The Work for the Dole scheme expanded this week, with long-term unemployed people now required to work longer and less flexible hours.
Under the changes, announced in the last federal budget, welfare recipients aged 30 to 49 need to complete 50 hours of work-related activities per fortnight, up from 30.
So what’s it like working for the dole? And how effective is the program at getting people into work?
We asked jobseekers, an employer, a union and an industry group for their perspective. They revealed concerns about a lack of training, unsafe workplaces, sexual harassment and low income—but there were also positive stories of success.
‘I just want to get back into teaching’
Three months ago Belinda was looking forward to her Work for the Dole (WFTD) placement at a local charity, an evangelical church.
She’d been told she’d be doing administration tasks, and had hoped to pick up some computer skills. Instead she found herself dusting plastic champagne glasses and cleaning toilets.
“I said to my WFTD manager ‘I don’t know how cleaning a bathroom is going to help me get a job’,” she says.
“I’ve got two degrees and I just want to get back into teaching but it’s like, ‘just don’t talk about that’.”
Belinda is an English language teacher, she worked overseas for more than 10 years, but since she returned to Brisbane a few years ago, she’s been unable to find work.
That’s despite sending off 20 job applications a fortnight, which she does from her local library because she can’t afford a computer.
“Every job you see, you write a cover letter and send out your CV. You know you’re probably not going to get a reply, so it’s quite demoralising,” she says.
Department of Jobs and Small Business statistics show only 27 per cent of people have paid employment three months after completing WFTD.
Is training part of the deal?
WFTD has only ever been a work experience program says Sally Sinclair, CEO of the peak body for the employment sector, the National Employment Services Association.
She says it’s designed to help participants develop employability skills like teamwork, communication and reliability.
“This is all about building the individual’s capability to re-enter the workforce, to remain connected to community and the labour force more broadly,” she says.
Ms Sinclair points out that the labour market is changing rapidly.
“WFTD is helping people to be flexible and adaptable,” she says.
“There are new and emerging opportunities that are presenting themselves and it’s how one adapts in that context.”
Alex, who studied IT at TAFE, also did WFTD at the church with Belinda.
Like all WFTD participants under the age of 50, Alex works 50 hours a fortnight, for six months each year.
At the church, Alex was moving furniture and climbing ladders to prune trees, despite having a broken leg that he couldn’t bear weight on.
“Upwards of 100 chairs I [had] to lug outside, wash them, lug them back in,” he says.
“I told them about the leg injury, I showed them doctor’s certificates and they don’t care, they just want it done ASAP.”
Belinda’s first placement was in an op-shop that she describes as “a fire trap”.
She says WFTD participants sorted goods at the back of the shop and were forbidden from interacting with the customers.
“I felt like I’d joined an underclass,” she says.
One day as Belinda was stacking some goods in the shop, she says a customer sexually harassed her.
“He grabbed me, he wrapped himself around me and then I just yelled at him, ‘don’t touch me’,” she says.
But when she told her manager about the incident, she says they told her to get out of the shopfront.
“I just felt dirty and felt the place was unsafe and nobody cared,” she says.
Jeremy Poxon from the Unemployed Workers Union says Belinda’s experience of an unsafe workplace is not uncommon.
The UWU receives hundreds of calls a year to their helpline about this issue.
“We hear stories of job seekers being injured on WFTD sites and basically told by their supervisors not to complain,” he says.
Belinda was allowed to stop working in the op-shop after she complained to her job placement agency about the unsafe nature of the work.
Mr Poxon says many unsafe conditions go unreported, and WTFD participants don’t have access to the same workers’ compensation rights as regular employees.
“This is a very vulnerable group of jobseekers who aren’t reporting the unsafe conditions and the injuries they’re sustaining,” he says.
The Department of Jobs and Small Business, however, maintains that the rates of injury on the program are lower than across the wider workforce.
“The incident rate for the Work for the Dole program is around 1 per cent, while the most recent ABS data (2013-14) shows the rate of reported work-related injury or illness in paid work is 4.3 per cent,” a spokesperson said.
The spokesperson says workplace health and safety is a fundamental requirement” of the WFTD program.
“The Work for the Dole program requires all incidents, including near misses, to be reported to the department as soon as possible and within 24 hours. This includes all injuries, including cuts, scratches or insect bites,” they said.
Regaining the rhythm of working life
Northern Community Careworks [NCC] in Melbourne is a large WFTD host employer. It manages 130 participants, who work in areas like hospitality, retail, cleaning, gardening and sewing.
Team leader David Toscano says they’re helping the long-term unemployed “get back into the rhythm of working life”.
NCC are often asked to be a referee for WFTD participants, so his advice to people is to “think about the things that you’d like us to say about you and work accordingly”.
“We find that assists in that whole aspect of them finding work,” he says.
Unlike Belinda and Alex, Rebecca had two “very positive” experiences of WFTD.
“The first time I chose our local art gallery … and was lucky to have a director who recognised my skills and talents and put me to work writing reports and curating exhibitions, and even writing a book,” she wrote on the Life Matters Facebook page.
The second placement was at a local op shop which later offered her paid work.
“My Work for the Dole experience led directly to this employment,” she says.
Alex was also able to get a job, after four months on the dole scheme.
His grandfather bought him a suit for the job interview.
“I’m ecstatic, I was on WFTD and it nearly broke me, I was scrounging by on scraps,” the 23-year-old says.
“But luckily with the help of TAFE I was able to get the qualifications to get a job.”
Enough money to survive – but not to save
Mr Poxon would like to see better oversight and management of WFTD.
“You have a silently suffering unemployed workforce of about 90,000 people who just aren’t being looked after by their job agent and their Work for the Dole host,” he says.
He says if WFTD paid workers a minimum wage and had minimum safety standards, then it could work.
“At the moment you’re doing 25 hours a week of labour that’s still leaving you $380 per fortnight below the poverty line,” he says.
Belinda is in her 50s and still doing WFTD. She worries about what the future holds. She can get by on the $250 a week, because she lives rent-free with her mother.
“When I look at women who retire with zero savings … I really don’t want to be 65 and living in a share house,” she says.
At the end of a day at WFTD, Belinda says she feels crushed — but there’s a little bit of light waiting for her at home.
“I’m just going to watch The Bold and the Beautiful and then I’ll be good,” she says.