Tuesday’s Budget was the usual LNP greatest-hits set: tax cuts! concessions for small businesses! nothing for renewable energy or the higher eduction sector! Meanwhile, the unemployed were brushed aside with these 15 pathetic words: “The Government has strengthened the safety net, increasing the JobSeeker payment while enhancing mutual obligations.”
It’s those last three words that will inflame the anxiety of the 1,296,493 currently unemployed or underemployed Australians. Mutual obligations, for those who don’t know, are the hoops unemployed people have to jump through in order to receive JobSeeker. It might be applying for jobs that don’t suit, studying for courses that don’t go anywhere, or attending appointments with a disinterested public servant.
It’s a full time job on a measly $44 a day. And now we get “enhanced” mutual obligations.
From July 1 onward, JobSeeker recipients will be required to apply for 20 jobs a month – up from 15 jobs per month previously.
I can’t speak for everyone, but as a graphic designer with 20 years’ experience who’s spent over a decade stuck in the Sisyphean nightmare that is being unemployed in Australia, I can tell you that mutual obligations destroyed my mental health.
The job market was terrible long before COVID hit. Since the 2007 global financial crisis, I have applied for thousands of jobs (usually competing with a few hundred other applicants), had a grand total of six interviews and received just three job offers. One made me redundant so they could send my job offshore; another was such a toxic workplace I quit after six months; the last was advertised as a full-time position but turned out to be tying up loose ends for a sketchy marketing company that was going spectacularly out of business.
I’ve tried everything. I’ve battled the Seek algorithm, I’ve signed up with specialist recruiters, I sent myself broke discovering the situation in London was just as bad as here.
Over those years, I increasingly became more isolated. Friendships withered, relationships broke down, my credit card debt ballooned, I developed full-blown insomnia. And in February 2019, I had a considerable mental breakdown.
I am lucky in that I have somewhere to live (although living with one’s parents at my age isn’t great for the self-esteem) and a supportive GP and psychologist. The first thing my GP did as I sat in his office a sobbing hot mess was write me a medical certificate to exempt me from mutual obligations.
My psychologist stared out of the window of his office for a while, then turned to me and said: “You know, none of this is your fault. It’s the system.” It was an incredible thing to hear.
Making the system even crueler was the introduction of the hotline dubbed ‘DobSeeker’. It will allow bosses to report such crimes against humanity as: declining suitable job offers; unsuitable behaviour at job interviews; failure to attend interviews; voluntarily leaving a suitable job; or submitting an inappropriate job application. It’s yet more petty and unnecessary punishment for being unemployed, but it’s the last point concerns me the most. Because what, exactly, is the definition of “inappropriate”?
The Australian government will tell you to apply for anything, but all it will take for me to get my payments suspended under this monumentally cruel and stupid scheme is one hiring manager with a bad attitude. The potential for misuse of this hotline is terrifying.
When delivering his Budget this week, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg also said that “everybody listening tonight knows someone struggling with their mental health” and went on to announce $2.3 billion in funding for mental heath services.
This announcement was puzzling, as the government knows two simple things that would radically help the mental and physical wellbeing of a huge number of Australians: lift JobSeeker above the poverty line and suspend mutual obligations. They did it last year. It’s amazing what being able to afford food, rent and medication will do for your mental health.
The solution here is simple. That the government aren’t doing so makes it feel like the cruelty is the point.
Jez Heywood is a graphic designer who volunteers for the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union. You can find him on Twitter here.