If you care about poverty, support welfare to work

No government, organisation or person who claims to care about inequality can stand by and accept people languishing in poverty and disadvantage. And that’s what welfare dependence is.

by Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO, Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce

I’ve been a vocal participant in the discussion on welfare reform and I’ll continue to be. Welfare is another name for poverty and disadvantage. And I’m in favour of ending poverty.

The only pathway out of poverty is a job. Those opposed to welfare reform sometimes say it’s unreasonable to expect people on unemployment benefits to find work because there aren’t enough jobs. We hear this a lot when it comes to Indigenous unemployment. We’ll hear it a lot more now government is getting serious about moving people from welfare to work.
I don’t agree. The biggest challenge for Australia isn’t a shortage of jobs but a shortage of skills and labour.

Consider these few examples. The tourism sector has a shortage of around 38,000 positions with around 123,000 new workers needed by 2020, both skilled and unskilled. The hospitality industry has a shortage of around 10,000 people, expected to rise to 30,000 by 2020. There are also labour shortages in the retail sector which expects to need another 90,000 people in next 10 years. There are 37 specific occupations where employers face shortages or recruitment difficulties including bricklayers, hairdressers, glaziers, locksmiths, panelbeaters, arborists, chefs and pastrymakers.

Around 50,000 457 visas are granted annually to fill jobs where there are no suitably qualified locals. Many are granted in hospitality and other services. There are over 6,500 457 visas issued to cooks. We’re also importing unskilled workers. Australia grants 200-250,000 working holiday maker visas annually. The agriculture industry relies on holidaymakers in areas where there are supposedly no jobs – like remote Australia and Tasmania. This was the main reason for the government backflip on the “backpacker tax”.

Recently Northern Territory mango farmers made an urgent visit to Timor to recruit workers because they can’t find local workers. The NT agricultural industry relies on backpackers for 85% of its labour. NT also has the highest percentage of Aboriginal people of any state or territory and they suffer high unemployment, chronic welfare dependency and massive socio-economic problems including a family violence epidemic. Employment provides a pathway out of poverty and disadvantage. So why do 85% of NT agricultural workers come from overseas?

And despite the myth there are “no jobs”, most paid work in remote Indigenous communities is done by people from outside the community, often at significant additional cost.

The lie that there are no jobs for the unemployed is easily debunked.

News Corp recently had its “5,000 jobs in 50 days” campaign, asking employers to nominate jobs they’d offer to inexperienced jobseekers. It found over 10,000 jobs. I wasn’t surprised. A few years ago Andrew Forrest called on Australian employers to pledge 50,000 jobs for unemployed Indigenous people. More than 60,000 jobs were committed. The problem wasn’t finding the jobs but finding people to take the jobs and stay in them.

The reason local Indigenous people don’t have jobs in remote areas or the NT is the same reason there are more than half a million Australians who’ve been unemployed for more than a year despite chronic labour and skills shortages.

It’s very hard to transition people into work if they haven’t worked for long periods or at all, even harder if their parents didn’t work. Even unskilled workers must demonstrate basic capabilities. Like turning up on time every day; reliability; engaging effectively with their boss and colleagues; social skills; being motivated and enthusiastic at work.

An intensive, case managed approach and ensuring the jobseeker stays in the job at least 6 months is the only solution. This approach works best when there is a guaranteed job that the person is being readied for. Training for training’s sake is a waste of time. Including for the job seeker.

But governments must also be willing to breach people if they don’t meet the conditions for benefits. Welfare conditions are administered by people at the coalface who exercise discretion and they often give people multiple chances. People aren’t stupid. If you tell someone there’ll be a consequence but never enforce that consequence they figure you never will. This only reinforces the many other barriers to working.

Give people every encouragement and assistance, find them a guaranteed job and case manage them so they can take that job and retain it. Invest in them. But if there’s no consequence for those who resist or refuse, those efforts will be in vain.

It may be that after filling every labour and skills shortage in Australia there are willing and job-ready people unable to find work. We’re not at that point yet. But that’s no reason to resist policies to move people from welfare to work. No government, organisation or person who claims to care about inequality can stand by and accept people languishing in poverty and disadvantage. And that’s what welfare dependence is.


This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph on 28 October 2016.

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  1. Robert Gardner says:

    This is NOT TRUE.
    I studied hard, and was awarded a TAFE NSW State Medal for the Highest Average Marks in my Advanced Diploma of Electrical Technology (Computer Technology) with Distinction. I still found such discrimination that I have never found any full-time employment in more than a decade since completing the course.
    If you can’t get a job when you get the best results in your state, what hope can people have??

  2. This is not disruptive thinking. This is falling in line with neoliberal ideologies that have held dominance in this country for a number of years. Disappointing and misleading.

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