‘Where is their obligation to us?’ Unemployed workers protest the Albanese government’s new welfare obligations

Undeterred by a drizzly Sydney day, a group of protesters led by the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) gathered at the new Minister for Employment Tony Burke’s electorate office in Punchbowl on Friday.

“They wanted to talk to us in opposition. Now they’re in government they don’t even want to know us,” AUWU president Tracey Smallwood said, earning a chorus of “shame” from the crowd.

The office was closed, foiling attempts to hand over a petition with 30,000 signatures supporting their cause. That didn’t stop protesters from addressing their concerns at the incoming minister and the new government’s revamped welfare mutual obligations.

Burke has committed to replacing the jobactive program with the Morrison-government designed Workforce Australia scheme, including its requirements for welfare recipients. Under the scheme, job seekers on welfare will be forced to earn “100 points” by completing activities like applying for jobs, training, studying, volunteering or taking part in the Work for the Dole program. If they fail to do so, their welfare payments will be reduced or stopped altogether.

Burke has been at pains to point out that this system was masterminded by the Coalition. “The previous federal government locked in the points system – and signed more than $7 billion worth of contracts with providers — shortly before the election,” he said in a media release. But he’s committed to implementing the new system, while making a number of concessions, including easing requirements and clearing past penalties.

There was no desire among the Punchbowl crowd to grant the Albanese government a honeymoon period. Labor says Workforce Australia will give welfare recipients flexibility while also helping them find work. But the AUWU have criticised the new system as cruel, demeaning and ineffective and called on Burke to postpone the introduction of the system by three months to have further consultations on its introduction.

“He’s known for months about how awful the system is, how much pain and injury it’s going to cause unemployed workers. We’ve been calling their offices, we’ve been emailing them, we sent them a report, we sent them a survey of 400 of their members. They haven’t responded at all,” AUWU member Jeremy Poxon said.

“We told them we were going to be here today, we wanted to talk to them about the pain they’re putting members through. And what did they do? They locked the fucking door.”

Protesters brought posters featuring testimonials from people who’ve experienced the current mutual obligation system and glued them facing inwards on Burke’s office windows. There were stories about chronically ill people being forced to work through pain and criticisms of onerous mutual obligations that aren’t fulfilled even when a person starts a new job. A giant “welfare excuse bingo” board lists the reasons why people refuse to change the system: “News Corp would murder us” and “if you keep asking impolitely you’ll never get a raise”.

Attendees were invited to share their own experiences dealing with a system that they described as bureaucratic and harmful. Kristin O’Connell, a spokesperson for the Antipoverty Centre, said one fear is that welfare recipients will be penalised for failing to adapt to a new, confusing system; penalties increased 600% after the last significant change.

Other protesters spoke about their early disappointment that the new government, in their eyes, isn’t taking them seriously. AUWU member Daniel Levy told the crowd about handing over a report with recommendations, a survey, a petition and requests to meet the minister — all to little avail.

“We busted our gut to do their job for them. Where is their obligation to us?” Levy said.

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