Friday, December 17, 2004

Nonreciprocal Mutual Obligation

The Howard government is an advocate of “personal responsibility” and “mutual obligation”, but only for Centrelink customers. Tax payers, they say, expect welfare recipients to work for their benefits.

There is widespread concern, as Kim Beazley put it, that “an awful lot of Australians have security in their unemployment payments, and that gives a mind-set to keep away from the work force”.

Senator Jocelyn Newman claims an “entrenched culture of welfare dependency has meant that certain members of our community are not only prepared, but feel entitled to exploit the social safety net.”

The unemployed are routinely denounced as “work shy”, “job snobs”, “dole bludgers” and “welfare cheats” by politicians and media shock jocks. This attitude appears to resonate with the broader community.

Portraying unemployment as a matter of choice rather than circumstance places the blame for unemployment squarely on the shoulders of the unemployed. This way the government negates its obligation to ensure an equitable distribution of prosperity and opportunity for all Australians.

According to the government, poverty and unemployment are caused by individual attitudes toward work and welfare. The only way to deal with the unemployed, we are told, is to grab them by the scruff of the neck and force them to work for nothing.

To implement this strategy, the government introduced “Work for the Dole”. Tony Abbott’s website claims “Work for the Dole is providing hope, experience and opportunity” for the unemployed. But an independent study commissioned by the government found that “Work for the Dole reduces the job prospects of unemployed people”.

The report, which was suppressed by the government, concluded that Work for the Dole did not develop skills, was not aimed at finding work and was not linked to continuing employment.

ACOSS has criticised the program for lacking an adequate training component and failing to provide experience in real jobs. Anglicare described Work for the Dole as “fundamentally flawed”.

The real effect (and perhaps the purpose) of Mutual Obligation is to punish and discourage the unemployed, while at the same time, undermine workers’ rights.

Apparently, Centrelink is not obliged to provide Work for the Dole participants a fair wage or safe working environment, Work Cover, Superannuation, sick leave or any of the protections and entitlements of employment required by Industrial Relations legislation.

Centrelink informs job seekers that “Your mutual obligation responsibilities are spelt out in your Preparing for Work Agreement. This Agreement is negotiated between you and your Centrelink contact officer”. The fact is, this legally binding “agreement” is not “negotiated” at all, it is imposed upon participants who have no choice but to accept, or starve.

The late great philosopher, John Rawls, explained that “obligations arise only when institutions are just and individuals are able to freely accept social benefits in a context of meaningful alternatives.” But the government’s concept of Mutual Obligation is far from just, and for most recipients, Centrelink payments are a necessity, not a choice.

As Pamela Kinear from The Australia Institute wrote about the ethics of Mutual Obligation, “Australia’s system of economic management has relied on creating joblessness to sustain economic growth ... policies to promote economic reform have created structural unemployment in order to strengthen the economy as a whole. Unemployed people have therefore made an involuntary sacrifice for the economic well-being of employed people. As a result, the starting point for obligations to accrue is not just.”

The imposition of Mutual Obligation requirements on the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society, the young and unemployed, single parents, people with chronic illness or disabilities, suffering difficult life circumstance or employment discrimination, creates a pool of cheap labour to compete with low paid workers, especially in the community services sector.

This practice, like industry downsizing and deregulation, produces labour market conditions that favour management, and disadvantage workers. While productivity and company profits have soared, wages have remained steady and workers are expected to work harder.

According to Princeton University economist Paul Krugman, over the past three years, wage and salary income grew less than in any other postwar recovery while profits grew at more than ten times that rate, the fastest growth in company profits since World War II.

The official unemployment rate is a statistical device designed to obscure the true state of the labour market. It grossly misrepresents the extent of under-employment and falling workplace participation.

A surplus of cheap labour and the stigma of unemployment keeps workers worried about their job security and allows management to resist demands for higher pay and improved working conditions. The worse life gets for the unemployed, the better it is for capital.

Such inequalities are emblematic of neoliberal free market ideology. People are viewed as resources to be exploited for private profit, their intrinsic value discounted. Notions of social justice and equality of opportunity have no place in the modern economy.

The onerous requirements of Mutual Obligation imposed on the unemployed, combined with a punitive system of “breaching” and cancellation of payments, affect over 200,000 Centrelink customers and saves the government more than $170 million dollars a year.

Given that simply arriving late for a Job Network interview can result in a “breach”, effectively a fine of $1000, the system is obviously intended to make life as hard as possible for the unemployed.

But it's not just the unfortunate individual who suffers, this money would normally flow directly into the local economy, sustaining shop keepers, service providers and small businesses, not to mention the 10% that flows straight back to the government in GST.

The government’s rhetoric of “mutual obligation” does nothing to address the deep-seated structural causes of unemployment, it merely shifts blame to the victims and conceals the fact that this government has failed to implement a comprehensive labour market strategy.

As an ethical argument, it rings hollow. While the government demands mutual obligation for the disadvantaged, it waives such requirements for the privileged. Government and businesses are free from any obligation to create and maintain adequate employment.

Moreover, corporate welfare remains sacrosanct. According to the Productivity Commission, industry received more than $10 billion in government assistance last year, mostly with no strings attached. The beneficiaries of this largesse are company shareholders, not obligated to contribute anything in return. And to top it all off, our politicians lie and defy international law with impunity.

The Howard government has a clear strategy for political success - patronize the privileged and demonize the disadvantaged. Obligation and responsibility, it seems, are for Centrelink customers only.

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