Australia’s privatized employment services system doesn’t help people find work. Instead, thanks to reforms first introduced by the Labor Party, it punishes welfare recipients with a bureaucratic maze of “mutual obligations.”
Owen Bennett is the founding president of the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union. He is currently writing a book for Interventions on trade unions and unemployment in Australia.
Since the 1980s, Australian unions have subordinated everything to getting Labor elected. It’s a failed strategy that has diminished union power, leading to declining wages and conditions for workers.
Australia’s unemployment benefit is one of the lowest in the OECD. This isn’t just a by-product of austerity politics — it’s designed to force the unemployed into low-paid, casual work, undermining wages and conditions across the board.
Faced with the unemployment crisis of 1890, jobless workers in Melbourne formed a union to fight for relief. But the Australian labor movement remained indifferent to their struggle — and soon paid the price. Those self-defeating attitudes are still alive in unions today.
Australia’s mean and punitive benefits system is a key tool for disciplining workers while amassing profits for private firms. The labor movement needs to join with the unemployed to overhaul it entirely.