Photo by Malte Helmhold on Unsplash

Prior to the pandemic, the Australian Government’s policy approach to unemployment was to keep people attached to the labour market. The focus was on changing people’s behaviour and improving employability despite labour market conditions. Since the 1990s, these ‘activation’ objectives have presumed that the best way a government can ‘help’ the unemployed is to encourage or ‘hassle’ them to look for work. Activation practices, like weekly job search requirements, resume training sessions or participation in the Work for the Dole program, are included in people’s mutual obligation requirements spelled out in their ‘job plan’.

To receive their income support (Jobseeker Payment), social security recipients are required to engage in activities spelled out in the job plan or risk earning ‘demerit points’, which could lead to a payment suspension. Before the pandemic, the Jobseeker payment equalled $40 a day, well below the poverty line of $65 a day. Having a payment suspended then was a punishment that further disabled the already disadvantaged.

The paid work ethic underpinning Australia’s unemployment governance

Despite considerable research highlighting the harmful impact of the activation practices, the Australian Government has persisted with punitive activation and mutual obligations. The dominant approach to governing unemployment in Australia is underpinned by two assumptions.

Firstly, it assumes that unemployment is detrimental to the individual and they will become idle and demoralised without intervention. This taps into the ‘pathological theory’ of unemployment that the unemployed lack key psychological traits such as self-esteem and motivation.

Secondly, the best solution to unemployment is (re)employment or at the very least actively working towards this goal. Importantly, this means that the welfare state is designed to encourage idealised individual behavioural change to demonstrate ‘deservedness’.

At its core, the focus on ensuring people are participating in the labour market is connected to broader ideas around a productive ethos. Contemporary welfare discourses conflate ‘participation’ with paid work, valorising paid employment. Consequently, other forms of work are undervalued, which also undermines the unpaid care work of women or Australia’s First Peoples.

COVID disruption forced a rethink, but activation policies remain

In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic created conditions where job searching and monitoring mutual obligations were no longer a reasonable response to unemployment. The closing of businesses associated with pandemic lockdowns left many people with reduced working hours and other staff were stood down. The Australian Government said they left ideology behind and initiated a swathe of programs to support the economy through what was initially framed as a public health crisis. In our recent Social Policy and Society article, we looked at two aspects of these pandemic supports: the immediate doubling of the Jobseeker payment (via the $550 fortnightly COVID supplement) and the temporary suspension of mutual obligations.

We focused on the temporary changes to ask: how did the framing of the problem change during the pandemic response? In short, we think there is not much change.

In the context of individualising unemployment, the COVID-19 pandemic did force a wider acknowledgement of the social determinants of unemployment, particularly as it became difficult to sustain an argument that unemployment was a personal choice. However, COVID-19-induced unemployment did little to reframe the objective of activating the unemployed or decouple income from labour.

Firstly, the doubling of the Jobseeker payment via the COVID supplement was frequently discussed to support those made unemployed through Government declarations and therefore, “due to no fault of their own”. The focus was on supporting people from the “economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, which will directly impede people’s ability to find and retain paid employment over coming months” (p. 131). The newly unemployed were recognised as involuntarily unemployed, cohering with historical discourses about the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor.

Secondly, even in the ‘depressed labour market’ the government still reproduced the importance of citizens participating in society through paid work.

For example, in the early of the pandemic, people on the Disability Support Pension were excluded from the supplement because the pension “provide[d] support for people who are unable to support themselves through substantial paid employment” (p. 131). This tapped into the idea that only those without work but who could work needed temporary support because of the labour market conditions as opposed to the insufficient payment rate or recognising livelihoods outside of the employment relation. Indeed, during this time clients were still encouraged to keep ‘connected’ to their employment service provider and endeavour to keep themselves ‘job-ready’.

In the Delta waves of 2021, the temporary suspension of mutual obligation requirements during the continuing lockdowns and the refusal to extend financial assistance to the unemployed during these lockdowns demonstrates that the fixation on enforcing labour market participation was not being problematised. What remained unchallenged was the focus on participation as fulfilling one’s role according to a productivist ‘social contract’ and the associated rights and responsibilities of industrial citizenship.

There was (and still is) the potential to break with the ideational path

We suggest the pandemic presents an opportunity for a different imaginary to remake the welfare-work nexus in a way that decentres the centrality of the paid-work ethic in constituting social citizenship and moral worth.

In Australia, as in other OECD countries, there have been calls in the post-pandemic recovery phase for more far-reaching reforms to provide greater economic security and real freedoms. Some of the more prominent proposals include universal basic income (UBI) and universal basic services (UBS). A universal basic income consists of regular payments made to individuals to provide an economic floor to alleviate poverty, spur economic growth and generate entrepreneurial activity. Universal basic services provide basic access to de-commodified forms of health, education and other services to meet social needs.

One proposal put forward during the pandemic to increase social security payments in a less targeted mode is the Liveable Income Guarantee (LIG). The Liveable Income Guarantee was initially proposed by a number of academics and commentators in April 2020 as an alternative to the wage subsidy proposal (JobKeeper) that was being rolled out nationally at the time. The proposed payment aimed to cover those who would miss out on JobSeeker and JobKeeper including arts sector workers, those engaged in full-time care, small business owners and migrants not eligible for the payment or the supplement.

The initial proposal for a Liveable Income Guarantee was later refined into a more detailed proposal, which included a participation requirement to encapsulate the reciprocity principle. Participation could include, volunteering, care work, education and caring for country which means it challenged the ‘paid-work’ ethic as it embraced multiple forms of work as a social contribution, rather than just a narrow focus on labour.

Australia can reset

In the Social Policy and Society article, we argued that the cultural logic of eulogising the paid work ethic and demonising the unemployed remains intact in Australia.

The way in which the record levels of social and economic expenditure has been channelled during the pandemic has reinforced, rather than challenged, the welfare-work norms. The repeated emphasis on ‘temporary’ spending sends a public message that these are extraordinary times and as soon as possible the government will return to its ‘normal’ efforts to limit social security expenditure and enforce punitive activation. There is never any hint of the possibility that ‘normal’ is not healthy, that the crisis could be an opportunity for a reset of our economic and social settings, rather than simply aiming for a reboot of pre-existing policy parameters.

Given the disruption caused by the pandemic, the uncertainty about the future of work associated with automation and climate change, there is a strong case for a fundamental reframing of the relationship between income and labour as we recognise and reclaim all forms of work, including care work. We can still reset.

A reset would take an alternative framing and policy direction, one that advances social security as a fundamental economic right, builds capabilities and addresses systemic drivers of disadvantage. We need nothing less than a new social contract that suits the conditions of the twenty-first century. Major welfare reform is necessary in a world where employment has become a less reliable source of rights, income and belonging.

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