The Guardian 30 November, 2005

"Welfare to Work":
tying the industrial relations noose

Bob Briton

The Howard Government’s "Welfare to Work" legislation finally comes before the Senate for adoption this week. So does the latest brace of rights-stripping "anti-terror" laws and the notorious WorkChoices package of industrial relations changes. Taken together, this legislation is an employer’s dream. It is designed to put a noose around the neck of organised labour and the labour movement generally, and to throw desperate welfare recipients into a race to the bottom with others already in employment.

The denial of longstanding rights before the law — trialled on building workers the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill — could now be inflicted on the whole community with the excuse of getting "tough on terror". WorkChoices sets out the bosses’ vision of a wholesale loss of people’s rights at work and opens the way for dramatic reductions in their living standards.

"Welfare to Work" (which from July 2006 will force tens of thousands of disability support pension and single parenting payment recipients off their meagre benefit) will add to the process. It will boot people currently unable to work onto the labour market — into desperate competition for casualised and less skilled jobs in many cases — and accelerate the race to the bottom in terms of pay and conditions.

The legislation makes it legal for employers to refuse to employ them if they reject any individual employment contract (Australian Workplace Agreement — AWA) that meets the Government’s five barest of minimum of conditions.

A person judged by the government’s new Comprehensive Work Capacity Assessment Service to be able to work between 15 and 30 hours a week will have look for a place in very tight segments of the job market.

Sign on or lose your benefit for eight weeks!

Dramatic cut in income

It would force them onto the dole (the "Newstart" allowance) with a dramatic cut in an already meagre weekly income. Research by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling reveals that the total loss of income — including lower benefit, less generous thresholds for income before Centrelink payments cut out and the loss of the pension concession card — will be around $100 a week.

As The Guardian went to press, a Senate Committee was due to report to the Upper House on the "Welfare to Work" onslaught. Media reports suggest that the government-dominated Committee is going to back the package with a number of minor changes to soften the image of the legislation.

The definition of what constitutes a "suitable job" could now be determined by the Parliament rather than by the Secretary of the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations. An annual review by Parliament of the effects of the legislation might be adopted. These are cosmetic changes.

The Government has already declared its willingness to rein in parts of its spectacular ambit claim on the social security rights of the people by allowing some exemptions during the first 12 months of the new regime. However, single parents who are distance educators, carers for adults or children with severe disabilities, foster carers, home schoolers or parents of large families will face reviews after the first year of operation of the new laws and Minister Kevin Andrews has put them on notice that continued exemption will not be automatic.

The Senate Committee was reportedly far from unanimous in its overall endorsement of the "Welfare to Work" Bill. A minority report is expected from the non-government members of the Committee. It seems that none of the welfare groups or individuals interviewed during four days of hearings into the changes endorsed the Howard Government’s approach to the issues involved.

Labor Senator Claire Moore said that none of the Committee members had a problem with the concept of helping more people into paid work. However, as the Senator pointed out to the media, with the Government’s legislation, "There’s a focus on punishment rather than support". The drastic cut of income for those moved onto the Newstart allowance remains. So does the threat of the suspension of payments for up to eight weeks for transgressions like failing to appear three times for an interview or refusing a job no matter how woeful the conditions may be.

The "Welfare to Work" agenda is not tinkering at the edges. It affects up to 300,000 people and threatens to drive them further into poverty. Marie Coleman, a representative of the National Foundation for Australian Women, has described the new policy as "wicked, inappropriate and entirely unnecessary" and "a massive fiscal punishment system… which has been thought up by a human being with no grasp of what it’s like to live with a disability".

For the Howard Government, the added hardship of some of the most financially vulnerable in the community is a small price to pay. It will help to deliver lower wages, higher profits and some tax cuts for those on higher incomes.

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