Matt Tyrrell is one of thousands of Aussies who became a JobSeeker recipient after losing employment or hours due to the pandemic.

He’s also one of countless people who’s had payments automatically cut off due to failures of the employment agencies paid by the Federal Government to help them find work.

Tyrrell alleged his employment agency refused to allow him to study a course at TAFE, a right which is set out by the Mutual Obligations Requirements legislation, and tried to strong-arm him into a course taught by a registered training organisation it owned instead. His case has been described by one activist in the sector as the “worst-case scenario”.

The system has been long criticised and investigated for corruption since the Commonwealth Employment Service was privatised in 1998. But despite an annual federal budget of around $200 billion, welfare recipients are still being exploited, coerced and trapped in a cycle of unemployment.

Tyrrell said the privatised system puts profit first and lacks accountability, making way for the exploitation of vulnerable people who fear losing their payments.

Tyrrell began receiving JobSeeker payments in late-2020. After 12 months in employment services and unsuccessfully applying for 20 jobs per month as required, Tyrrell, like all JobSeeker recipients in that position, was placed into the Work for the Dole program.

In this program, welfare recipients are linked up to a Jobactive provider — a private employment agency paid by the government to help Australians into work, and help employers find workers.

Tyrrell was assigned APM, Australia’s largest employment service agency worth more than $3 billion, and the default company people are referred to by Centrelink.

Work for the Dole requires APM to place JobSeeker recipients in activities suited to their needs and work capacities where they can gain skills and experience, give back to the community and get help to find a job. For many, including Tyrrell, this means study.

“I was kind of jazzed, I’d found a couple of courses in TAFE [like] carpentry or organic growing or horticulture,” Tyrrell told PEDESTRIAN.TV.

“I thought, if I’ve gotta do this I’ll pick something I’m into and let’s get this on, but no that wasn’t the go.”

The broad criteria state participants can study any course of high skill demand where the course is no more than 12 months in duration. But Tyrrell was told by his APM consultant he could only take up one of six courses available through the MCI institute, which APM acquired in 2019.

Tyrrell’s job plan stated it was “compulsory” that he “undertake 50 hours per fortnight [the number for participants aged under 30] of full time education or training with MCI from 22/10/2021 to 30/04/2022.”

It came in an email with 32pt bold red lettering and told him to reply indicating that he understood and consented to the plan.

Tyrrell disputed the plan, filed complaints and repeatedly informed APM that he wanted to study at TAFE to meet his Mutual Obligations Requirements as a part of the Annual Activity Requirements for participants in the Jobactive scheme. But he said he was told the TAFE fees were too high.

Employment Agencies Accused Of Coercing Welfare Recipients Into Studying At Orgs They Own

“Regardless the amount of times I put in front of them the contracts that they committed to that they as a business signed with the government, it was just a no-no,” he said.

He alleged his APM consultant told him the company had made an internal business decision to keep all the study “in house”.

When Tyrrell failed to sign the job plan within 48 hours, Centrelink cut his JobSeeker payments automatically and without warning.

“The worst-case scenario [is] Matt’s, where their payments get cut off … and then when they’re trying to get it reinstated, it takes months,” anti-poverty activist Dean Fletcher told PEDESTRIAN.TV.

Fletcher worked on Tyrrell’s case as the former manager of the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union Wollongong branch, and said that while this was the most egregious case he’d seen it was far from the first.

“There was no attempt to negotiate the job plan with him, which is something they’re expected to do,” he said.

“[Once] his payments had been cut off, they tried to use that as leverage to force him to accept the job plan that they’d set out for him.

“They knew that with his payments cut off he didn’t have much choice at all.”

In the past two years Fletcher said he’s worked with welfare recipients who were forced to study certificates in fields they already had degrees, and others who were required to leave positive Google reviews for their job agencies in order to attract more clients. The government pays these private agencies per client, giving them a financial incentive to get more people on their books and spend little time or money on them.

“The government is constantly talking about how much the welfare system costs and yet they’ve created billionaires in the welfare sector through these private job agencies,” Fletcher said.

APM founder Megan Wynne joined Australia’s list of billionaires in November 2021.

APM declined to comment.

Tyrrell said most JobSeeker recipients don’t know their rights and, desperate and vulnerable, will “just nod and smile”.

“There’s a lack of information and lack of support,” he said.

“I’m lucky, I don’t have any dependants. Compared to other folks out there and people that I do know, I’m in a more fortunate position.”

Fletcher said backing vulnerable people into a corner or cutting off welfare payments damages mental health and keeps people in indefinite unemployment.

“This is something that causes suicides because people can’t provide,” he said.

“The system is broken. It doesn’t help people find work, it doesn’t get people off the dole.

“It keeps them in this feedback loop where if they choose to exercise their rights, as Matt did, they can wind up having their payments cut off. Even if they get their payments reinstated there’s no guarantee the job agency will ever face consequences for what it put them through.”

Fletcher said the only way forward was to reinstate a public system, because he believed the more the government pushes to outsource social services the longer the road to meaningful, long-term employment for JobSeeker recipients. 

Image: Getty Images / Jenny Evans