In March, tens of thousands of people lined up at Centrelink offices across Australia. Lines stretched around blocks looking eerily similar to scenes from the 1930s Great Depression. After weeks of mass sackings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people were desperate to get some form of government welfare.
Centrelink was completely overwhelmed and in some places people were turned away by the police. Tens of thousands more tried to apply for welfare on the myGov website. It crashed after more than 95,000 people tried to access it on one morning alone.
For many, this was the first time they have had to apply for welfare. They found out that it’s a purposely frustrating and difficult system to navigate. Some commentators estimate that up to 2 million people could lose their jobs because of COVID-19. Sadly, it could be many more.
Public pressure, and concern about social unrest, has forced the government to increase support for those who have lost their jobs. The government announced an increase to Jobseeker allowance (formally Newstart), adding $550 a fortnight to payments.
This is the first time that unemployment benefits have increased in 26 years! For years we were told that there was no money to increase it, and that there was no issue with forcing people to live on a mere $40 a day. They were able to get away with that when only a small part of the population was affected but in the face of mass unemployment the government knew that wouldn’t fly.
While the increase to the Jobseeker payment has been welcomed by those thrown out of work, there are many problems that still exist. For example, the increase will not take effect until April 27. This will leave many people struggling for the weeks in between. And while the criteria has been loosened a bit, people will still be expected to apply for jobs during the pandemic. Jobs that simply don’t exist.
Side by side with the rebadged Jobseeker payment, the government has announced the Jobkeeper scheme. This scheme gives eligible businesses $1500 a fortnight per employee to cover wages for at least the next six months.
The government has encouraged businesses that have had to shut down or reduced trade to take up this offer. One aim is to reduce the pressure on Centrelink and to keep the official unemployment figures down.
While the government has presented these measures as generous, many people will be excluded from receiving either of these payments, including international students and people working on temporary visas.
Scott Morrison has suggested that these people should just “go home”, but this isn’t an option for many. Not only are there very few international flights, but lots of people don’t have homes in other countries to go to. Australia has been their home for years.
The effects of COVID-19 on the economy and jobs has been huge, and many say that the worst is still yet to come. Most commentators agree that this is much worse than the 2008 global financial crisis, and could even be worse than the 1930s Great Depression.
While the extra payments will help for a while, the temporary measures implemented by the government are at best stop-gaps. Instead of short-term poverty-level payments all those unable to work should be afforded a proper income. At the moment that would mean at least $1000 a week (the equivalent of approx. $25 and hour). This should be seen as a step towards a real livable income for everyone, with above inflation increases at regular intervals.
The government has recently found tens of billions of dollars for company grants, cheap loans for businesses, and corporate tax cuts. Instead of taxpayer money going to prop up profits, it should be directed towards ordinary people. It is not our fault that this system doesn’t work and that jobs are not available. Those who have profited from our work over the years should be forced to pay now.
We should not accept the so-called solutions put forward by the government and the big businesses that back them. They are only interested in profits, and not in people’s well-being. The alternative to job and pay cuts is to share out the available work. A reduced working week, without a loss of pay, would mean that those who make profits, rather than workers, are forced to bear the brunt.
But at the same time why should we just leave it to profiteers to decide which jobs and what work is needed? They failed to prepare for this crisis through their neglect of the health system, amongst other things. They create jobs to make money, not because they are of any use to the community.
We should democratically decide what society needs, and launch a public works program to achieve it. Right now that would mean a huge expansion to the health system, including medical supplies and more hospitals. But also we could expand other social services, build public housing, restart local manufacturing, and transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
While we would need to take great care to ensure physical distancing and job safety was adhered to, it would be possible to achieve if we removed the profit motive. On the basis of public ownership and a democratically agreed plan, hundreds of thousands of socially useful jobs could be created.
The private for-profit sector, and the major parties, are incapable of carrying out these sorts of policies. That’s why we need a socialist alternative to capitalism, and a political movement that will fight for it.
By Kai Perry