Jobactive has imposed 5.2 million penalties on jobseekers since it began in July 2015, and the program is under review by the government before its contract expires in 2020.
During a Senate inquiry into the effectiveness of Jobactive – which requires welfare recipients to attend meetings with private job service providers – it was revealed employment consultants aren’t required to hold any formal qualifications but have the power to cut welfare payments.
Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) media officer Jeremy Poxon told the inquiry on Thursday that Jobactive was a “special kind of hell” for welfare recipients with mental health issues.
Poxon spoke to Pro Bono News about his personal experience on Jobactive, and said the significant mental health issues he experienced only worsened while on the program.
“One of the things I was forced into early on was a work-for-the-dole activity which was completely irrelevant to my interests or my background. My job agent was almost apologetic, but said those were the rules and I had to do this or have my payment cut off,” Poxon said.
“I told the Senate inquiry what it was like to have no unconditional support when you’re at the end of your tether.
“They didn’t offer me any support and forced me into activities under the threat of benefit withdrawals, which for somebody like me going through a lot of depression and anxiety only made my mental health a lot worse.”
Poxon said most people with mental health issues he had spoken to through the AUWU told him Joactive had made their lives worse.
“We get a lot of calls about job agency bullying and coercing unemployed workers into activities they don’t want to be in… and people are living in a constant state of stress, and feeling like their benefits will be taken away at any moment,” he said.
Greens senator Rachel Siewert said evidence from the inquiry proved the program prioritised compliance over genuine assistance.
“We have heard loud and clear that Jobactive in its current form isn’t working. We have heard how the punitive one size fits all approach is failing people,” Siewert said.
Siewert also attacked the program for incorrectly penalising people, after the inquiry heard half of the 5.2 million penalties imposed, were later overturned by Centrelink.
“People suffer through the stress and indignity of losing their income through no fault of their own and although they get it back, they may have already gone into debt because people on Newstart live from payment to payment,” she said.
The AUWU has called for the system to be overhauled, and for the creation of an independent ombudsman for jobseekers who feel abused by job agencies.
“Young people I know would essentially crawl over broken glass for a full time secure job,” Poxon said.
“So I wonder, why is the system purely designed to punish us and coerce us into activities? There should be incentives built into the system to help us engage in it, rather than investing all the time and energy into compliance and monitoring.
“I’d love to see a system that actually rewarded jobseekers for meeting their obligations and one that holds job agents to account.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing issues with mental health, please contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or headspace on 1800 650 890.