'One fundamental value' : work for the dole participants' views about mutual obligation

Sawer, H 2005, 'One fundamental value' : work for the dole participants' views about mutual obligation, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Global Studies, Social Science and Planning, RMIT University.


Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

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Title 'One fundamental value' : work for the dole participants' views about mutual obligation
Author(s) Sawer, H
Year 2005
Abstract This thesis contributes to the literature on the Howard Government's mutual obligation policy by investigating the perspectives of those who are subject to it: specifically, those required to undertake Work for the Dole. To date, research on participants' perspectives has been limited to a few predominantly quantitative studies, most of which have been commissioned or conducted by government departments. This study provides a more qualitative and independent perspective on participants' experiences and their views about their rights and obligations as unemployed people. It considers the extent to which these experiences and views are consistent with or conflict with the rationales for mutual obligation.

The study included a survey of 87 participants in nine Melbourne and Geelong-based Work for the Dole projects conducted in 1999, eight focus groups conducted with 59 of these participants, and 37 in-depth interviews conducted with a new sample of Work for the Dole participants in 2002. Unemployed participants in the study had a strongly positive orientation towards work and many had substantial experience of employment. They viewed work as necessary to fulfil human capacities and needs, and often believed that they should work for their own well-being, as much as to contribute to society. Far from expressing any distinctive values of a 'dependency culture', participants appeared to share many of the work values of the wider community. However, many also had substantial experience of unemployment and faced significant barriers to gaining ongoing work.

This thesis provides evidence that Work for the Dole provides short-term benefits for many such unemployed people: most study participants enjoyed taking part in the program and felt that they gained benefits from participating. They clearly endorsed some kind of work placement and skill development programs for the unemployed. Given the Howard Government's abolition of a range of previous programs of this type, Work for the Dole is now the only such program available for many participants and was often preferred to doing no program at all.

However, more than four in ten survey participants did not enjoy doing the program overall, and a fifth actively disliked taking part. Further, the program's impact on employment prospects appeared to be either negligible or negative-which was not surprising given the scheme's focus on the unemployed discharging their 'obligations to the community' and 2 overcoming a 'psychology of dependency', rather than on job outcomes for participants. However, this thesis argues that there is very limited value in a program which provides benefits at the time of participation but does not help in achieving the main aim of the unemployed: gaining work.

The study analyses the Howard Government's three central rationales for the mutual obligation policy: that it ensures that participants fulfil the requirements of the 'social contract' by requiring them to 'contribute to the community' (the contractualist claim), that it deters the unemployed from being 'too selective' about jobs (the 'job snob' claim), and that it benefits participants by developing their capacity for autonomy and self-reliance (the new paternalist claim). These three rationales are assessed in the light of participants' responses.

With regard to the contractualist claim, the study finds that most participants shared the widespread community belief that only 'genuine' jobseekers deserve unemployment payments, but many did not share the community's support for the requirement to work for payments. While a third of survey participants supported this requirement, almost half opposed it. Most believed the government was not fulfilling its obligations to the unemployed to provide appropriate employment and training opportunities which were relevant to the jobs they were seeking. Many viewed the mutual obligation 'contract' as a one-way set of directives imposed on them and believed that the breaching regime which enforced these directives was unreasonably punitive and unfairly administered.

With regard to the 'job snob' claim, study participants largely rejected an expectation that they should be required to accept any job, and most had substantial concerns about the specific form of the job search regime. They did not agree that 'any job is better than no job' and objected to the pressure under mutual obligation arrangements to apply for jobs which they considered inappropriate. They were not willing to be forced into jobs in which they feared they would be unhappy and which they were likely to soon leave; rather, they wanted assistance to help them to find sustainable work.

Finally, with regard to the 'new paternalist' claim, many participants believed that compelling recipients to undertake certain activities or to apply for unsuitable jobs unreasonably restricted their freedom of choice, undermining rather than increasing their autonomy. As argued by Yeatman (2000b), recipients may benefit from a program, or from a case manager who assists 3 them to develop their capacities, but compulsion to undertake activities that are not related to individual needs and goals is likely to undermine capacity-building. The evidence of poor employment outcomes from Work for the Dole adds further weight to this view. The provision of a greater range of program types in place of Work for the Dole-including those which combine work with accredited training and those providing subsidised placement in mainstream jobs-would address many concerns held by participants in this study. However, compulsion to participate in a labour market program would remain problematic in a society which generates far fewer jobs than are needed for full employment.

The thesis concludes that the mutual obligation principle privileges the obligations of the unemployed over their rights to autonomy and to work. Its associated requirements have further added to the already considerable constraints faced by unemployed people who are attempting to identify and meet their own work-related goals. Ironically, a policy which is portrayed by the Government as promoting active participation in society, in reality requires many payment recipients to passively obey government directives-instead of actively participating in shaping their own future.
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Global Studies, Social Science and Planning
Keyword(s) Service, Compulsory non-military
Unemployed - Government policy - Australia
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