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Working for Welfare in the Antipodes: An Incarnation of Wage-Slavery

Published in
Bad Subjects issue 69: Political Education for Everyday Life (University of California, Berkeley)

'Work for the Dole'

Now work for the dole, you bastards
Take that gleam of hope from your eye
Just work for the dole, you bastards
Or watch your children die

We've got batons and bullets, you bastards
We'll see you all toe the line
But we'd keep you down much better
If it weren't for these communist swine
('Workers Art', 1933)

Bludgers on the Dole

In December 1997, the Australian Federal government introduced a widespread "work for the dole" programme supposedly based on the principle of "mutual obligation" between long-term unemployed and the State. Whilst it initially applied for younger people (19 to 24 years of age), it has been progressively extended, first to include 25 to 34 year olds, and more recently 35-39 year olds. According to the government the objective of the programme is to "provide valuable work experience to unemployed people", to "develop good work habits in unemployed people", to "involve local communities in activities that provide for unemployed people and assist them at the end of their activity and "provide communities with activities (facilities and services) which are of value to them".

Conveniently forgotten is the fact the introduction of the work-for-the-dole scheme occurred after the sordid public vilification on the mass media television programme A Current Affair in 1996. The target of this campaign to equate unemployment with laziness and long-hair were the Paxtons, three unemployed youth (Shane, Bindi and Mark) who didn't take kindly to having to move 3,000 kilometers to an island off the Queensland coast for a menial temporary job at a resort (at the same time, the Prime Minister wouldn't move from Sydney to Canberra - a mere four-hour trip). At the height of the frenzy, Australia's biggest selling newspaper, the Herald Sun, conducted a telephone poll where ninety-five percent of respondants said that they should have their dole cut off.

The resort owner latter admitted that the jobs were offered to get publicity and had gone into actually receivership six days earlier. Nonetheless, it didn't stop populist commentator John Laws describing the Paxtons as "putrid," with the Prime Minister describing them as "bludgers" and Employment Minister Tony Abbot beginning his campaign against "job snobs." Those who broke ranks in the capitalist press were treated harshly; when Paul Barber, a journalist at the Melbourne radio station 3AW, attacked A Current Affair's treatment of the Paxtons and urged a public boycott, he was sacked and TV Channel 9 withdrew $300,000 worth of advertising from the radio station.

Whilst many community organizations - themselves subject to declining grants - have made use of the new circumstances, consistent reports indicate that the Work For the Dole scheme completely fails to satisfy its own criteria. Studies by the Australian Council for Social Services and the federal Department of Family and Community Services indicates that work-for-the-dole participants were less likely to enter paid work than those who were not forced into scheme. It also discovered that the scheme reduced the motivation of participants because of the stigma attached to it. In the three years that the work-for-the-dole scheme was introduced, there was a rise of 187 percent in punitive punishments meted out by the Department of Social Security.

So if the work-for-the-dole scheme fails its own criteria, one may justly ask what's the point of its continuation? Is it personal vindictiveness against the unemployed on the part of members of the conservative government with an extreme version of the Protestant work-ethic? Is it populist appeasement for further election victories? Undoubtedly these play a significant role if comments from the Prime Minister are to believed ("an example of how government can help instill a work ethic in our young people," "the dole system ...told them that dropping out of school, out of their communities, escaping personal responsibility, was acceptable and that the taxpayer would foot the bill"). But it would be extremely erroneous to attempt to divorce these factors from the general principles that govern labour relations in a capitalist system. Reformation of disturbed psychic states that have a biblical attitude toward work and mass education of the factual ration of job seekers to positions available do not change the principles of organization by which the economy operates.

Capital's Enslavement of Labour

As with all class societies the basic principle of operation in capitalism is slavery. To be sure, this is not the slavery of the politically stratified variety found in ancient regimes. But is slavery nonetheless on the basis that the individual is not in control of their life and that they must sell their labour in order to survive. It is forced, requisite, labour for the majority and not for a minority. There is no need here to engage in a detailed excursus or digression into debate with defenders of capitalist ideology who make the ludicrous claim that wages are a freely negotiated and mutually agreed values. It is self-evident that in capital-labour relations one of the participants requires wages in order to live and the other can simply seek more desperate individuals. It is also equally self-evident that it is in the interest and preference of the capitalist to employ labour at the lowest possible cost - the cost of maintaining the worker for the period of employment and no more - the "iron law of wages" as David Ricardo famously put it.

In the post-Second World War period however, a very different and perhaps unique set of circumstances arose. During 1948 and 1973 there was a period of unprecedented economic growth - worldwide gross national product increased by three and a half times. Keynesian economic theory with productive investment of liquid capital and demand management seemingly solved the problem of mass unemployment. Strong unions ensured that workers received a better than usual proportion of the earning from this economic growth. In this environment, a historic "class compromise" arose where, for the first time in capitalist history, the labouring class was deemed not guilty of their lack of inherited capital or their lack of ownership of common goods and natural resources. In advanced industrial economies, the "welfare state" was established, a system of economic democracy whereby all individuals were provided access to a social wage "from cradle to grave".

It is important to recognize however that a compromise is not a consensus, and a consensus is impossible between two parties that have contradictory interests. The temporary "class compromise" came under attack following the failure of Keynesian economics to deal with the OPEC oil crisis in the mid-1970s. Although this attack, monetarism, was clearly ideological in nature and actually contributed nothing to resolve the inherent contradictions in marginalist economic theory (as well pointed out in the latter works of Nicholas Kaldor). Viewed in this perspective, the attacks on the welfare-state and the introduction of work-for-the-dole schemes is simply a return to capitalism as usual; more unemployment as the ratio between constant capital and variable capital is reduced; and unemployment used to produce a downwards pressure on wages.

Surprisingly, opposition to this scheme in Australia seems to have neglected these fundamental facts. The main criticisms of the Australian Council of Social Services, the social-democratic Australian Labor Party and the Greens is purely functional - that the work-for-the-dole scheme fails the test of improving employment prospects and that it devalues voluntary community work. Even the radical Green Left Weekly, a newspaper controlled by members of the Democratic Socialist Party, advocates instead a reduction in working hours to distribute work more evenly ? a good principle no doubt, and a point where anthropologists, occupational health and safety research and psychology agrees - and also an issue which individuals themselves can contribute. To put it simply, if you're working a five-day week, drop a day - it's good for your health, it reduces unemployment (every four people who do it generates one more job), your tax bill, and it acts as an upward pressure on wages.

Ending Fine-Tuning of Wage Slavery

Ultimately, however, such fine-tuning, as useful as it may be, neglects the fundamental problem. In a society stratified by economic classes, economic slavery will continue to exist even if the conditions for its abolition are possible. It is somewhat extraordinary that when viewing labour relations that conventional wisdom seems incapable of noting the existence of economic classes as the primary points of reference. Capital accumulation, through the telos of the economic system, tends toward centralization, just as wages, again through the telos of the system tend toward maintenance of the worker. Only through the democratic control and enhancement of social capital, and in particular natural resources, can these inclinations be avoided. Marx's great claim for the "abolition of the wages system" never meant an abolition of wages as some nonsensical interpretations have suggested, just as it never meant an abolition of a price system for commodities. It meant the abolition of the conflicting social relationship between capital and labour and the establishment of "free communities of producers". It means a democratic control over the economy for (political and economic) democracy is the abolition of (political and economic) slavery.

Work-for-the-dole or community wages only makes sense if the principle of "mutual obligation" is taken seriously and decisions are genuinely freely chosen. Whilst private ownership of natural resources constitutes the greatest private expropriations from the species as a whole, the welfare system is but a partial reclamation. Funding the latter through the taxation of the former is increasingly just. One hundred years on, the economic theories of Henry George apparently finally are becoming not just a desire but a necessity. It is well about time that "lazy speculators," resource monopolists and other instances the "idle rich" were put to task; whilst it is true that the purpose of capital is to reduce the requirement of labour, it is equally true that unproductive capital must be put to work. Until that becomes a fact, the much-heralded system of "mutual obligation" is yet another lie to protect political and economic elites from the dispossessed.

Commenting on this Blog entry will be automatically closed on July 30, 2004.


Work for the dole has little effect on finding work: review

Heath Aston
Published: February 11, 2016 - 9:11PM

The Coalition's $1 billion work-for-the-dole scheme has improved the probability that an unemployed person will find a job by just 2 percentage points, a government-commissioned review has found.

A 90-page academic evaluation of the program concluded that the chance of getting a job had risen – but off a low base.

"It is estimated that in the short-term [work for the dole] resulted in an additional 2 percentage point increase in the probability of job seekers having a job placement controlling for other characteristics (from a low baseline of 14 per cent)," researchers from the Australian National University's Social Research Centre concluded.

"Furthermore, moving off income support increased by an additional 2 percentage points, compared to what would occur in the absence of [work for the dole] (from a baseline of 13 per cent)."

Work for the dole has been operating nationally since July 1 last year.

The Abbott government trumpeted work for the dole as a "door" to getting more unemployed people into work. "It is helping to open doors for job seekers and help people move from welfare to work," former employment minister Eric Abetz said in May last year, just before the program went national. A Senate estimates hearing heard that 52,000 people participated in the program in the first six months but more than 20,000 of those did not remain in the program for that entire period.

Bureaucrats from the Department of Employment, who tabled the evaluation report, could not say how many of those people had found jobs and how many had left for job training or other pre-employment schemes.

The review, which cost $340,000, could not put numbers on how many people found employment as a consequence of participating in work for the dole due to the "relatively short timeframe for the evaluation" of eight months.

But researchers found a positive response from a majority of participants, with two-thirds saying their "soft skills" – or people skills – had increased.

Improved ability to work with others was noted by 72 per cent of participants, 69 per cent said their confidence had improved and 65 per cent said their general work skills had improved.

Work for the dole jobs are typically low-supervision, menial tasks such as cleaning and labouring, but can include more bizarre activities. Fairfax Media reported in 2014 that one group in Adelaide had been assigned to making World War I dioramas for RSL clubs and another group was helping restore military aircraft.

The national scheme will cost about $1 billion over three years. It was forecast that 150,000 jobseekers a year will be in the program when it is fully operational.

Some of the jobs providers raised concerns that the name of the scheme was a negative but Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said there was no plans to find an alternative to "work for the dole".

Senator Cash clashed with Labor senator Doug Cameron who she accused of using unparliamentary language. That was in response to Senator Cameron's insistence that: "You want to screw unemployed people, we want to help them."

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