Members of the crossbench in both the Senate and Lower House have grown restless over the government’s treatment of job seekers this week, after countless welfare recipients were forced to grapple with an “unusable” new digital employment services platform.
The government’s new employment platform, Workforce Australia, was launched on Monday and replaces the outgoing JobActive platform, which was shut down by the new Albanese government in early July without a transition period or consultation from unemployment and welfare groups.
The platform dispenses with the mutual obligations requirements that were baked into its predecessor in favour of a more gamified, automated Points Based Activation System (PBAS), which requires those seeking welfare benefits to complete a series of tasks in return for payments.
On Monday, the platform became the source of widespread “fear and distress” among welfare recipients across the country, as countless job seekers were unable to log into the platform, while some struggled to use vital location services and others were dead-named.
Four days after launch, countless jobseekers continue to face an onslaught of technical and administrative issues on the platform, which one technology expert told VICE either indicates a contempt for the technology they’re using, or poor people—possibly both.
Independent federal member for Warringah, Zali Steggall, told VICE the burden shouldn’t be theirs to bear, and urged the government to put additional measures in place to offer job seekers some reprieve as households are hit hard by rising inflation and, in New South Wales, yet another major flooding event.
She said she’d like to see employment minister, Tony Burke, start by extending the one-week mutual obligations moratorium offered to flood victims across the state.
“The patchy rollout of Workforce Australia adds to psychological distress of people who are facing rising costs of living and inadequate JobSeeker payments,” Steggall said.
“We can't forget the distress caused by Robodebt. We must ensure people using these services have access without punitive and needless administrative stress.”
For Melissa, whose surname has been withheld for privacy purposes, the platform migration almost resulted in a payment delay. Under normal circumstances, she told VICE, she would usually report via the government’s MyGov platform on a Monday.
When she tried to do so on July 1, she was faced with an error message seen by VICE: “Your report could not be finalised and your record could not be updated.”
“I had to call them and they said there was a glitch in the system, and that many couldn’t report online. They had to do something on their end for my report to go through,” Melissa, who lives with a disability in Adelaide, said.
The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations issued a statement on Monday afternoon, saying the platform had been experiencing “intermittent issues” that went on to impact some of its mobile users. It said the issues had since been resolved, and that the site is “now performing well”.
According to the experiences of countless job seekers, however, it wasn’t the case then, and technical difficulties have been ongoing ever since.
A spokesperson for the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations told VICE on Tuesday that only a “small number of issues” impacted job seekers on Monday, and said more than 150,000 people were able to schedule appointments with providers this week.
She said that while the department had experienced technical difficulties, the issues faced by users of the platform weren’t atypical of “any large scale IT project” where there were “technical and capacity partners involved in supporting the department’s own internal IT capacity and capability for the roll-out”.
However, critics of the government’s project management suggest the old platform should’ve continued running alongside the launch of Workforce Australia, to ensure that teething issues wouldn’t impact a job seeker’s ability to access payments in the thick of a cost of living emergency.
In late June, the Albanese government announced changes to the Coalition-designed program, after saying it was “too late” to scrap it altogether. Announcing the tweaks, Burke said they were made with “choice and control” in mind.
The result was a scheme which now requires jobseekers to complete a series of activities, that’ll score the welfare recipients “points”. In order to receive payment, a welfare recipient now needs to accrue 100 points through a mix of job search activities, study, training, simply working or “work for the dole”.
Critics say the government’s support for the scheme—which welfare advocates suggest is just as punitive as the one it sought to replace—stands squarely at odds with the prevailing sentiment of the recent federal election. One newly elected Independent staffer told VICE that Australians “voted for change, and this just isn’t it.”
The sentiment was shared by the Greens’ spokesperson for social services, Janet Rice, who told VICE that the government currently has job seekers “held over a barrel, and it’s just not fair”.
She said, at the very least, the Albanese government should put an immediate hold on mutual obligations for a period of at least 90 days, as advocates have been calling for.
“It’s pretty clear that the introduction of workforce Australia is causing people a huge amount of harm and stress, and that its introduction has not gone smoothly. It looks like the system is already failing,” Rice said.
“Minister Burke needs to look at this really seriously, and sit down with people and say, ‘Are there problems so severe that they’re not going to be able to be fixed in that 90-day period?’ In which case, a clean slate [or reversion to the old platform] may be an option,” she said.
“It may be that they can fix [these problems to a reasonable degree], but our position is that mutual obligations be abolished altogether.”
Employment minister, Tony Burke, didn’t respond to requests for comment. But on Thursday morning, the government’s minister for social services, Amanda Rishworth, only vindicated the worst of concerns felt by welfare recipients across the country: change might be a way off yet.
Appearing on ABC Radio National, Rishworth faced a string of questions about the temporary relief payments being offered to residents of 23 flood-ravaged areas of NSW, before matters turned to the rate of JobSeeker, which remains at $46 a day.
Rishworth doubled down on the party line, pointed to a bloated former Coalition government spending record, and said the country just couldn’t afford to bring millions out of poverty.
When asked why, then, the government will go ahead with stage three tax cuts—which will see people earning $200,000 paying $25 less a day in tax—she said: “We’ve got to look at all things we’re doing.”
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