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Unemployed workers call for Workforce Australia penalty suspension as rollout shambles see fears realised
Employment minister Tony Burke has refused unemployed people's calls for a full suspension of penalties while we adjust to the new system
The Antipoverty Centre has received a flood of reports from people unable to access the Workforce Australia website and app on day one of the new employment services system. About three in four people who have provided feedback have said they could not log in, some of whom are required to report today to ensure they are not penalised.
Included below: background on risks and concerns about Workforce Australia rollout and the 90 day suspension proposal; comments from Antipoverty Centre spokesperson Jay Coonan; Antipoverty Centre letter to employment minister Tony Burke; reactions from people on the JobSeeker payment; contact information for crisis services.
The new employment services system affects nearly 900,000 people on JobSeeker and Youth Allowance,1 who are forced to use it to receive their income support payment.
Risks and concerns
Those of us on JobSeeker are struggling to grapple with rapid increases in rent, food and electricity prices, which far outstrip any payment increase since the COVID supplement was removed. Our highest priority is to ensure that whatever happens with the new system no one is put at risk of their payment being cut off during this particularly difficult winter.
In addition to issues raised by dozens of welfare recipients today, staff from the employment department and a job agency advised that they are also unable to access the system. Other problems include functionality issues when trying to add user information, the app not working with older phones and concerns about the terms and conditions people on JobSeeker are forced to accept.
After the last changes to “mutual” obligations about 50% of penalties were wrongly applied by job agency caseworkers who presumably either didn’t understand the system or made a mistake – a figure that does not account for people who were unsure of their requirements or struggling to navigate new rules and technology. These effects disproportionately harm First Nations people in employment services, about 50% of whom had a demerit as of December 2019, when an inquiry into the system was underway. Despite representing 13% of the total caseload, Indigenous people comprised 28% of those in the penalty zone. Homeless people were also significantly over-represented.2
Call for and support of the minimum 90-day penalty suspension
We reiterate our call for a minimum 90-day full “mutual” obligations penalty suspension for welfare recipients in response to widespread disruption.
A full penalty suspension means: no demerits applied, no point deficits rolled over and no payment cuts for missing any requirements, including a job agency appointment. This is the only way to ensure no one loses access to their income support as a result of delays, system disruption, errors or confusion. A 30-day partial suspension will not give enough time for people to understand the points system before penalties are re-introduced in August. It isn’t reasonable to expect staff in the department nor staff in job agencies to be fully across their new roles as well as a new system and how it operates within 30 days, let alone the people who are going to be subjected to it.
The 90-day penalty suspension proposed by the Antipoverty Centre is supported by the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union, the United Workers Union, Change the Record, the Anti-Poverty Network SA, Anglicare Australia, Inclusion Australia, Women with Disabilities Australia, National Council of Single Mothers and their Children, the Australian Council of Social Services and Economic Justice Australia.
Attempts to work with the minister on protections
Evidence shows “mutual” obligations do not work and make it harder for people to get a job and the Antipoverty Centre does not support any form of compulsory activities for welfare recipients. Despite this, we have sought to propose constructive options that fit the Labor party’s position.
We have repeatedly contacted the minister about the risks of failing to protect people with the simple penalty suspension measure, however he has failed to even acknowledge our meeting requests or letter (download here), let alone meaningfully engage with us.
The minister has either misunderstood or misrepresented advocates’ calls for a full penalty suspension while people adjust to the new system – a penalty suspension does not require any major changes, does not delay the rollout and is a measure used many times since the beginning of the pandemic.
On Friday unemployed workers’ protested at employment minister Tony Burke’s office, covering his office wall in messages from people on JobSeeker expressing their fears about Workforce Australia. Protesters attempted to deliver a GetUp petition supporting the call for a suspension that has gained more than 30,000 signatures, however the minister’s office was locked.
Quotes attributable to Antipoverty Centre spokesperson and JobSeeker recipient Jay Coonan
Disruption and problems with the welfare system kills people.
Changes to employment services in 2015 and 2018 saw dramatic spikes in the number of people penalised while trying to adjust. The worst effects were felt by First Nations people, and we know that every problem that affects welfare recipients disproportionately harms First Nations, trans, homeless, disabled and other marginalised people.
We did not want history to repeat, and yet from day one we are seeing precisely the problems we feared. There is too much at risk for the 900,000 people surviving on these poverty payments.
I myself have been unable to log in to Workforce Australia, and many others have told us they are having the same problem – some of whom can be penalised if they are unable to report today.
This is causing so much unnecessary fear and distress to those of us on payments and we should not be paying the price of the government’s refusal to listen to us.
We have offered Tony Burke a simple solution that will protect everyone while we and the workers who are supposed to run this system learn how it works: implement a full penalty suspension of at least 90 days.
90 days to build trust with the people who are supposed to support us. 90 days to become confident using a new online system. 90 days to identify and fix inevitable flaws. 90 days to ensure that the poorest people in the community do not face a single penalty as a consequence of this change – not now, and not in 6 months.
Costs are skyrocketing and people on income support are being ignored and thrown to the curb. This government has the chance to be better. It shouldn’t choose to inflict harmful Coalition policies on us.
Media contact: 0403 429 414 / media at antipovertycentre.org
Crisis support and counselling services
If you need support you can seek guidance, counselling or crisis help from the below organisations or talk to someone you trust.
Suicide Call Back Service – general: 1300 659 467
SANE Australia – general: 1800 187 263
13YARN – for First Nations people: 13 92 76
National Counselling and Referral Service – for disabled people: 1800 421 468
Headspace – for young people: 1800 650 890
QLife – fo LGBTQIA+ people: 1800 184 527
Full Stop – for people who have experienced sexual harassment and assault: 1800 385 578
Embrace Mental Health – multilingual service:
About the Antipoverty Centre
The Antipoverty Centre was established in May 2021 by people living on Centrelink payments to counter problems with academics, think tanks and others in the political class making harmful decisions on behalf of people they purport to represent.
We have deep expertise in poverty, disadvantage and unemployment, because we live it. Our goal is to help ensure the voices and rights of people living in poverty are at the centre of social policy development and discourse. We believe there should be no decision made about us without us.
The Antipoverty Centre is not aligned with any political party and does not accept funding that places political constraints on our work.