My experience with centrelink – a personal look at ‘working for the dole’

Just yesterday, my facebook feed erupted with many messages about the new ‘work for the dole’ scheme, and obligation for jobseekers in Australia to apply for at least forty jobs a month. Most of my contacts were appalled, some were cheerful. There were some conversations, and I thought I might share some thoughts on the question here. This was triggered by a comment from someone I know, asking the usual question: ‘shouldn’t we monitor that unemployed people are actually looking for work?’ – I add, ‘and not sit on their bums, doing whatever they want on other people’s money’.

I believe that the result of additional monitoring may actually be very negative impact on people’s mental health, and increased bureaucratic cost leading to no economic gain for the community. Monitoring is not free, and may have adverse effects on all parties – job-seekers’ mental health may not be a concern to some, but what about companies, who risk flooding by thousands of inadequate job offers? And what about the overall trust, from all, that the system work, and is genuinely looking to serve the community?

I have been on Australian unemployment benefits myself, and speak from experience. From the time I arrived in Australia till July 2012, I juggled four types of activities. I had a part time contract in evaluation and strategy with the Victorian government – which taught me fantastic administrative skills, and contributed to most of my income. I episodically taught French, first at Alliance Francaise, then at La Trobe University. I led or took part in a range of artistic projects – writing, film, or online. And I set up a non-profit organisation, exploring alternative ways to build Chinese and China literacy – which has since become the core of my activities.

In July 2012, the government cut spending, and my contract ended. I had started growing Marco Polo Project, and could not combine ongoing responsibilities in that organisation with a full-time job – or even full-time job search. For six months, I survived on a mix of cost-cutting, digging into savings, support from my partner, and project work at La Trobe university. Many people had spoken to me about a great initiative called the ‘New Enterprise Incentive Scheme’, which allows approved job-seekers with a viable business plan to receive the dole for a year – allowing them to focus on business development, and giving them time to grow their customer base. I had an idea which I thought was great, with lots of support and buy-in. But as it turned out, I was not eligible, because my partner was working.

Then my partner decided to change careers. We crunched numbers, and could get by. I was still building Marco Polo Project, and setting up a for-profit language training and consulting practice – activities that might generate employment down the track, and aligned perfectly with criteria for a NEIS scheme. I was pre-approved for the program and was looking forward to joining. Then I got accepted for a scholarship to go to Nanjing, while my activities had started generating income – and I no longer fitted in any box. I couldn’t start a NEIS course and interrupt it halfway. I wouldn’t apply to organisations I actually wanted to work with knowing I would head off after three months – it would be rather unprofessional. And there was no clear project work coming up for that period of time.

I started with a lot of trust in the rationality of the system. But it was soon crushed. Job seeking services were not particularly willing to help me. I explained I was heading off after three months, and already doing 30 hours a week of work in a non-profit – could that count as a ‘work for the dole’ scheme for the time being? The system proved to be so rigid, inefficient, bureaucratic and chaotic, that I soon adopted the wisdom of simply ticking all the right boxes, and sending random applications to unsuitable jobs, till I left for China.

If we believe that unemployment services form a rational system, that a significant proportion of people are deliberately trying to abuse it for their personal benefit without consideration for the common good, and that setting up overblown surveillance mechanisms will effectively dissuade them – then monitoring is certainly a good thing. But is this actually the situation? If there are structurally fewer jobs available than job-seekers, will we solve the overall situation by encouraging fierce competition for these insufficient existing jobs? Or should we just convince those with less agressive personalities, fewer skills, family responsibilities, or plain bad luck in timing, that a structural situation is their personal fault? Investing the funds allocated to monitoring unemployed people into, say, R&D, or training in internationally competitive skills (IT, for instance) may yield more jobs over the mid-term. Finland and Switzerland are talking now of a ‘minimal personal income’. Australia’s on a par with these countries wealth-wise. Surely, we’re smart enough to direct our public funding to better uses than extra-monitoring.

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