Monday, January 23, 2012

Dissing the Disadvantaged – how Australia is failing the long-term jobless and people with disabilities.

As part of Social Inclusion Week 2011, the then Minister for Social Inclusion, Tanya Plibersek, outlined the Australian government’s social inclusion agenda in its 'Foundations for a Stronger, Fairer Australia' report. It includes improving outcomes for people living with disability and helping jobless families with children to 'increase work opportunities, improve their parenting and build their capacity'. This will be achieved through partnerships between government, business and the not-for-profit sector targeting disadvantaged groups such as the long term jobless and Indigenous Australians. Curiously there's no mention of providing secure, remunerative employment for targeted groups through actual job creation or affirmative action.

The report foreshadows private sector outsourcing of government programs designed to address disadvantage. This risks commodifying society's most vulnerable particularly where public accountability is lacking and perverse profit incentives exist. Instead of protecting end users from endemic exploitation in the privatised job service and charity sectors, the government ostensibly is moving towards deregulation with planned reforms to 'cut red tape'. Their consultation process seems limited to business and non-government stakeholders despite the report's stated aim of helping clients “Have a voice so that they can influence decisions that affect them”.

The government's agenda seems less about alleviating poverty than delegating non-government organisations to act upon a mute, deficient other. Instead of empowering the disadvantaged the government will outsource supervisory control over them by private agencies that are mainly answerable to their shareholders. Rather than being informed by an evidence-based approach, the report's blanket value judgement that jobless families with children need help to 'improve their parenting' smacks of classist paternalism. Its underlying assumption is not far removed from Opposition leader Tony Abbot's assertion that lowly paid workers and the unemployed are only in that position because of individual character flaws.

With the ink barely dry on parliament's apology to the Aboriginal Stolen Generation and British child migrants the government and often self-serving church based service providers are again peddling the myth that disadvantaged families are somehow dysfunctional and in need of intervention. Since the Northern Territory Intervention affecting Aboriginal communities began, reported rates of suicide and self-harm have more than doubled and indigenous incarceration has increased by 40 per cent (Closing the Gap Monitoring Report). Ominously, Social Security amendments will spread dehumanising intervention measures such as compulsory income management to Centrelink recipients throughout Australia starting with ten priority sites like Bankstown, Sydney. Future parliaments may well have to apologise for another shameful chapter in Australia's history while business, church and state seem set to ride the next new wave of institutional abuse of our nation's vulnerable underclass.

Australia's underclass has grown significantly along with rising inequality since the ascendant global influence of economic rationalists such as Milton Friedman from the mid 1970's. The dominant economic paradigm now dictates that it is harder to control inflation if unemployment falls below 4.5%. To ensure constant downward pressure on consumables and labour costs, the bottom third in our society or Fourth World must be denied any kind of disposable income beyond the basic necessities of life. Hence our governments have sustained policies of economic apartheid to produce a permanent class of marginalised unemployed and underemployed Australians.

Controlling the power of unions, casualisation of the workforce and privatisation of state infrastructure, essential services and public enterprises brought this about. Import tariff reductions have caused most of our manufacturing industries to be outsourced offshore and what remains is a tenuous labour market. Labour hire is now a market driven commodity generating a stressful, lack of control over the lives of jobseekers forced to eke out a precarious existence on the margins of our economy. This 'flexible' workforce is a revolving door of untenured, low paid and under/unemployed workers lacking job security and protection. They belong to what Noam Chomsky calls a 'precariat' and Australia's disadvantaged target groups are at the very bottom of this precariat.

This is why social inclusion initiatives simply cannot work without the government undertaking full employment through public sector expansion as happened in the 30 years following World War II. The Local Government Association alone has identified enough jobs needing to be done that if funded could provide long term employment for all Australia's unemployed. Never mind the abundance of jobs which could be funded in the creative industries, health, education and new green enterprises if the benefits of Australia's resources boom were spread more evenly. As Nugget Coombs had observed this would be more in keeping with the spirit of legislation which reserves underground minerals for the benefit of the whole nation or Commonwealth of Australia. In addition the nature of work itself needs to be re-defined to recognise the underpaid contributions of Australia's cultural workers.

The only other possible alternative to maintaining a society underpinned by social exclusion without creating full employment is to share the burden of inflation-controlling policies among all sections of Australian society. This means rationing the decent jobs so that even the socially privileged receive their turn of unemployment. Then the precariat would have social mobility ensuring no one suffers economic hardship from underemployment for more than a few months in their lifetime. This way the adverse effects of managing inflation wouldn't only fall on those without class connections but be rotated equitably.

A more practical way to bring about social inclusion would be to employ Australia's disadvantaged within all publicly funded private enterprises and the public service. To this end I wrote to then Minister for Social Inclusion, Tanya Plibersek, both as a member of her electorate and as a person living with disabilities. I also spoke to her office staff and contacted the Australian Social Inclusion Board through The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet website. I proposed that the government as part of its social inclusion initiatives establish affirmative action for taxpayer funded service providers to ensure people with disabilities are given priority in employment within these organisations.

As a first step whenever government departments issue new service provision contracts they should include contractual obligations to employ suitably qualified disadvantaged jobseekers such as those with disabilities and the long term unemployed. This may require employment quotas of at least 10 to 20% and a compliance regime of issuing exemplary damages against companies and NGO's that fail to comply (particularly in cases of nepotism for example where better qualified jobseekers with disabilities are being passed over in favour of hiring those without disabilities who are less qualified).

Independent oversight could be provided with a well-resourced Ombudsman to defend the rights of people with disabilities seeking part-time work. It could be financed by a levy on private sector organisations that benefit from taxpayer funding. Current anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws are too onerous for jobseekers with disabilities; instead the onus of proof should be on government-subsidised employers to prove that they are employing enough Australians with disabilities through positive discrimination. Publicly financed charities and non-profit groups should not be exempt from the requirement to provide affirmative action in their internal hiring practices. The government is already talking about a regulator and reform of publicly funded non profits so it wouldn't involve much more effort to ensure disadvantaged jobseekers are given every opportunity to participate as paid workers within them rather than as volunteers. I also asked if there have been any costings done around such proposals before or whether there had been any cost/benefit analysis for implementing such a proposal.

At the time of writing I am still waiting to hear back from either the Social Inclusion Board or my parliamentary representative regarding this proposal for affirmative action. Although there has been a dearth of official information on truly effective ways to bring about social inclusion a relevant online article was published in Cathnews in April last year by Frank Quinlan head of Catholic Social Services. He suggested one place to start employing people with disabilities was in the Australian public service and seemed to shift the blame for the lack of employment opportunities for the disadvantaged on to the public sector. However in my experience the biggest barriers to employing people with disabilities lie in the ever expanding private sector.

At least in the public service there is an independent public service exam and government departments are required to publicly advertise job vacancies. Whereas private sector service providers funded by the public purse have no requirement to ensure merit-based employment in their internal hiring practices and nepotism is rife. People with disabilities have no recourse to freedom of information laws in that regard as commercial confidentiality clauses are inevitably invoked to avoid scrutiny. Rather than a mature age teacher, retrenched office worker or qualified jobseeker with disabilities being given a chance at these jobs you are more likely to find a well connected Young Liberal gap year kid working as a client supervisor in the privatised job or disability service sector. Often sham job training for clients is provided in-house by staff who are not even required to have teaching qualifications while jobseekers that do are denied the opportunity to work there.

Frank is right on the money though when he informs us: “Like other major employers, the Catholic Church could also lead the charge to ensure there are opportunities for those experiencing disabilities and other barriers.” There are perhaps hundreds of thousands of adult survivors of clergy abuse in Australia most of whom are given very little help to move on with their lives. Former Catholic survivors are left with debilitating traumas yet face discrimination in employment at Catholic schools. Any job applicant must show their academic and school record as part of the selection process and former Catholic school pupils identified as 'Catholic' on their school record are automatically expected to supply a reference from their parish priest showing they are in good standing within the church. For survivors of clergy abuse who have been sexually assaulted as children by their parish priest or figures of authority within the church, obtaining a reference is too traumatic and raises an impossible bar.

Paradoxically a jobseeker brought up as a Protestant or Muslim stands a better chance of being employed within Catholic institutions than abused former Catholics, as they are not required to provide a reference from their parson or imam. This accounts for why Catholic schools have never before had such a high proportion of non-Catholic staff because a generation of clergy abuse survivors are effectively locked out.

After the pope's World Youth Day apology one such survivor asked a local bishop to exempt clergy abuse survivors from the requirement to provide a reference from their local parish priest when seeking employment at diocesan schools. Since his diocese was one of Australia's clergy abuse epicentres it would have been a practical gesture of reconciliation but his answer was: “Well go to Job Network!” (Or to be precise Centacare job agency). But Centacare like most other job service providers is making headlines for all the wrong reasons for using jobseekers as pawns in their game of rorting taxpayer funds. Cold Comfort Farm there.

Relying on the charitable instincts of churches, charities and businesses is not a particularly effective way of employing disadvantaged groups so rather than self-regulation, the government must ensure publicly funded institutions don't discriminate against people living with disabilities and others. Public subsidies for non-government service providers should be tied to affirmative action obligations to employ the disadvantaged within their organisations. Australia will never be an inclusive, fair society without equitable distribution of paid, secure employment for people living with disabilities and the long term underemployed.

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