An inside look at Australia’s work-for-welfare system from three caseworkers

Three people who have worked in job centres tell about their experience dealing with vulnerable Australians on welfare

Since the late 1990s, Australia has paid private companies and non-profits to run 1,800 job centres tasked with getting people into work. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

About 400,000 unemployed Australians are obliged to engage with Jobactive, the government’s main employment services program, in order to keep their social security payment.

Since the late 1990s, Australia has paid private companies and non-profits to run the 1,800 job centres around the country. They are tasked with getting people into work.

In February this year the Jobactive network was the subject of a Senate inquiry which heard from those who work within the system about the high turnover of staff, impossible caseloads, low levels of training, mistreatment by consultants and a lack of engagement from employers.

Here, three people who have worked for Jobactive providers speak about the failings in the system. They have all chosen to remain anonymous because they fear for their jobs.

Name: Anonymous

Location: ACT

Experience: Worked for a Jobactive provider for 16 months in 2017-19

I always thought I was a cynical person to start with, but my time with the Jobactive provider has made me worse. The job of an employment consultant is basically tick and flick. You started at 8.30am and the phones would turn on at 9am. Until then they were on message bank, though no one knew the passcode to the message system so none of us could get into the system. If someone tried to do the right thing and call ahead of time, I would never know about it.

After the phones came on, you’d have appointments every half-hour. You’d ask someone how they’re going and whether they’ve done their job search. Then you’d have your lunch break and an hour at the end of the day to type up any notes.

The other person who started with me quit six weeks in. When they left, my caseload doubled as all the permanent staff had quit, and I was the only case manager and sometimes the only person in the office. This meant I had 15 minutes to spend with people who were often incredibly vulnerable. The worst off among them would come in and you’d know behind the scenes their life was a mess. They were homeless, or out on parole, or had addictions. Sometimes I had to cut off their payments for one bureaucratic infraction or another. I consider myself a fairly ethical person with a good sense of social justice. Before long I was asking myself, how the hell did I end up here doing this to these people?

I had 15 minutes to spend with people who were often incredibly vulnerable.

Sometimes I would cheat and mark off a non-attendance as something else, but then in July 2018 they started monitoring what we did from the departmental level. There’s a code for everything and if you had too many codes it would ping. At the monthly performance review, you’d get called in and they’d grill you about it.

It was still easy to game the system. Case managers have quotas for the number of people they have to get into work. You could have one person working five different jobs, over five days for one hour a day and that’ll count as five separate jobs, which means you’ve met your stream quota. You could easily take the statistics they report for the number of people they’ve helped into jobs, halve it and halve it again for those who have enough work to live on. Who can live off one hour a week?

‘What the Jobactive network has done is turn unemployment into an industry.’
FacebookTwitterPinterest  ‘What the Jobactive network has done is turn unemployment into an industry.’ Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The worst part was that there was a big meeting with employers and training organisations where they told the government about this. They explained how they gamed the system. Nothing changed. What the Jobactive network has done is turn unemployment into an industry. It’s a way of taking someone who doesn’t have discretionary income and turning them into a product to make money, which these companies are set up to feed on – and the government is paying for it all.

Name: Anonymous

Location: Victoria

Experience: Currently working for a Jobactive provider

Working at the Jobactive provider is honestly one of the most stressful jobs I have ever had..

Generally, my job is to handle all the basic admin and meet people at the door, but they also put me in charge of managing cases even though I didn’t have the time – or training. Generally, a person who deals with us is tranched by Centrelink into one of three streams, depending on how long they have been unemployed: Stream A, Stream B, or Stream C. I was put in charge of handling Stream As, who have only been receiving a payment for less than three months. In principle, they are considered to have no barriers to employment but the reality is the company makes no money from them and so doesn’t really care about them. I even had a couple of cases where people in Stream A were guaranteed a job, but we couldn’t help them pay for the necessary safety equipment, so they missed out.

The manager was always telling us not to be lenient.

Of those I worked with, those who were new were always more understanding and more willing to make exemptions. The longer a person worked there, the more likely they were to just see jobseekers as walking dollar signs. Meanwhile, the manager was always telling us not to be lenient. If a jobseeker missed an appointment, she didn’t want you to listen to their side of things and let it slide if you thought it was appropriate. She wanted you to penalise them – no matter what. I didn’t agree with that.

There were always a few cases where people were trying to take advantage, but they were rare. Most people, most of the time, were trying to do the right thing. There were a few situations where I’d bend the rules to help someone. Others I know did the same. For example, if someone had submitted an exemption, and I could see it on their file, I would make a telephone appointment with them instead of asking them to come in. I wouldn’t tell my manager about it as I was afraid of getting caught. If you weren’t strict enough and she found out, she would take you aside and suggest you do things differently. There was never any direct threat to your job, but it was more of an implied threat.

Name: Anonymous

Location: Victoria

Experience: Worked for a Jobactive provider for six months in 2015

In a previous life, I spent seven years as an employment support officer under the old government system. That system had its flaws but it was built around actually trying to help people who had serious barriers to employment. The job was to listen to them, give them some time and work out what they actually needed to get them working again.

I left the industry and then came back again in 2015 when circumstances meant I needed a job again. When I took the job with the Jobactive provider, I wasn’t ready for just how much the system had changed or how those six months would turn out to be one of the most miserable experiences I have ever had at work.

There were five case managers where I worked with seven hundred clients between them. Caseloads were about 180, though this could change week-to-week depending on the number of suspensions people were given. The whole exercise was basically just a cattle call. The work people were supposed to be looking for just didn’t exist in the region at that time. Unemployment was already high and companies were shedding even more jobs.

One day I overheard someone at the agency explain to a client: “We don’t find you jobs, we just help you look for them.” I was gobsmacked because it drove home just how much the system had changed. At the end of the day, we were just compliance officers. Cops, basically. You were bound to a computer, ticking boxes, trying to find work for people who were often low-skilled or highly skilled in occupations that were no longer around.

Because of my past experience, I was working with Stream C clients, most of whom had significant barriers to employment. This could be drug abuse, dysfunctional family backgrounds or homelessness. The expectation was that I would get them work or have them “job-ready’” within a month. I knew this would take time. Employment consultants, however, live or die by how many KPIs they meet. The company doesn’t care about the quality of the job you get someone or whether you actually help them. If they fall back into the system later on, that’s just more money for the company.

My approach was to say, “Bugger that”. There’s no point me pushing someone into a job tomorrow when there’s no way they could keep it. It was also unfair on employers. I figured over the long run my KPIs would improve as the clients did better. And they did – just not fast enough.

Though my numbers were picking up, about two weeks before Christmas I was called into a meeting before lunch with both the site manager and the regional manager. They were very stern and explained they did not think I was up to the task. They didn’t say so outright, but it was clear they were terminating me because I was too sympathetic to the clients.

So that was Merry Christmas from Jobactive: two weeks of separation pay and straight onto Centrelink.

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