Work for the Dole hurts unemployed people. The party of labour should commit to abolish it.
By Jeremy Poxon
On the sixth anniversary of Josh Park-Fing’s death the program that killed him, and injured countless others, has not been reformed. But there is no acceptable form of coercive labour. It must be abolished in our welfare system, in prisons and in subminimum wage settings where disabled people are exploited. At the end of this page is information about how you can help.
Six years ago Josh Park-Fing died at age 18 because he was doing Work for the Dole at Toowoomba showground. Josh had spent a few weeks on the 245-acre site, cleaning up the showgrounds without proper training, guidance or supervision. He was told he had to do this free labour to continue receiving his $218.75 unemployment benefit. This was a lie. If Josh’s rights had been explained to him he would still be alive.
On the day he died, Josh was collecting rubbish from around the showgrounds. To speed things up, he was told to climb onto a flatbed trailer that was pulled by a tractor. He wasn’t given a harness to keep him safe from falling. The tractor slipped a gear, causing the teenager to fall and hit his head. He died on the way to hospital. Six years on from this tragedy, there has been no justice for Josh.
Work for the Dole is coercive labour. As part of a campaign to abolish it, we’ve been surveying people who’ve done the program. Ninety-seven per cent of participants who’ve responded told us they didn’t want to do it. Only 17 per cent said their rights had been explained to them. Only 4 per cent of survey respondents got a job from it.
Work for free, or starve, which would you choose?
In February this year I was sent by my job agency, CatholicCare, to do Work for the Dole at Ballarat Cemetery. I wasn’t paid to work, but I did get 42 cents an hour on top of my paltry JobSeeker payment to weed, mow and repair tombstones for 25 hours each week.
I don’t want to have to beg the job agency to let me stay home. They never fucking listen. I’ll just keep [my knee] warm.
A government-commissioned Ernst & Young report found 64% of sites do not meet the most basic health and safety standards, so I wasn’t shocked when, on my second day, I witnessed an injury. Another participant, a father of two children who had a knee injury, slipped into a rabbit warren while using a push mower. This forced him to stop. I told him to get a medical exemption to give himself time to recover. But he didn’t want to risk losing his payment: “I don’t want to have to beg the job agency to let me stay home. They never fucking listen. I’ll just keep [my knee] warm.”
Most of the people I talk to in town have no idea this is happening. They’re shocked when I tell them people are forced, unpaid, to clean and maintain graves. In our communities, this program is something of a dirty secret: a hidden part of the labour force, with participants too scared of punishment and payment suspensions to risk speaking out.
The biggest offenders might be a shock to some.
The top three organisations taking advantage of unemployed people – and getting public money to do so – are the Salvos with 288 sites, Vinnies with 189 and Lifeline with 45. Then there’s Ronald McDonald house, Hillsong and countless others who claim to support the vulnerable. These supposedly benevolent organisations are doing the government’s dirty work, colluding to exploit us for their own gain, benefiting from the joblessness that forces us into poverty.
You can find the culprits in your community here.
Work for the Dole is only one cog in the brutal poverty machine. It punishes the victims of political choices, workforce discrimination and dud employment policy, while driving down wages for others. For too long unemployed workers have been used as a political football, consigned to deep poverty and subjected to humiliating, harmful activities.
We have already been let down by both major parties in this election campaign, with confirmation that neither plans to increase the JobSeeker rate. But there is a simple step they can take to keep us safe that won’t cost a cent. Politicians must own up to the failures of coercing unemployed to do unpaid work.
Work for the Dole must be abolished. Surely, for the party of labour, this is not too much to ask.
How can you help end Work for the Dole?
If you’ve done ‘mutual’ obligations
Complete the survey about your experiences with compulsory activities you’ve had to do to get a Centrelink payment. You don’t have to have done Work for the Dole – we are gathering stories and experiences about all programs. Your contribution will form the foundation of the campaign.
We will be reviewing responses in the coming months and following up with you if you ask us to do so. Your contribution will form the foundation of the campaign.
Allies and supporters
- Share our campaign with people you know who’ve had to do compulsory activities while on a Centrelink payment.
- Use our map to look up Work for the Dole sites in your community or find charities you support that are exploiting unemployed people.
- Contact organisations, or your councillors if the local government uses WftD, and ask them why they support the program and whether they are willing to transition away from it.
- Ask your federal MP and election candidates whether they support WftD.
- Tell us what you found out by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or posting on social media with the hashtag #AWFTD – remember to tag the Antipoverty Centre in your post. Our handle on all platforms is @antipovertycent.