment agencies, is more likely to increase punitive measures on vulnerable participants. It is more likely to see vulnerable jobseekers with an episodic disability placed in the too hard basket and increased penalties applied, and less complex clients given more time and attention.
Most outcome-based employment services contracts have tiers of payment, where people who face more difficulty finding and sustaining work attract higher payments (Department of Employment 2015; Lu, 2014). Despite this, several studies found that the incentives to service the most difficult clients were insufficient: these clients had poorer outcomes, were underserved, or ‘parked’ (Business Council of Australia 2014; Koning and Heinrich 2013; National Audit Office 2015). At the other end of the spectrum, ‘cream skimming’, the practice of favouring easier to serve clients, was also evident (Davidson and Whiteford 2012). (Emma Tomkinson, 2016)
An Empty Echo Chamber
The jobsearch framework has evolved into an empty echo chamber. Complex life-situations of homeless people, women escaping domestic violence, individuals recovering from sexual trauma, the physically disabled, those with psychiatric disabilities, silent disabilities and homeless young people, for example, are all viewed as ‘excuses not to seek employment’.
There are many recipients now on Newstart who have undiagnosed mental health conditions. Also many with diagnosed mental health conditions in regional and rural areas cannot access the appropriate services and treatment. In turn, they are financially penalised for this lack of investment in support.
There are many individuals who are treated blatantly unfairly, financially punished and driven to the depths of despair, exacerbating mental health conditions and some committing suicide. This is absolutely unacceptable.
This is a very under-reported phenomenon in the mainstream media. These individuals receive little voice by way of organised protest. These vulnerable citizens receive little attention in the political space.
When a situation such as the Robo-Debt disaster occurs, there is a furore about mistreatment and unfair and harsh measures. However, largely, politics ignores the unfairness and punishment jobseekers experience.
Strong Leadership is urgent now, to completely review this system and develop in its place a jobseeker-centric model of employment support.
A Jobseeker-Centric Model
The Welfare Reform changes occurred in 2006 and further reiterations of Howard’s model have occurred over time. These reiterations are by both the Liberal-National Coalition and the Labor Governments.
Specialised support services have deteriorated, such as JPET. The Gillard Government moved to a one size fits all one-stop shop model. Also, smaller community-based organisations were less likely to win contracts. In their place, much larger ‘financially stable’ organisations won tenders. This saw the merger of many smaller community-based employment services and the demise of some. Lost under these changes were local knowledge and expertise and a community-centric focus.
The current shift by the Abbott-Turnbull Government imposes further difficulty on vulnerable jobseekers. This is through a higher compliance for employment services for 70% 26-week outcomes. Agencies will leave complex jobseekers behind and pursue the outcomes which fund them.
The shift to wielding a much bigger stick by focusing on ‘unreasonable excuses and compliance’ for vulnerable people and more punitive measures, is frankly, quite frightening. The shift to homogenise the diversity of jobseekers is a major concern, as to the future ramifications of this move.
A shift to a client-centric model focused on quality outcomes as self-reported by the client is now urgent and essential.
Strong Leadership Urgent!
Strong leadership in this space is crucial and quite urgent. A shift towards a jobseeker-centric model requires an enormous shift in thinking by political parties.
It requires a shift from a budget savings approach. A shift from the underpinning thought that jobseekers do not want to work. The satisfaction of jobseekers and a focus on needs-based supports and outcomes is crucial. A shift towards recognising episodic illness and complex life situations.
Crucially, a shift away from forced participation. An objective underpinned by financial penalties for vulnerable people. Vulnerable jobseekers are in complex circumstances and are already living under the poverty line.
It is simply hypocrisy to participate in the CEO Sleep Out during Homelessness week and actively contribute to the harsh regime that contributes to it.
Intimidation and Bullying
The Government frames jobseekers as potential employees. However, the bullying, intimidation and punitive measures imposed upon them, in the most unreasonable manner, would not be acceptable in any organisation.
How can a Government remain unchallenged in this space? Should privately contracted companies receive a reward for the harsh treatment of vulnerable jobseekers?
Why is the mistreatment and harsh punishment of vulnerable people, considered a ‘positive outcome’ in this policy sphere?
Organisations that value their employees take job satisfaction seriously. Jobseeker satisfaction should be central to jobsearch models because it will enable jobseeker focused continuous improvements.
Assessment of job satisfaction for new workers is vital. Vulnerable workers self-reporting workplace bullying also a serious concern. Corporate culture and attitudes towards long-term unemployed new workers, is also critical to understand.
A jobseeker centred model will push the current model out of the comfort zone it has been in for twenty years. A model which gives voice to jobseekers will push Governments to respond to build a better model focused on supportive outcomes.
A jobseeker centred model is essential because it will make jobseekers visible again. It will give jobseekers personal agency. Vulnerable jobseekers will have a stronger internal locus of control. They will give voice to the access and supports they need.
Exposed will be the urgent need for Job Creation. This will place pressure on lazy Governments who do not meet their responsibilities in this space.
I hope for future where the privately contracted punitive outcome based model is extinct and a nationalised public sector operated, jobseeker centric model, focused on quality supports and jobseeker satisfaction exists in its place.