Friday, August 15, 2003

Life as a Cliche

I noticed, on a quick visit to Meika, that he's got himself in a spot of bother with his Preparing for Work Agreement. It's as good an excuse as any to have a bitch about my own, and maybe slip in a few general gripes about the whole cock-eyed system while I'm at it.

I got a new Preparing for Work Agreement on Friday. Apparently I come up for another new one in a fortnight or so, when I'll spend another 45 minutes with my Job Network Service Provider person nutting out the things I'm going to agree to do so that I stay on CentreLink's good books for another fortnight. It's getting to be a pleasant relief to wake up in the mornings to discover that, despite all the indications that it should happen sometime soon, I didn't turn into a giant cockroach while I was sleeping.

To tell the truth, I don't know, or care, whether the new arrangement is because I've been identified as a client requiring special attention, or it's part of some general revision of the whole system of Mutual Obligation. Back when Droning David Kemp introduced this nasty piece of cant into our political vocabulary, I was still making a comfortable living as an outsourced computer programmer, so I wasn't immediately affected by it, beyond being outraged at the breathtaking hypocrisy of the concept. Show a list of the basic "Mutual Obligation" requirements to anyone who worked, as I did, in the CES during the 1980s and they'll quickly tell you that most of them were already included in the "Work Test" which was applied to dolebludgers back then. The only thing that has changed is the name, which is a flat out lie.

There's something very insidious about the whole concept of the Preparing for Work Agreement. Most of the requirements are easy to meet - such as the one about keeping my Resume up to date - so it's easy to take the position, as some mo doubt will, that the requirements are by no means onerous: all I basically have to do is stuff that a rational person would do for their own benefit anyway. Perhaps these people might like to explain why then, is it necessary that each new agreement has to be signed by me and, to make assurance doubly sure, each individual point on the agreement has to be initialled, to indicate that I have actually read it. This strikes me as, at the very least, petty.

But there's a more worrying possibility. Anyone who's been in the contracting labour market knows just how much legal weight can attach to putting your signature on a piece of paper with the word "agreement" in the title: just enough to land you in court if you're not careful. The whole procedure reminds you that there's someone with the big stick out there and if you're not careful, they'll be coming after you to administer a few whacks. Whatever the reason, someone has just raised the hoops I have to jump through to remain at least homeful, so I hope you'll excuse me if I'm feeling a little pissed off about it and slightly paranoid about the possibility that the whole point of the exercise is to produce plenty of documentary evidence to support a suspension of my Newstart Allowance on the basis that I in breach of my Mutual Obligation or whatever the cant phrase is.

To add insult to injury, I also learnt on Friday that a little bit of assistance that would have been very welcome, can't be provided. At our first meeting my Job Network Provider person (who I quite like - she's sensible enough to realise that the system isn't) raised the possibility that we might be able to get some business cards printed, to help promote the small business I'm currently self-unemployed in. It turns out that it's not a goer: the relevant assistance program is only available once you're off NewStart, which reminds me very much of that famous novel where the hero couldn't get out of flying bombing missions on the grounds of insanity, because the fact that he didn't want to fly any more missions showed that he wasn't insane. And, once again, it's based on some thinking about employment and the nature of unemployment that's at least twenty years old.

Just as much of "Mutual Obligation" is identical to the "Work Test" of the Seventies and Eighties (and possibly earlier), the definition of "work" used to determine whether you are "actively seeking suitable work" hasn't changed either. Work is still defined as "permanent, full-time employment": basically, despite all the changes in the labour market since 1980, the only way to qualify for the dole is to look for a job working for someone else. It's interesting, to say the least, that a government that prides itself on being a reformist government, especially in the area of Industrial Relations (or as Tony Abbott would perhaps prefer it Workplace Relations or Employee Relations), is still using this definition to determine eligibility for the dole. If they're really serious about freeing up the labour market, you'd expect that some attention might be paid to freeing up the Mutual Obligation System, so that the unemployed have a little more freedom to find their own way back into the labour market, rather than relying on a single, fairly restricted route.

When you look at the definition of "suitable" for the purposes of Mutual Obligation, the whole game is exposed for the sordid, punitive little exercise it really is. Once again, it's a very old definition: it's work that you can do, subject to a few caveats about general community standards, and which pays at least the award rate. The community standards caveats are there so that, for example, devout Catholics can't be breached for turning down the offer of a job as receptionist at the local massage parlour, licenced or otherwise. Quite what the concept of an award is doing in this definition in the bright new world of Individual Workplace Agreements is beyond me, but no doubt the wording of the regulation has been changed to reflect current industrial relations law. If this is reform, give me reaction any day.

Since I've raised the issue of alternative ways to get off the dole queue, a few words about the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS) are in order. This is the scheme under which the government supports the unemployed to set up new businesses and their have been quite a few NEIS success stories. So you'd think that me and my business partners would be applying for NEIS wouldn't you? We looked at that: but to qualify for NEIS, we would have to set up an entirely new business.

What we had when I first signed onto the dole, was an existing business with quite a bit of client goodwill, a good reputation and, thanks to our participation in one of those business ideas contests, a fair bit of interest from some of Australia's more monied suits. Look, we've tendered for jobs with major corporate clients interstate and knocked out the local competition for God's sake. You think we're going to throw away our existing business name, with all the cachet we've managed to attach to it, to qualify for government assistance knowing that when we go in to tender for jobs the first question customers will be asking is "Just who the bloody hell are these people?" Nor would it help our business reputation any to declare the business bankrupt, just so that we could start another one with government backing. I remember I nearly wept when I was signing on and friendly CentreLink guy told me that under the Social Security Act I might not be considered unemployed unless the business was formally declared bankrupt. Catch-22 does that to you.

Afterword: there's bound to be someone out there who is going to say, on the basis of what I've written here, that I've effectively chosen to be unemployed because I'm too proud to go work for someone else or something similar. All I have to say on that score right now is that there's a small grain of truth in that, even if saying this does concede a point which might be gleefully ceased upon by bloggers looking to score a few points with their blog-claques by getting in a few cheap shots at a soft target. All I'm going to say on the subject of permanent full-time employment for now is been there, done that didn't like it. For every permanent full-time job that I don't particularly want to take up if I can possibly continue to put off re-entering the happy little world of middle-class office politics, there are six other people who might have a less jaundiced view of the prospect than I do.

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