10 December 2015
by Jade Manson

Reward is better than punishment: A Work for the Dole alternative

Despite its enormous cost, the Work for the Dole program simply doesn't produce the outcomes intended. Jade Manson suggests the "volunteer's bonus" — a far more positive alternative.

Despite the $5.1 billion over three years going towards the Work for the Dole program, increasing evidence shows that it does nothing to improve job outcomes. A recent study commissioned by the Federal Government found that Work for the Dole increased the likelihood that people would move off welfare by only 2% during the research period of December 2014 to March 2015 (Social Research Centre, 2015). This confirms what was already apparent — that Work for the Dole cannot decrease the unemployment rate, just as it cannot increase the number of available jobs.

The main argument for Work for the Dole is that it benefits community organisations and job-seekers themselves, by providing them with a chance to contribute and a daily routine. However, it also takes away people’s ability to decide who they will volunteer for. This goes against the spirit of volunteer work and the benefit it brings people knowing they are working for a cause they believe in. Although anecdotal reports have suggested Work for the Dole provides participants with a sense of purpose and "something to do", this assumes that they would not have found something better to do had they not been forced to participate in Work for the Dole.

Borland and Tseng (2015) found that Work for the Dole participants had a lower chance of finding a job than Centrelink recipients who weren’t on Work for the Dole. Interviews by Warburton and Smith (2003) found that many Work for the Dole participants resented the compulsory nature of the activity. They also found that Work for the Dole had a stigmatising effect. In contrast, volunteering is generally viewed positively by employers and society. Carson and colleagues (2003) found that Work for the Dole did not accommodate variation in circumstances and did not increase self-esteem or employability. It had a negative impact on mental health when people felt the tasks they were given to undertake were not valuable.

Being made to work without pay is detrimental to wellbeing and violates the human right of fair pay for one's labour. It does not uphold the implicit social agreement that, if we work hard, we get something in return.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), to which Australia is a signatory, states that everyone has the right to free choice of employment,

'... just and favourable conditions of work, .... equal pay for equal work [and] .... just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity.'

Work for the Dole, in its current form, denies these rights, as participants are not given fair compensation for their work or free choice of employment. Rather, they are given only the option of keeping their current welfare payment.

Recent economic changes have seen job opportunities for unskilled workers dissolve. In addition, as the need for workers in the agricultural and manufacturing industries is in decline, the majority of jobs will increasingly be in the services and information sectors. The problem to be solved is, how can we provide an incentive for community service that does not create a profit? If the service sector is to continue to grow – which it needs to – then either people will have to start charging for these services, which is problematic for the growing section of society who would not be able to pay for them, or taxpayer funds should be directed to this purpose.

Fortunately, there is plenty of taxpayer money going into the Work for the Dole program that could be re-directed into more effective ways of increasing community services. Nobody should have to engage in forced labour. However, an incentive for community work would be more likely to lead to willing participation. If provided with a "volunteer’s bonus", dependant on the hours per week that they volunteer, Centrelink clients would not need to be forced onto Work for the Dole programs. They would most likely be eager to participate in community service if provided with an income supplement to make daily living easier.

You may ask: "But what about those lazy job-seekers who will say they are volunteering when they actually aren’t?"

For one thing, I believe these people would be a very small minority. And secondly, it should be relatively easy to verify whether people are volunteering or not, through communication between volunteer organisations and Centrelink. Organisations would most likely also be more than willing to participate in order to receive free labour. They could apply to be accredited by Centrelink for this program and would simply have to sign off on the number of hours worked by volunteers. This is something that is already a part of the Work for the Dole program, but it would be in the context of a much more efficient and fairer system.

If carried out properly, the "volunteer’s bonus" would mean less funding would need to go to job service agencies who organise Work for the Dole programs, creating an inefficient system of paperwork that is often disheartening to clients. The need for work to be done placing job seekers in organisations would be greatly reduced, as there would be an incentive for people to find their own placement. Job seekers would also require less policing if not they are not being coerced into participation in the program. It would be akin to using reward as an incentive as opposed to punishment or blackmail. The added benefit is that this would give people back their freedom to choose the organisation for whom they volunteer.

The "volunteer’s bonus" approach would also avoid many of the problems involved with Work for the Dole programs. I have heard too many stories of people being made to participate in essentially pointless work (such as moving rocks around or picking clovers off grass) as organisations could not think of anything meaningful for them to do. Providing the incentive for job-seekers to find their own placement would mean situations like this would not occur.

Currently, neither volunteer organisations nor job service providers are liable for any injuries incurred by Work for the Dole participants. There are no Occupational Health and Safety standards on Work for the Dole, despite the fact that these are an important requirement for workplaces Australia wide. The fact that participants do not have a choice over where they work means their physical health or their lives could be endangered directly by the Government. Given this choice, people would be able to choose a position suited to their own needs.

Participants often sign their multiple page contracts for Work for the Dole at the first meeting, unaware that they have the right to take it home to read first. Therefore, many clients are not really able to give "informed consent" to participation in Work for the Dole, nor is consent given freely without the threat of putting their livelihood in jeopardy by not consenting. A volunteer’s bonus would avoid this problem, as it would not involve any adverse consequences for non-participation. Evidence has consistently shown that reward is a more effective learning tool than punishment. It would also mean that nobody who is incapable of working would be forced onto the program.

Encouraging the unemployed to participate in community work could be made much easier if this approach were taken. It would give dignity back to job seekers, raise living standards, provide the freedom of choice and remove funding from ineffective programs.