If strength comes through numbers, then the collective voice of Australia’s unemployed and underemployed could have the power to shape politics.
And as the COVID downturn forces more people than ever into the welfare system, this voice is only getting louder.
It was with this in mind that a group of Tasmanians – most of whom had never met before – decided to form a branch of the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union, hoping to ensure everyone knew their rights and could fight for a better and fairer system.
They cover a diverse range of experiences: from those made unemployed due to the COVID downturn, to carers trying to navigate the system, to individuals trying to get their businesses off the ground and to those feeling helpless at the hands of job service providers.
Officially launched on June 1, the group of about 15 active members regularly hold Zoom meetups to discuss cases in Tasmania brought to their attention, and ways of collectively advocating on behalf of the unemployed. They now have more than 300 members.
Having sold her accounting business after 18 years to focus on her self-funded PhD, Liz Charpleix, 60, also took on courses in editing and electronic publishing, becoming an accredited editor.
But as job opportunities in Tasmania’s South dried up, she found herself eating into her superannuation. Eventually, she bit the bullet and applied for Newstart at the end of 2018.
“And they are as vile as all the stories you hear,” Dr Charpleix said.
Decades ago, she worked in the Department of Social Security paying unemployment and sickness benefits, at the time when Australia’s employment services were government-run. Dr Charpleix said the difference in approach was immediately clear, including a 10-week wait to get her first payment and a job service provider that took her on an unsuccessful “job hunting” expedition in an industrial estate at Huntingfield, ignoring her past skills.
She then started receiving the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme payment, but this ended after nine months with little help in establishing her business, and was then used as an excuse to reduce her JobSeeker payment.
So when she heard about the AUWU forming in Tasmania, Dr Charpleix wanted to use her negative experiences to help others.
“It horrifies me that there’s this attitude where if you’re unemployed, you’re seen as a ‘bludger’, a ‘leaner’. An awful lot of unemployed people truly do want to contribute. We have the numbers, we voted these politicians in, we should have the power to say ‘you’re doing it wrong’,” she said.
Despite his best efforts, Sam Campbell has rarely been able to obtain full-time work, instead moving between casual, part-time and contract positions for years and, now, he is facing unemployment.
Mr Campbell is finishing his professional honours in teaching English to people from non-English speaking backgrounds, but regular work has been impossible to obtain – especially during COVID in Hobart. He describes his circumstance as “chronic underemployment”.
It means he must attend appointments with a job service provider, a process he says offers little help at all.
“It’s frustrating to be forced to go through all these incredibly punitive hoops to apply for jobs that either, a), aren’t really there in the first place and, b), they end up with x amount of applicants, hundreds,” Mr Campbell said.
“They aren’t helpful, it’s counter-intuitive to even go to appointments but you have to. They’re belittling, demeaning, and it’s outright offensive to be told you’re not working hard enough to improve yourself.”
He joined the AUWU because “making changes as an individual is almost impossible”, but as a collective, the millions of unemployed Australians could force changes in policy.
Like many young people trying to enter the workforce, Will Boon found the only jobs available were casual and short-term. Already applying for dozens of jobs, he has now seen friends and family also lose their jobs.
He joined the AUWU in March and decided to assist in establishing the branch in Tasmania as state coordinator, organising Zoom meetings with members via Facebook and trying to set up local branches across the state.
Mr Boon said the threat of losing his payment for failing seemingly arbitrary job service provider obligations was a common source of fear for job seekers, and the robo-debt saga showed how willing the government was to target the most disadvantaged.
Organising as a union was the best way to give people a voice, he said.
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“Unemployed people haven’t been heard, they haven’t been cared about by our politicians and they’ve been left behind,” Mr Boon said.
“Being unemployed is a scary and vulnerable position to be in, that’s why it’s really important to have the union there so that people in this situation have somewhere to go for support, know their rights, are able to push back and have their collective experiences validated and their goals and campaigns amplified.”
Evan Hadkins says he has been fortunate in his dealings with Centrelink in that he was able to transition from the Carer’s Payment to other payments when his circumstances changed thanks to a helpful worker at a Hobart job service provider – but he says his experience is in the minority.
Initially getting involved in the AUWU to campaign for raising the rate of Newstart, he said it was clear that Australia’s welfare system was failing the unemployed.
And he wanted to see an end to the stigma attached to unemployment.
“Poor people’s live are really complicated. Firstly, there’s managing Centrelink where every letter is laced with threats and accuses you of being dishonest. You have to juggle these appointments, have a very austere budget – especially if you’ve got kids – medicines become a massive cost,” Mr Hadkins said.
“There’s no attempt by the government to make their lives any easier.”
Marina Chapman has learned to keep comprehensive records of her dealings with Centrelink after having her paperwork lost on several occasions, adding to the risk of losing her payment.
Her experiences with job service providers left her feeling there was a disconnect between their advice and the reality of Tasmania’s jobs market.
Getting rid of job service providers and establishing a more effective system was central to her reasons for joining the AUWU, where she now acts as the Tasmanian branch secretary.
“My goal is to try to achieve more respect and dignity for those who are unemployed or underemployed. We’re not a burden to society, I don’t think any of us should be living in government-imposed poverty,” Mrs Chapman said.
“We have caring roles, we have disabilities, a lot us are doing unwaged work, but society doesn’t seem to consider these roles important.”
For more information, visit the AUWU website at unemployedworkersunion.com