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​How Work for the Dole Became an Expensive, Exploitative Failure

Working for $8 an hour could be just the ego boost you need.
February 16, 2016, 12:00am

A review into the government's "Work for the Dole" scheme was released last week. It was a legacy of Abbott's government that pretty much summed up his leadership style: ineffective, expensive, and ill advised. Work for the Dole, which has just finished its trial phase, conscripts young unemployed people to do vital nation-building work such as "hospitality tasks" and "general warehouse duties" for 25 hours a week. If participants fail to meet these requirements, they're kicked off welfare.

So how's it been going? Well, leaving aside the ethics of forcing people to work for $8 an hour, Work for the Dole has been about as effective as a box of chocolate condoms. The report found the 50,000 people going through the program were only two percent more likely to find work than those who were left to their own devices. At a cost of a billion dollars in the first three years, that's about a million dollars spent for every job found so far.

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But the government, forever optimistic, isn't letting things like statistics get in its way. They show all signs of pushing on, saying the numbers misrepresent the success of the scheme and the program is "effective in helping participants gain confidence and self-esteem." The logic here is that if being unemployed is making you feeling depressed or disenfranchised, doing dishes for $8 an hour could be just the ego boost you've been looking for.

So how did Work for the Dole fail so spectacularly? Well, for one thing the program is underpinned by the assumption the government knows how to spend poor people's time better than poor people do. Instead of writing resumes, training, and knocking on doors, the unemployed were sweeping highways and pulling up weeds. As one former participant told VICE, "I ended up working three part-time jobs with a lot of hours for not much money. They still wanted me to constantly apply for jobs and go to these ridiculous meetings."

For many Work for the Dole became more of a hindrance than a help. "I had to push back a job interview to attend a work for the dole appointment," said one former participant. "When I arrived, they told me to come back later in the day, because their internet never started working till 10 AM." Another told me: "I ended up calling it charades for the dole, it was so pitifully useless." The Age reported that some people were directed to make airplane dioramas for hours on end.

Another key issue was how the Department of Employment chose to manage the program. Work for the Dole's billion dollar operating budget was split between a crew of private contractors, including Matchworks, Job Prospects, and slew of other equally exciting sounding entities.

While their names may be boring, their activities are anything but. Allegations have swirled around these contractors. Many people involved with the program reported repeated difficulties involving the agencies, finding the process punitive. "I was starting up my own business and through Centrelink got into a short course that teaches you to run a small business," said a now-successful Melbourne business owner, recounting her time in the program. "I still ended up in working for the dole and was told that starting or running my own business wasn't an approved activity. What the fuck?"

As flaws began to emerge in the scheme, pressure was applied to the contractors to improve their outcomes. As one participant recounted, "My contact at the job centre, a young guy, was really apologetic. He said that I really shouldn't be in the program, but that his employer was going to lose their contract if they didn't start pumping more people through."

When Malcolm Turnbull leaped into the driver's seat last year, he promised a style of government "that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative." Yet despite this, and despite some reassuring evidence, his government is persisting with this ineffective and expensive policy. Perhaps they're waiting for a quiet news day before rinsing off Abbott's leftovers. Until then, there's never been a more exciting time to be an unemployed Australian.