Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Civil Conscription or Reciprocal Obligation: The Ethics of `Work-for-the-Dole'

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Civil Conscription or Reciprocal Obligation: The Ethics of `Work-for-the-Dole'

Article excerpt

The Coalition parties campaigned on the need to create `real jobs' during the 1996 Federal election. After a number of years in office joblessness, both for young people and prime age workers, remains as high as ever. Yet as major companies and government agencies continued to downsize their work force, the Coalition government decided to respond to this central social problem by introducing a `new' plan that initially required some young people (between the age of 18-24 years) to work for their unemployment benefits. Those `eligible' for participation in the program have been extended from its original `youth target' to included older people. Prime Minister Howard maintained that his `work for the dole scheme' will give priority to the long-term unemployed and thereby help jobless young people, who he claims have lost the incentive to work and/or become welfare dependents, to re-enter the labour market (DEETYA, 1998).

In the first part of this article I query official justifications for the Australian workfare scheme; concentrating on the arguments for reciprocal obligation, I ask what those rationales indicate about government understandings of the causes of unemployment. In the later part of the article I assess the value of the scheme in terms of certain human rights criteria, arguing that it contravenes the Australian constitutions which prohibit any form of civil conscription.

As I indicate, the workfare scheme provides little if any reasonable economic justifications, and none have been advanced by the Howard government. Although I concentrate on the Howard government's work-for-the-dole policy initiative, it needs to be made clear that the principle of reciprocal obligation is not unique to the Liberal National Coalition government, it provides the basis for similar programs in the UK, USA and Canada. It was also embedded in the Keating Labor government's `Working Nation' and has been practiced within many Aboriginal communities for many years.

Considerable attention has been given to the moral and quasi-sociological claims about the role of paid employment in maintaining `the fabric of society'. Here we see the government drawing heavily on a classic liberal contractarian theory of mutual rights and obligations (Yeatman 1997). This is done in conjunction with the other assumptions that inform government understandings of the causes of unemployment. These assumptions, I agrue, are deeply problematic. At a time when the unequal distribution of employment constitutes a major social problem of our era, the Howard government's proposals are an exercise in affirming a nostalgic ethic of work. With consideration to certain human rights perspectives, any value that its proponents might claim are outweighed by the affront to human rights which the program entails.

The Employment Context of Workfare

The distribution of full-time paid employment has become more unequal, more uncertain and insecure in Australia since 1975 (Dusseldorp Skills Forum 1998; Latham 1998).

The problem of work now encompasses three critical elements:

* The trend towards the unequal distribution of paid employment. This is characterised by the emergence of high levels of long term unemployment in conjunction with a shift to longer hours of employment for many of those in full-time employment. Further, unemployed young people (15 to 24 years) constitutes up to thirty-eight percent of all unemployed people in Australia (Spiering and Spoer 1996:1; Dusseldorp 1998).

Nearly 12 per cent of the total population aged between 15 and 24 or 15.7 per cent of the 15-24 year old labour force, were unemployed (Spiering & Spoer 1996:1).

And as Wooden explains young people have been disproportionally affected by these shifts in the labour market:

   ... the changing structure of the teenage labour market has actually acted
   to the cost of teenage labour (Wooden 1998:29). … 
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