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Monday, December 22 2014 @ 08:20 PM CST

Income Management: why bashing the unemployed is an injury to all


The policy of Income Management and its BasicsCard, a particularly dreaded piece of the NT Intervention that restricts where and how people can spend welfare payments (such as around alcohol and tobacco), has now come into force in Sydney’s Bankstown and four other areas across the country. An active, broad coalition has been organising against the policy in Bankstown. But what’s behind this aggressive policy push? What’s been happening locally, and what are some perspectives for action?

Income Management: why bashing the unemployed is an injury to all

If you accept the system on its terms, you get the system, on its terms. – Alexander Cockburn, radical journalist (1941 – July 2012)

by Annette M.

Mutiny: A Paper of Anarchistic Ideas and Actions
Number 66, July / August 2012
PO Box 4, Enmore, NSW, 2042, Australia

The policy of Income Management and its BasicsCard, a particularly dreaded piece of the NT Intervention that restricts where and how people can spend welfare payments (such as around alcohol and tobacco), has now come into force in Sydney’s Bankstown and four other areas across the country. An active, broad coalition has been organising against the policy in Bankstown. But what’s behind this aggressive policy push? What’s been happening locally, and what are some perspectives for action?

“Can you imagine working somewhere, and your boss says, “I’m going to keep half your pay and control what you spend it on, because you can’t manage it? It’s unheard of! But this is what’s happening”. So said Patricia Morton-Thomas at a Forum held on May 26 in Bankstown by the “Not in Bankstown, Not Anywhere” Coalition against income management. The analogy is spot-on, because while it might seem as though people don’t “work” for their benefit payments, the reality is that a whole series of work-like repetitive tasks must be performed by welfare recipients on an everyday basis (hunting for jobs, appointments with job agencies, job interviews, forms). Failure to complete any of these “busywork” tasks to the approval of Centrelink or the job agency results in cuts to payments, including being cut off completely. Income management (IM) goes hand in hand with recent legislation that makes these penalties more severe, intensifying the system of punishment for people accessing welfare (for info about this legislation see Grumpy Cat’s article in Mutiny 60 last year, as well as www.assemblyfordignity. wordpress.com – eds).

In Bankstown as in the other “trial” sites, people who will be placed on IM are those assessed as “vulnerable”, parents referred by child protection officers, and those who volunteer. The local Centrelink is under pressure from above to meet bizarre “targets” of putting 1,000 people on IM. There has been almost a complete media blackout of the issue, but what little coverage there has been has featured “Families” Minister Macklin spouting lies smothered in dubious “family values” propaganda: “The evidence is that it helps families. It’s an additional tool to help families better manage their money in the interests of their children” (ABC 7.30 Report). Implicit in this is a prudish “wowser” attitude, that controlling alcohol and tobacco purchases through IM automatically “helps” children. Regardless, the evidence from the NT is that it has been catastrophic for “families”. To briefly recap: research by the Menzies School of Health found that it led to no improvement on food and beverage sales, fruit and vegetables or tobacco sales (published in Medical Journal of Australia, 2010). Income management has imposed a huge layer of time-wasting bureaucracy in people’s lives, as people have to contact Centrelink every two weeks to actually have money put on their BasicsCard. The biggest study of IM impacts was conducted by the Equality Rights Alliance in 2011, which surveyed 180 women who had lived on the system. It found that:

  • 74% did not find it easier to look after their families under IM.
  • 85% had not changed what they buy because of the BasicsCard.
  • 74% felt discriminated against in shops and elsewhere when people see the BasicsCard, and
  • 79% wanted to get off income management.

So we know that IM has nothing to do with “helping families”. Where is it coming from then? Given its horrendous consequences, you could be forgiven for thinking that the government is just hell-bent on punishing the disadvantaged. While politicians of both stripes, the media corporations and billionaires like Harvey Norman can’t get enough of putting the boot into welfare recipients, this is not simply about a pathological hatred for the poor (as much as that may well possess the shrivelled minds of IM advocates). It’s certainly not about the familiar mantra of “cost-cutting”: the Bankstown coalition estimates that the scheme will cost $4500 per person, per year.

As Eva Cox has noted, the “trial” scheme of IM is the obvious next step in the plans of both the government and opposition to apply this model to all welfare recipients. Indeed, another set of laws went through this June to allow a further extension of the program to anywhere else the government nominates.

Beyond that, a sweeping attack on welfare as we know it is currently underway. A whole raft of changes to the Social Security Act were passed in 2010-11 which reflect the overall shift in emphasis away from income support, and towards policing people’s personal lives. The point of the aggressive expansion of penalties and punishments like IM is ultimately to kick people off the system, and into work – any work.

The Indignity of Work

“The economy cries out for workers, yet too many are left behind, unwilling or unskilled – and untouched by the dignity of work.”

So said Treasurer Wayne Swan, launching the Budget in 2011 which allocated funds to implement IM and other welfare-policing measures. Indeed, for several years, there has been a labour shortage in Australia. But when he talks about the ‘dignity of work’ while implementing IM, Swan is definitely not speaking of attractive jobs which are interesting, pay well, use the workers’ skills, are safe and have good conditions. Much less is he speaking about ‘work’ outside of capitalist control, ‘labour’ in its original meaning of creative human activity, which we might direct for ourselves. No, this is exclusively ‘work’ as dictated by the capitalist economy; work that some boss somewhere wants done. And what’s more, Swan wants us to enjoy the ‘dignity of work’ in those jobs at the bottom end of the labour market - those with the worst pay and most insecure, repugnant conditions. In saying ‘us’, of course I mean the precarious sections of the working class in all our divergent situations. Readers might believe that the Mutiny readership is not the demographic being targeted to plug up that part of the labour market, but actually they don’t care who they drag into it – and young people or others in precarious conditions are prime fodder. Certainly, there is a much wider circle of people who may be even more vulnerable and susceptible to getting trapped in such intolerable work, but the point is to push more people into it. Why?

“Reshaping the labour market”, as in “I’m gonna reshape your face”

When there are not enough workers, bosses start getting antsy that the balance will tip towards the workers, as they are in demand, and so there could be an upward pressure on wages.. It doesn’t matter whether this is even likely, even the whiff of it is enough to make a capitalist sweat. And so they need to have a level of unemployment - it’s like their insurance scheme that makes sure workers don’t get too uppity, lest they be chucked on the scrap heap and replaced with a young, more naïve model. But unemployed workers need to be actively looking for work in order to increase the pressure of competition in the labour market that the capitalist needs. If there are workers who are unemployed but aren’t busting a gut to find another job, as there are currently, they must be pushed. By shoving people more aggressively into competition at the shitty end of the labour market, the bosses benefit from the downward pressure this exercises on wages and conditions across the board – across the working class as a whole. Furthermore, the more people who are willing to do extended unpaid internships and other “voluntary” skilled work in the arts, university, media and community sectors , the more at-risk paid jobs in these fields are… People are less likely to resist, the more they fear losing their job. They’re more likely to put up with overtime, cutbacks, heavier workloads and other forms of speedup. And so slowly yet inexorably, we are all drawn into the morbid reality known as the “race to the bottom”. And this is where bashing the unemployed dove-tails with the push for more laws to “deregulate” the labour market and “boost productivity” (read: impose speed-up), and criminalise unionism.

The human scrap-heap

Another way to make people fear losing their job is to make it much more painful to be without one. In the age of the digital economy, jobs have been eliminated like so many deleted ones-and-zeros. In the past few months in Australia, 350 people were sacked at Toyota, 350 at Caltex in Kurnell, 440 at Ford, and 100-odd at Darrell Lea. And those are just the ones that make the headlines - this is something that has been happening around the clock, year in year out, for years. Sure, the industrial sector does still exist, and the service sector will carry on, but there’s only so many sacked workers who can get a new start in a paid job working for someone’s E-commerce start-up. It’s absurd to think that all those sacked workers will instantly find new jobs, or even jobs at all, even if they take a huge step down on the pay scale. Because the economy continually sheds workers, it must push those it casts off to get back on the treadmill to carry out the absurd race to undermine their own conditions of work.

Workers’ playtime

The point is not to despair over the fool’s game we are born into. Despite the sales job plugging the “work ethic” that is endlessly drummed into us, we can see that the dogma of work is not an ethic at all, but promotes slavery – whether in waged, or increasingly, ‘classic’ unpaid form. It’s a lie that has possessed even the working class, to our own destruction. Income Management is about forcing this dogma on people’s lives, along with glorified, petty-bourgeois nuclear-family “values”-- notwithstanding the decay and disarray of that institution itself! It’s all very well for people with money and connections to get blind drunk and drive their sportscars or beat their partners, but a poor person taking time out from the labour force or smoking a cigarette is the height of shame. It is about imposing the right to dictate the lifestyle a person should live, regardless of what is suitable for them or their families. Meanwhile, citizenship is reduced to the duty to participate in paid work. The sections of the working class who fail to adhere to this duty are separated off, demonised as immoral and policed. But in reality, the policies are tying everyone, working or ‘unemployed’ into the confines of the labour market and the enforcement of work discipline.

“What do they mean by jobs? Most ‘work’ is an expression of contempt for the people who must perform it. Most work is humiliating, stripped of worthy skills, destructive and tedious. Even the most sought-after jobs are places of real human misery: boredom”. - Curtis White, Managing Despair, BigOther.com

This is not at all to glorify unemployment, that’s a huge mistake, as anyone who has been unemployed for any extended period will know. Clearly there’s work to be done, the question is, on whose terms. In this context, to question and refuse work, to assert the right not to work, is already to reverse perspective and start putting things back on our terms. There is a sense in which time spent not working can be time spent on more useful, life-affirming pursuits(or not). There is a real reason behind the dole having the nickname, the ‘rock n roll’, in that the development of punk, experimental music in the UK as in Australia may not have happened without the circles of artists who lived on it, and created a culture from below.

It’s clear that Income Management is about slashing the last fragments of the welfare state, and re-orienting it into a mechanism to police the imposition of work not just on the unemployed, but the whole working class. However, it’s not theirs to take away. The payments might be labelled “hand-outs” in media parlance, but they are certainly not a gift from “on high”. The very existence of the welfare system was the compromise wrested from the boss class by radical, large-scale workers’ struggles that threatened the power of capital in the first half of the 20th century. This included elements like the Unemployed Workers’ Movement in the 30s, who held spirited street-speaking, rowdy demos of thousands, battled opposition from the trade unions, and many of whom were jailed for their defiance. (See Iain McIntyre’s Disturbing the Peace).


Meanwhile, Back in Bankstown… The broad coalition of community groups, unions, and welfare agencies known as “Say no to IM, not in Bankstown, not Anywhere”, began to organise against IM about a year ago, with 63 organisations now on board. The group counts protests, pickets, seminars and even fax-jams of the local Labor member, among its successes. The coalition organised a vigil outside the local Centrelink throughout the first fortnight of IM coming into force, and received a positive and suitably outraged response from locals. By the end of the first week, Centrelink had managed to place less than 10 people on the program. One issue is that many of the member-organisations offer their on-paper support, but don’t have the capabilities for mobilising. As such, much of the organising has relied on a few key people, and is therefore vulnerable should their energies be called on elsewhere. The coalition is participatory and open to all, which seems an excellent opportunity for class-conscious proles to engage! Another issue is the almost total media blackout, making it a serious challenge to get the word out. No doubt, over time local staff will be under pressure to fulfil the sinister “target” of putting 1,000 people on IM, and will attempt to wear down people’s reluctance, so staying-power counts.

If this policy is going to be pushed back anywhere, it’s in Bankstown, and in so doing, we stand to strike a decisive blow to this particularly repulsive assault on the right of human beings to self-determine their way of life, and the larger stinking regime of imposing work and policing people’s lives which follows close behind it.

For more info, contact: www.sayno2gim.info

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